During a recent vacation I had the opportunity to check surfing off my bucket list. It was always something I wanted to try, mainly because of its unique way of achieving flow state. I've heard countless tales of surfers feeling immense concentration and euphoria gliding down the barrel of a big wave, as well as its amazing healing potential, with some organizations helping former soldiers with PTSD and other mental health issues find peace, happiness, and even lowered rates of symptoms through a few sessions out on the water. Needless to say, I wanted to try it out for myself and see if I can chase the optimal state in another form.
Surfers are known for their laid back demeanor and passive life philosophies and this is something that has always intrigued me. After a brief surfing experience I can now see where it all comes from. Being in the field of performance psychology and having a big interest in the study of flow I was quick to let the instructor know what it is I do for a living trying to impress him, masking my insecurity and fear in a way, thinking that I knew how to get in the zone by default. With a sincere but dismissive "right on!" from my surfing coach, I was soon to realize that the knowledge of something will never trump the experience of it. What followed was some great conversation and coaching from the instructor, helping me realize the flaws in my thinking. Here are a few lessons I learned in my surfing experience.
LET IT HAPPEN
Eager to do well and impress the instructor and my wife, I soon realized surfing is not easy. I was tense, overthinking my form, and not looking straight ahead. As a result, I spent a lot of time falling over. All the things I teach my clients somehow I couldn’t apply on myself, and sometimes it takes someone else to get you back on track. The instructor saw that I was trying too hard and chasing the experience too much. My technique was decent enough but I wasn’t letting the natural process of learning occur. Me asking for concrete technical instruction wasn’t going to magically make me an amazing surfer on my first try. So the instructor just told me to breathe and look up. Relax the body, and just do it.
"Don't Mistake the knowledge of something, for the experience of it"
It was amazing how much a simple cue like this brought me out of my head and into the experience. I was so caught up in forcing myself to learn that I didn’t realize learning happens on its own when you get out of your own way.
DON’T CHASE FLOW
Similar to letting things happen, we also shouldn’t be so caught up in chasing the experience that we desire. I went into surfing with the intention of experiencing a flow state through surfing. This in itself created a barrier in which flow would be less likely to happen. My instructor did a good job in pointing this out right off the bat. All the things I have read and studied about flow is not going to be the reason I got into flow. I was creating unnecessary tension trying to produce an effortless state of mind and body (how ironic!). The instructor just kept reminding me to breathe and let go of expectations and let the process happen on it’s own.
The same lesson applies to everything else we do in life. The more we chase happiness for example, the more it eludes us. By letting go and bringing your attention to what you are doing right now you open up the possibility for great things to happen.
With the help of my instructor and a much needed ego-check I was eventually able to hit a wave and experience that which I was seeking (see picture for proof!). It felt great. I was hooked. Even though I wasn’t hitting massive 80 foot swells (nor would I want too) I got to feel the momentary bliss of the blending of challenge and skill, heightened awareness, and altered time. However, I was left with wanting more. After spending time chasing the experience and finally having it, I was back to where I started; chasing flow.
The ocean has a wonderful way of providing us with metaphorical lessons. You’re not always going to find the perfect wave. Some waves are great, some are not. A few days after my lesson I tried to go surfing again, but without the helpful push from the instructor and a lack of quality waves I found myself once again frustrated. I wanted the experience again but I had to learn the lesson of patience in the water. If we were able to catch every single wave then surfing wouldn’t be as fun because the challenge would significantly decrease. Being patient was an important lesson for me and one that hit me whilst sitting on my board waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the next decent wave to come. Sometimes were on, sometimes we’re not. We can’t control the waves, but we can learn to surf. This same metaphor applies to the ups and downs of the thinking mind which we too can learn to ride more efficiently.
We should never mistake the knowledge of something, for the experience of it. Through this we learn many valuable lessons that can be then used to guide others. Just because I understand some aspects of the science behind optimal states of consciousness does not qualify me for experiencing it. So get out there, fail hard, enjoy the moment, and apply the lessons.
And remember, feel the force, and don’t force the feel!