Growing up as a surfer in Brazil, I have always believed in the fundamental healing power of the waves. No matter what life threw at me, it was very rare to have a surf session that didn’t make me feel better afterwards. Over the decades, I have become more aware of the complexities of surfing (and life), and the different training modalities that can shape you into a better surfer. In addition to all the physical and fitness training required to progress, one of the most important aspects required to surf is the awareness and control of your mind.
Have you ever found yourself in a panic after a big wipeout and nearly drowned for losing control? What about a surprising injury on a day in which something didn’t feel quite right as you were heading out, but you didn’t stop to listen to what your body was telling you? How many waves have you missed for your mind being elsewhere right in the moment you had to give those few extra paddles? I’m sure we can all relate to some of these situations, and I believe establishing a daily mindfulness meditation practice can help in overcoming them and becoming not only a better surfer, but also a better person.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness meditation as it has grown in popularity in mainstream society over the past few decades. Derived from the Budhist practice of Vipassana meditation, Mindfulness was introduced to the western world by pioneers such as John Kabat Zinn and Jack Kornfield, incorporating the wisdom of eastern and western psychology into different meditation centres across North America. In 1979, Kabat Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he adapted the Budhist teachings of mindfulness to create a scientific framework in an academic setting. That was when the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program was founded to assist people dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, PTSD, anger management, chronic pain, as well as those living with critical illness.
I was introduced to the practice by a colleague who had trained with Kabat Zinn and shortly after signed up for the MBSR program as a way of coping with my own anxiety and depression. My preconceived notion of a meditation practice was quickly shattered as I began to learn the simple practice of mindfulness and awareness of the present moment. We met once a week and were taught simple breath-awareness techniques by a psychologist trained in the MBSR program. We were given recorded meditations to practice 15-30 minutes a day at home and every time we met, we discussed our experiences. In the first few weeks, the overall shared experiences were similar, with most people complaining about not being able to stop their minds from racing or not noticing any immediate results. But as the weeks went by, more and more we came to terms with the simple practice of mindfulness and began to notice the benefits in our personal and professional lives.
Little did I know that this practice was about to change my life completely. By the end of the 8 week program I had established a daily routine that allowed me to be more fully aware of my emotions and have control of how I react to them. I was able to identify the effects of anxiety and my worrying mind on my mood and overall wellbeing and had trained my body to focus on the present moment and deal with only the things that I could control in my life. Shortly after finishing the program, I signed up for a 10 day Vipassana silent meditation retreat — this was like a hard reset and formatting of my brain and cleared room for me to install the latest operating system to restart my life.
How does mindfulness relate to surfing?
It wasn’t until I returned from silence and got back in the water that I realized how much mindfulness had to do with surfing. In order to harness the power of nature to catch a wave, one must be fully aware of the present moment, aligning mind, breath and body to paddle at the right time, to pop-up at the exact moment required to drop in and ride that wave. Each wave provides you with a fresh opportunity to forget about everything else that’s going on in your life and simply focus on that connection with the water for a brief moment—this is mindfulness in its purest form.
As you practice mindfulness, you learn to accept each moment for what they are. Each breath you take is unique and each exhale has the capacity to clear the mind of anxiety, worries and any other negative feelings or thoughts. As you learn to be more aware of your breath—and at times—controlling the breath, you can begin to notice when you are becoming agitated when a cleanup set is coming your way or as you emerge after a bad wipeout or hold down. With this awareness, comes the opportunity to take a couple deep breaths, stay calm and remind yourself that those waves shall pass and you will get back to the safety of the lineup eventually.
As surfers, we often sit or stand on the beach and observe the waves for a while before paddling out. This in itself is a mindfulness practice. However, how many times do you close your eyes as you look for the waves and look inwards to pay attention to how you are feeling? Does your state of mind match the size of the waves you are about to paddle out in? Is your emotional state appropriate to be out in the line up? All it takes is a few moments of awareness of your breath and the physical sensations happening in your body to have an idea whether you should paddle out or not.
Surfing is clearly an individual sport but we are seldomly alone in the water. Your presence and your actions directly affect those around you the same way that their actions affect you. When practicing mindfulness, we cultivate our sense of awareness while letting go of our ego. You learn to accept life as it unfolds in front of you and learn to accept yourself and the people around you for who they are. In our imperfect and human existence all we can do is to strive to be the best version of ourselves and to have compassion for those around us. You don’t know what that surfer who seems angry or uneasy is going through in their life. They also don’t know what you are going through, but by being aware of your feelings and having compassion towards others you can maintain equanimity and perhaps create a mindful shield to keep the bad vibes away.
Have you ever caught yourself cursing at a wave for that turn that didn’t go as expected or perhaps missing the wave for screwing up that last push? I have and have also learned to be kind to myself in the water and in all aspects of my life. We are not perfect and there is always room for improvement. Besides, the conditions out on the water are constantly changing and being mindful of your positioning and your performance from moment to moment are crucial for any positive session. Mindfulness teaches us to accept each wave for what they are and to be kind to ourselves when things don’t go as we expected.
This article has peaked my interest but how do I start?
After overcoming your preconceived notion that meditation is not for you because you can’t sit still or stop your thoughts, starting a meditation practice is the most challenging part. You may not be ready to commit to an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, nor a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, and that’s totally fine. There are several apps and online meditation programs online that can suit your schedule, all you have to do is commit to one of them without any expectation of immediate gratification or positive outcomes. If you like to read, perhaps picking up an introductory meditation book, some mindfulness meditation cards, or an in-depth book for the MBSR program may be a good starting point.
We have been hosting a daily 20 minute meditation program called ‘Wavelength’. This series is free and open to everyone—especially those who have never meditated before. If you can’t join us at the time of our session, we have put together a playlist with all our recordings so that you can practice at any time. All you have to do is find a quiet place around the house or in your office, sit or lay down in a comfortable position and play the audio track of your choice.
I encourage you to give it a go, make a commitment with yourself and practice 10–15 minutes a day. One of the most important aspects about this practice is to allow it to be what it is, without attachment to any immediate results. After a few weeks, you will start noticing your sense of awareness from moment to moment, as well the way you respond to how life unfolds in front of you. Simply breathe and enjoy it.
Words by Antonio Lennert. Photographs by Lucas Murnaghan.
Antonio is an ISA-certified surf coach, movement & mindfulness teacher and community builder. He was born and raised in Brazil and graduated from OCAD University with a degree in Graphic Design. Antonio is the founder and CEO of Surf the Greats. Find him on Instagram.