How Learning to Surf Enhances Mindfulness & Mental Wellbeing, this is zen and the lifelong art of surfing
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained professor from the University of Massachusetts Medical School was one of the first scientists to study the health benefits of mindfulness.
According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
In 2019, the International Surfing Association (ISA) estimated that there were approximately 35 millions surfers around the globe – a figure that was expected to rise to 50 million surfers worldwide by 2020. Hawaii is not the only place where there are a lot of surfers!
The massive rise in popularity has even paved the way for surfing to become an Olympic sport. This past summer, for the first time in history, surfers competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for a shot at winning gold.
Giving consideration to the fact that surfing is by no means “new”, it’s hard to think of any other sport that has attracted 15 million new fans in the span of a year.
But for most surfers, it’s not hard to understand why so many people are beginning to fall in love with it, zen and the lifelong art of surfing are beautiful to experience.
Surfing is not simply a sport. It is not just an intense workout. It’s not only a great way to escape the lameness of the concrete jungles that have taken over so much of the coastal towns and cities across the globe.
The real benefit that surfing brings to surfers is the opportunity to let go of our worldly problems and become a part of something bigger than ourselves, being zen and the lifelong art of surfing.
There is something very liberating about wading out into the white wash with nothing but a wetsuit and a surfboard.
It’s almost an act of rebellion – in a world driven by materialism and constantly advancing technologies, when surfers paddle out towards the waves, away from the comforts of land, they are making a deliberate choice to leave their smartphones behind, to gradually explore the edge of their comfort zone, and to surrender to the fact that to surf means to be at the mercy of mother nature and to work synergistically with her awesome force.
Learning how to surf means learning how to surf mindfully.
Surfing and mindfulness allow surfers to become one with the waves.
It entails developing not only the physical strength to be able to catch waves, but also the mental fortitude to stay calm under pressure. Over time, this routine will manifest in the surfer a sense of inner-peace and tranquility, creating a movement for zen and the lifelong art of surfing.
The deliberate decision to paddle out comes with some inherent consequences for the surfer.
As Newton said before us, with every action comes an equal and opposite reaction.
When a surfer starts their journey of paddling out to the break, they may consciously be aware of their desire to catch waves and have fun, but there is also something happening subconsciously. You’re not aware that you’re practicing mindfulness, but you are.
Surfing is a highly sensory experience where the dangers of falling or getting trapped on the inside is always at the forefront of a surfer’s mind.
While surfing is obviously extremely physically demanding, it is also psychologically demanding.
It doesn’t matter if they’re surfing waist-high waves or head-high waves, surfers always have to be thinking about weather conditions, swell strength, tide conditions, how deep the water is, what’s beneath them in case they fall, whether they’re surfing in a crowd or alone, etc.
Constant vigilance is necessary but at the same time, overthinking isn’t an option. Surfers are immediately forced to adapt to the change in environment – you have to let go of every thought that doesn’t relate to moving through, diving under, and catching waves.
Surfing forces you to externalize your attention on the world around you, rather than the thoughts in your head.
Nobody paddles out only to sit in the line-up and stress about their finances. Worries of how you can’t afford a mortgage, car payment, and daycare for your kid all fade away when you’re facing a set rolling in from the open ocean.
Needless to say, surfing is a great way to help you figure out your priorities in life (FYI, priority #1 – live to surf another day) and it’s also a great way to practice patience.
The time slows down when you’re searching for that perfect wave.
You don’t really think about all the responsibilities waiting for you at home. This leaves you feeling energized, calm, and content. And that comes from simply paddling around and waiting for the right wave to roll in.
But what happens when you actually catch a wave? Your body releases a rush of neurochemicals (adrenaline, serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine) that make you feel an intense sense of reward and pleasure.
It’s our brain’s way of rewarding hard effort. This nature-induced feeling of euphoria, also known as a “surfer’s high”, is likely why so many beginner surfers become lifetime surfers.
The best part about making surfing a part of your life is that the benefits don’t disappear after you’ve caught some waves and are all surfed out for the day.
Surfing truly helps to fortify the mind, and this benefits us inside and outside the ocean.
It’s the best way to take a step back from all that drives us crazy in the world today.
The mindfulness benefits are long-lasting and contagious. Leaving the beach after your surf, traffic is going to be a lot more tolerable, the stress of work and home life much more manageable.
The cherry on top is how surfing makes you feel about yourself – when you push yourself to do what is difficult, to expand your comfort zone, to give catching a wave a go even though you might wipe out – whether or not you caught all the waves you wanted to catch, you’re going to feel a sense of pride and self-love that can really do wonders on reducing the negative thought patterns that can cloud our mind and interfere with our daily life.