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Surfing The Waves Of Our Emotions

As a new surfer, I am very much a student of the sea. Each wave has a valuable lesson to teach me, a message that translates beyond just the mastering of the surfboard, but as a way to master the sport of living. Here's what the waves have taught me about how to surf the waves of life so far.

Things come in waves. Our thoughts, our emotions, sensations in the body - they will rise from out of the blue, build up in their intensity, and eventually subside from where they came once again. Some are gentle, allowing us to easily float over them, rocking us only slightly, others have a force so strong, if we are unable to ride them, they will knock us over and pull us under.

Imagine yourself standing knee-deep at the edge of the seashore. Some waves will come that push against you, but you are easily able to find your footing again. You may take a step or two forward, or a step or two backward, but you can find your balance once more. Now imagine a much bigger wave, one that towers over you. It will likely knock you over and perhaps you may struggle to get to your feet. Until you find your stability again, you are at the mercy of its pull. It rolls you towards the shore, then out again, leaving you feeling pretty vulnerable, helpless, and definitely not in a state of calm. Doesn't this feel similar to how we feel with some emotions? Sometimes they come, and they are easy to manage. They might affect us for a moment, but as soon as they pass, we are easily able to feel stable once again. Then there are those emotional waves that knock us over completely. They overwhelm us and feel like they will never pass or let us free. Feeling so overpowered by this wave, it feels like it could be the end of us. But one valuable lesson that I have learned from intentionally putting myself in front of these waves time and time again, is that they always pass, and when they do, there is calm water on the other side.

I will never forget this one day we went out, despite the warnings from friends that it would be too strong for us. It was storm season and the swell was predicted to be big and powerful. We drove to the beach just to have a look and from the cliff above, it didn't look too bad. There were surfers already in the water and my boyfriend was eager to get in and practice the skills and techniques he had been studying. I, on the other hand, was not so keen. I was already feeling anxious that day, and I was worried about not being experienced enough as our friends had advised. I also didn't want to let my boyfriend down, or be a 'baby', so we got into our wet suits and entered the water.

Now on a day like this, catching the wave isn't the only hard part. It's rather difficult and tiring getting through the whitewash and where the waves actually break. This area of water can have really strong currents making it very challenging to walk out or paddle through but you have to make it past here as the surf zone is behind the breaking point. A lot of your energy is spent here and you can become pretty fatigued pretty quickly. Not to mention, you are constantly diving under, jumping over, or trying to swim through waves that are crashing ontop of you. Somedays, the time between the waves is longer, so you have more time to catch your breath, and there is a break for you to swim out more easily. Other days, the waves seem to roll in one after the other, relentlously. This was such a day. I felt like I was in a constant battle and not making any progress through it.

Eventually, I did make it through, although all the effort left me with a quick and shallow breath, which had only spiked my sympathetic nervous system even more, on top of the anxiousness I was already feeling. We sat for a moment and watched the waves start to swell up from the sea. They were big but not much bigger than what I had seen before, although much bigger than I thought I was capable of surfing. This made me nervous, but the other surfers were making it look so easy, so I thought, 'well, I'm here now, let's go'. I was in full fight or flight mode anyway so the adrenaline was helping me make my decisions. I paddled for the wave, but it just swallowed me up and I entered into its vortex. I only felt this sensation once before, where you feel stuck in the wave as it spins you round and round and it only lets you free when it is finished with you. You feel helpless really. You can't breathe and you are just praying it will end soon so you can take your next breath and don't manage to hit anything along the way. Finally, I popped up, gasping for air. I was back in the whitewash. I looked around through the foamy water and saw the concerned face of my boyfriend. He gave me a thumbs up to ask if I was ok. A wave of anger now washed over me. My anxiousness had turned into anger as I began to internally curse him for 'making me' come out here, despite our friends' warning (It's much easier to point fault to another, isn't it?).

I fought my way out of the whitewash and again back into the surfing lineup. I was panting now and slightly shaking. My heart was pounding in my chest as I was definitely out of my comfort zone. Not to mention I was riding the crest of my anger and anxiety. Why am I so afraid? This is what surfing is about right? The others don't seem worried. Maybe I am just too anxious and need to relax. So I took a moment to slow my breathing and tried to calm down.

