Surfing the Tidal Rhythm of Life

I learned how to surf during a week-long surf camp many years ago.  The life lessons from my surfing experience have stayed with me even though I haven’t surfed since the last day of camp.  I was determined to learn how to surf while I was living in California so I signed up for the all-inclusive camp.  I showed up with a couple of swimsuits and a sleeping bag.  They provided the tent, all of my meals, wet suit, surfboard and lessons. Here is what I learned about life from surfing.

1. Show Up

I made a decision to learn to surf and I showed up.  We got all of our supplies ready on the first morning and headed to the beach.  The instructors led us in a short lesson and a few stretches.  I’m not kidding when I say a “short lesson.”  I put my surf board on the sand, lay down on my belly and paddled my arms, then stood up and pretended to surf. That was it.  It makes sense when you think about it: what can you learn about surfing when you are standing on the shore?  Not much.  I showed up and I was ready to go.

2. Paddle out to sea

Before you learn anything about surfing, you start learning about the rhythm of the ocean.  The waves are coming at you as you carry your surfboard into the water.  It’s easy to get knocked down or knocked back toward shore.  I learned how to push my surfboard down into the incoming wave and duck underneath it.  I did this “duck dive” with every wave until I made it to the smooth ocean surface beyond the waves.  There are always waves in life.  We have to be willing to face them head on, learn how to duck into them and move beyond them.

3. Watch for a wave

This may be my favorite part of surfing.  You sit on your surf board with your legs dangling in the water and look out to the horizon.  You are watching for a good wave to come, which simply requires that you sit and pay attention to your surroundings. The best surfers are students of the ocean.  They learn about tidal rhythms, weather patterns and water conditions.  I remember sitting on my surfboard next to my instructor. He would say “Get ready.  Here comes a good one.”  At that point I couldn’t see anything.  I saw the subtle movements of the water and the horizon, but I literally had no idea what he saw. Sure enough, a few moments later a wave would start to form and move toward us.  I would ask him questions about how he knew a wave was coming and how he knew it was a “good one.”  He would give me a long scientific explanation, but I realized that it really came down to awareness.  He was paying attention to every detail.  He had been studying the ocean in this way for years, so he could see waves forming before they formed.

4. Paddle

Once we saw the wave coming, my instructor would wait until just the right time and then start yelling “Paddle.  Paddle.  Paddle hard.  Paddle.  Paddle harder.”  After sitting on my surfboard for a long time, all of a sudden it’s time to move.  It’s time to do something.  The instructions are simple and clear: “Paddle!” I turned my surfboard toward shore, lifted my legs up behind me and started to paddle my arms.  When the timing is right, we need to take swift action.  When a wave in life is coming toward us, we need to study the wave/situation, then do something.  Start moving in the right direction and keep it simple.

5. Stand up

At just the right moment, my instructor would yell “Stand up!” I would hold onto the edge of the surfboard and attempt to stand up.  Again, it’s simple.  Or is it?  The ability to stand up on your surfboard on a wave is the difference between surfing and flailing about in the ocean.  It takes practice.  If you fall, you have to gather yourself and your board and start over again.  You have to make the decision again to show up. You have to paddle out to sea. You have to sit and wait and watch the waves, then paddle, then stand up. It took me a while to learn.  What a thrill the first time I stood up for a moment! Then came the belly flop right into the ocean, but I didn’t care because I stood up on my surfboard and surfed for a split second.  That one moment of success made it all worth it.  The more I practiced, the longer I could stand up and surf.  (Evidence of my belly flop and surfing success in the pictures above). Once I was up I could focus on trying to keep my balance in order to stay up a little longer.

6. Repeat

The joy of surfing is in doing it over and over again.  It is in the experience of the moment.  Water conditions and the tide will change from day to day, but I can decide every day to show up, paddle out to sea, watch for a wave, paddle and stand up.

An important lesson I have learned over the past several months is the difference between rhythm and balance.

In surfing, you have to pay attention to the rhythm of the waves and learn how to surf in sync with the ocean.  Once you stand up, you might be able to balance for a short time period.  It’s not possible to maintain balance forever on a surfboard.

In life, you have to pay attention to the rhythm of your life and learn how to surf in sync with your own circumstances.  When things are going well, you might be able to balance for a short time period.  It’s not possible to maintain balance forever in life.  You will fall.  You will get up.  You will have the choice to show up, paddle out to sea and get in sync with the changing tidal rhythm of your life, time and time again.

What waves in life are you facing today?  Are the waves knocking you down or are you learning ways to duck dive into and through them?  What is one thing you can do TODAY to get more in sync with the rhythm of your life?  It might be something as simple as sitting still (imagining you are on a surfboard if you like the idea of surfing) and look out to the horizon.  Notice your surroundings and accept the current conditions.  If you have gotten knocked down by the waves recently, you might just need to stand up, dust yourself off and decide yet again to show up and be ready to surf.  Happy surfing to you my friend!