It is rare to find a surfer who is unable to articulate how surfing has influenced their lives. Even Leonardo da Vinci testified to the power of water claiming it to be “The vehicle of nature.. If [water] could it would reduce the earth to a perfect sphere.” To reflect on this as a surfer and find that we engage and meditate with and within the water so often, I feel it would be worth briefly exploring how it flows through our daily lives and influences our psyche. In this article, I’ll analyze how surfing and a surfer’s engagement with water can change perception and cognition of the world around us. Surfing pushes us beyond our mental and physical comfort zones and invites us to experience new cultures on distant shores. All the while forcing us to re imagine how we dance with the waves through firing our creativity and imagination. Hopefully this quick article, coupled with a nice cup and a half of endless winter will get your synapses and neurons frothing!
Before trips we monitor storms and track forecasts. During surf sessions we watch waves from the beach, other times (maybe too many times) we watch the wave of the day go unridden. After the surf we watch our own waves, and critique how we could’ve done our rodeo flips a little cleaner… right? Naturally though whether in the water or on land, the human mind is extremely attentive, sensitive and perceptive to changes in the environment. To think that our rides to the secret spots along the way, our experiences with locals, and the change in the temperature doesn’t influence our minds and only waves can is absurd. This is especially true when we find ourselves in places like Peru, Chicama—where the environment is sculpted by the longest wave in the world gracing the shore and scattered ancient ruins that provide a mystic aura to a sweeping desert landscape.
Fig.1- the Muller Lyer illusion, both lines connecting the arrows are equal lengths. Yet, as Segal revealed individuals may perceive them differently depending on the environment they were raised in.
The sensitivity of the mind to environmental changes was extensively studied in 1966 by Marshall H. Segall. Segall demonstrated that a difference in environment can completely alter the way individuals from non-western societies perceive and understand physical phenomena. This is best illustrated by the Muller Lyer Illusion (fig .1). Segall theorized that; individuals raised in western societies perceive the illusion differently to those who are raised in less western societies. The reason being is subtle, nonetheless stunning. Individuals who are accustomed to common western architecture are constantly exposed to 90-degree angles, and straight lines, reason being; it is easier to calculate structural loads for production. This mere subtle and constant exposure is what Segall believes is the culprit behind this bias in our perception.
I am not claiming that one point of view is better than the other, but it may not hurt to expand what we can see by stepping outside the home break every once in a while, observing a foreign forecast and heading out to scout a new potential spot.. maybe even in a new country.
What’s the scenario?
Psychologists such as Jean Piaget claimed that cognitive and intelligent development happens in leaps and bounds when our understanding of a phenomena (e.g. a wave) reaches an equilibrium of understanding. That understanding is then changed by exposure to alternative or different forms of our pre-existing understanding of the original phenomena that shakes up what we previously ‘knew’. This means that if a surfer for example were to travel and experience new waves, communities or sensations our perception and connection to physical things, for example, our presupposed understanding of a wave changes. This continual travel and pushing of physical boundaries which is common in the culture of surfing, and that surfers often embrace changes how we understand our physical world and especially the ocean, or lake… or river.
Why is this continual change in environment and perception important? Surfers or anyone who willingly exposes themselves to embrace new sensations such as new waves, or new worldviews for example, may benefit in fostering a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. A growth mindset as explained by rad psychologist Carol Dweck is a state of mind that adheres to the belief that; abilities, or intelligence is not a fixed pre-determined trait, rather they are traits that can be developed. In my opinion this opens up the surfer in daily life, even outside of the water, to a wider horizon filled with new lessons rather than dead ends. It is this growth mindset inspired philosophy that can create something out of nothing. A testament to this Macgyver like mindset can be seen in general trend of exponential growth in wave pools. Arguably, the surfer may see in landscapes that which may be deemed as forgotten by the normal eye to shape new experiences.
It was mental!
Water retains especially calming traits. Wallace J. Nichols a marine biologist and author of Blue Mind argues that the monochromatic colors and hypnotic movement of waves can induce a meditative state. Nichol’s research explores how exposure to water actually alters the brain’s mode of engagement to a state associated with daydreams, imagination and insight. Gerry Lopez, Mr. Pipeline the surfing savant who lead and still guides the surfing world in leaps of progression and bounds of knowledge states that surfing is one of the purest forms of meditation. This is because mediation and surfing in their essence go hand in hand. Both activities demand and place utmost importance on the individual to be present in the moment and not expect or look to the future or past. If the individual is not present in the moment of the activity, for example riding a wave, it’s unlikely they will get the most out of the wave. The surfer has to, as a simple Chinese proverb states “ride the horse in the direction it is going.” We as surfers must be mindful (every session whether we consciously are or not) of our moving playground, if we aren’t how will we get most of the session? It’s this continuous practice of mindfulness that has many physical health benefits, to name a few; mindfulness practice lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and plays key a role in the health of the heart.
Surfing is for many, including myself an addictive and healthy activity. Often times surfing can take such radical hold of a surfer’s life it becomes an overwhelming force taking priority above everything else. Additionally, a surfer may never be satiated, we continually search for a new wave, a new rush. The more we surf, often time the less we find the same joy in the normal days, leaving us unsatisfied, craving more with barrel vision fixed on the next swell. This can easily take priority over other things in life and misdirect us. Does this imply that surfing can also be a negative addiction? And if it is, how do we control the powerful temptation of the rush surfing provides? I would be curious to also hear your views on surfing’s mind bending potential.
 The WEIRD Evolution of Human Psychology, Scientific American; The Primate Diaries, Eric Micheal Johnson