Another wave came and I paddled for it. I instantly wiped out and entered the vortex once again. This time, it felt like it lasted even longer as my body flung around underwater without air. I started to panic. Eventually, I popped up and gasped for air. I was in the white wash, that danger zone where the waves are breaking and crashing. Not a place to be on days like this. I frantically looked around for my boyfriend. He was looking back at me now with a more concerned look. "Are you ok? Look out!!" Before I could answer, I looked behind me and I saw this monstrous wall that was just about to break over me. I hadn't been in a sea this ferocious before and I didn't really know what to do. I tried to dive under but it still caught me. Each time, there was more fear and I was becoming more stressed. We were caught in the middle of a rather fierce set of waves. There was a point, and this is not at all dramatised, that I thought I could die here. These waves were relentless and I couldn't catch my breath. Each time I went under I felt weaker and with less air in my lungs. My boyfriend was desperately trying to shout me instructions but I couldn't hear him. I did hear him say ' leave your board' and I did. The next wave then took my board and it caught the wave like a pro. The bad part was it was attatched to my leg. I was in awe of the speed as it dragged me through the water but my head was under and I again couldn't breath or stop what was happening. I just had to go for the ride.

Finally, I manged to get out of the water, completely traumatised by what just happend that I couldn't even speak. I was safely out of the waves and currents of the sea, but I was still being smashed by the waves of anxiety and anger. I just sat there in the wet sand and desperately tried to catch my breath and settle down.

This is an extreme example of what happens when we become overwhelmed by the waves and panic. This is what it feels like when we become over whelmed by emotions that we feel are too powerful and that we've somehow lost control. There are times that this will happen, no doubt. Storms will roll in once and a while and churn up the sea making the once calm waters seem like a place out of hell. But what I have learned is that, storms pass. The water isn't always like this AND I realise that it was my panicking that day, that was the danger - not necessarily the water. It was my reaction - not the wave itself.

I thought I would be traumitised to go into the water again after this episode. Everytime I closed my eyes, I would see this monster, this white foam veined wave towering over me. But I didn't want that experience to shape my opinion of surfing. I wanted to prove that it was just one experience, and one that I could learn from. I continued to get back in the water, and face my new fear of the waves. I researched what to do in these moments and the biggest piece of advice was to remain calm and let it pass. I learned also of course, how to properly dive under and through the waves and how to time it so you don't get pulled into the vortex. These were skills that would help me navigate more confidently my way through the surf. I learned that sometimes the best thing to do is actually swim towards the wave rather than be afraid and turn away from it, this way you go through it rather than it crash ontop of you. The wave then passes and it is calm once again on the other side, giving you enough time to catch your breath before the next wave. Feeling more confident and relaxed means that I am breathing more deeply also, so if I do go under, I can hold my breath longer and I am using less oxygen than I would if I were panicing.

Getting through the white wash is still difficult and tiring, but the skills I am learning are making it much easier everytime. Sometimes I can stay on my board through the waves, sometimes I get knocked off and pulled under. What's important is that I stay calm and get back on when I can and keep going. Waves come in sets, sometimes its 3 sometimes its 5. This means that I can trust that there will be calm waters ahead. I just have to accept the challenge and fight it through.

Emotions are like waves. They sometimes come in sets too. They sometimes feel like they will never pass and have the strength to hold us under forever. But they do pass. They really do. Some are gentle and we breeze through them. Some are ferocious and it takes a bit of skill to navigate safely to the other side. What I learned about surfing out at sea can also be applied to surfing the inner waters of our emotions. Here's how:

  1. Accept and acknowledge the conditions. Be aware of the emotions. It's no good pretending they aren't there and as much as we may think it's possible, we can't suppress or stop these waves from coming. They are a force from nature, and they are a necessary and valuable part of our being. Once you acknowledge what you are feeling, you can better understand it. Where it manifests in your body, how strong it is, where did it come from or what is it trying to tell you. A good surfer always reads and understands the conditions of the sea.

  2. Go INTO it, not away from it. It's important not to run or hide from what we feel, instead lean into it. FEEL it fully. Embrace it. Only by going into it can we start to move through it, or we allow it to move through us.

  3. Ride and release. Emotions are energy in motion and need to move through us. We have to learn to ride these waves and find healthy ways to express and release them. The problem isn't the emotion, it is when we get stuck in the emotion, or the emotion get's stuck in our body somewhere. If it doesn't move, we never get to the otherside where we will once again return to a place of stability and calm. A good surfer will know for how long to ride the wave and when to release it before it takes them too far.

  4. This will pass. Have faith that this is only temporary, no matter how big it feels. We often associate emotions as who we are, but they are simply just temporary states we experience. You are not 'anger', you are just experiencing anger. Just like the waves are apart of the ocean but are not the ocean, our feelings are apart of who we are, but do not define who we are. It is also true that the positive emotions are also transient, so enjoy the ride whilst you can, for no wave lasts forever.

May you not fear, but embrace the waves of your emotions, of your life, for it really is an incredible ride. All surfers wipeout! Even the pro's. Sometimes we are able to catch the waves, sometimes we miss it, sometimes we take an epic fall and yes, sometimes we even get hurt. Keep breathing deeply, relax, get back on the board again, take in the peace, the beauty that surrounds you and enjoy the surf!

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