Yesterday I got back in the water for the first time in two weeks. Pretty much every time I walk into the ocean with my surfboard, I feel intimidated. Yesterday I paused on the sand and did some yoga stretches before paddling out (probably should have done more as my neck and shoulders are a little stiff today!). As I held downward dog, I thought of the word namaste. I’ve been practicing yoga for more than a decade now and I always love the ritual at the end of class where we bow, hands in prayer position, and utter the word “namaste” to each other. Its meaning has usually been described to me as something like, “The light within me honors the light within you.” It gives me the warm fuzzies and then I jump up and run onto the next thing in my schedule and forget about it. But yesterday as I pushed my hands into the cool, wet sand I took a moment to honor myself. It was just a moment, but I felt the light within me. I think that’s how that light works. It’s always there, but it’s deep and I have to get quiet to feel it. So, like I do after yoga practice, I took note of the light for just a moment, picked up my board and walked out into the ocean.
I’ve only been surfing for a little over a year and I’ve realized surfing is such a great teacher. It is as much, if not more, of a mental game than a physical one. I suppose there is some minimum fitness requirement but I see people of all shapes and sizes in the water, and often, the less fit or older people catch and ride waves with skill and beauty. Last fall, as I was getting into surfing more regularly, I discovered John Mayer’s song Emoji of a Wave. This is part of the chorus:
It’s just a wave and I know
That when it comes
I just hold on
It was getting to be winter time and the swell size was increasing. I have a 9’6” long board so paddling out through the break has been a massive learning experience in dealing with discomfort. I was just beginning to figure this out when I heard this song and I loved the simplicity of his solution, I just hold on. That’s the thing about waves. They pass. They don’t last forever. But they also come again. I’ve learned that waves come in sets. The set waves are the big waves and they usually come in sets of 3-5 followed by a break of a few minutes. If you get caught on the inside of the break when a set is coming in, it’s exhausting to paddle out. So you have a choice, you can hang out on the inside and wait for the set to end before paddling out. This approach still involves some work and is not entirely restful and probably smarter. The other option is to paddle out through the break. I usually pick this if I’m already nearly past the break. These are some lessons I’ve learned from doing this dozens of times now.
Often when I’m paddling out, it feels like I’m making zero progress. I can actually envision myself paddling hard, making a little progress, and then getting pushed back the exact amount I just paddled. But through experience, I’ve learned that even in those moments, I eventually get past the break, which means I was making progress all along. Amazing right?!? And what a powerful lesson. Amidst all the turmoil, I can’t see my progress but if I keep paddling in the direction I am meaning to go, I get there.
I want to emphasize the turmoil. I would guess that anyone that has surfed has felt the panic of these moments. My brain is pointing out the fatigue of my shoulders and arms with great emphasis. At some point they begin to feel like useless flaps that I’m throwing forward with each stroke in the hope that it will create some forward momentum. Sometimes in this moment of fatigue, I’m tossed off of my board and forced under the water and my brain thinks this is a big problem! Salt water is forced into my eyes, ears, nose and sometimes mouth. I pop my head above water with just enough time to find my board at the end of the leash, get back on and go through the washing machine again. It’s uncomfortable to say the least. But 90% of this is a mind game and the way through it is to not let my unmanaged brain run the show. I do a couple of things in these moments. First, I remind myself that I’m not dying. Second, I remind myself that I’ve felt this way before and I got through it. I got past the break. Third, I remember that the set will end and I resolve to paddle like hell as soon as it does, floppy arms and all.
It’s really about succumbing to the ocean, allowing it to toss me around a little, and understanding that it’s part of the process. It doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s not trying to destroy me. It just is. The fear—that’s what will destroy me. That’s what makes the peaceful, rolling sea, just past the break, seem unreachable. That’s what inspires resistance and struggle, which only leaves me feeling exhausted and floppy-armed.
This process is the best metaphor I’ve found for processing emotion. For one, like John Mayer says, it’s just a wave—meaning it passes. It’s not forever. And when it comes, I just hold on until it’s gone. Here’s the thing about holding on—it’s not resisting. It’s allowing the emotion, embracing it like an old friend. “Hello, loneliness, disappointment, fear, etc!” Just like getting put through the washing machine in the ocean, processing emotion is a *physical* experience. You get out of your head and into your body, curious about where that emotion shows up. This interrupts the thought storm (which is really some derivative of fear). And the magic is, that when I do this, like a wave, it passes. It is always fear of the negative emotion that keeps it inside me. When I let go of that fear and succumb, it turns out it is much less scary than I thought it would be.
Now this brings me back to namaste. It’s that light inside of me that makes this all possible. It is the reminder that I’ve been through the washing machine before and I’ve made it past the break with those floppy arms. It’s the power in continuing to paddle even when I don’t see progress. And what I love about namaste, is that in one word we acknowledge that the light is within each of us. That we all feel fear and love. Glennon Doyle wrote this:
What is real is the love and fear behind the voices and that makes us all the same because we are – each and every one of us – giant balls of fear and love. So I just try to see past the actual words people say to the energy behind the words people say- the fear and love – because when I see that I can always smile in recognition: Namaste. I am fear and love, too. Glennon Doyle, momastery.com
Namaste. I am fear and love, too.