You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf*

*Just not like the GOAT Kelly Slater 🦸‍♂️.

Why your thoughts and emotions are like waves (powerful and relentless), and what you can do about it.

I’m not sure if Jon Kabat-Zinn surfs, however, his intent seems clear when he said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. Because like waves our thoughts and emotions are unstoppable, powerful, and sometimes dangerous. If you don’t learn how to ‘ride’ your thoughts and emotions, they can smash you on the rocks.

Learning to surf and meditate is hard. I’ve been surfing for over 30 years; I surf most weeks and I am average🏄🏽‍♂️. I’ve been learning to meditate and practice mindfulness for the past few years; I’m also average at it.

What Jon’s suggesting, is that by practicing meditation and mindfulness (learning to surf your mind ‘waves’), you better manage your feelings and emotions. The challenge is that just like surfing, getting ‘good’ at meditation and mindfulness takes time and is difficult.

I love surfing, and I’m learning to love meditation. So, in this article I’m going to unpack why surfing is one of the hardest sports in the world, talk a little about why our thoughts and emotions are like waves, waterfalls, and drunken monkeys. Share the meditation practice that (so far) resonates with me, and introduce some simple tips and techniques to improve your mindfulness.

In addition to the wave metaphor, our minds can also be compared to a waterfall. The torrent of water is your thoughts and emotions, and mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall.

A more traditional metaphor is that your mind is like a chaotic monkey. Or worse, a drunken chaotic monkey.

When I visualise a wave, waterfall, or drunken monkey, I am left with the impression of not quite being in control, of a cacophony of noise, of rushing, continuous motion, and power.

Speaking of noise, researchers estimate that we spend at least half our lives talking to ourselves (so make sure you talk nice 😊).

Not only is that a lot of time, the speed of conversations we have with ourselves is terrifying (from a sheer volume of content you can get through when talking to yourself).

The speed of someone speaking is 100 – 125 words per minute. On average an adult can process 400 – 450 words per minute. This is one reason why your mind wanders when someone is talking (other than them being a poor conversationalist). Your inner dialogue (inner speech / self-talk) runs at about 4,000 words per minute!

4,000 words a minute. Best you watch out for that ‘waterfall’ of words in your head jabbering away incessantly at you...

Back to me (my favourite subject 😘), and Jon’s quote about learning to surf so that we can ‘ride’ our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It’s a great metaphor but surfing like meditation and mindfulness is bloody difficult. I think surfing is one of the hardest sports in the world to become competent at.

Compared to sports like skateboarding or snowboarding, in my experience surfing is much harder to learn. In part that’s because unlike a skatepark, snowfield, (or soccer pitch for that matter), the ‘pitch’ you play on constantly changes. i.e., those waves Jon refers to not only keep on coming, each one is different (much like our thoughts and emotions).

Unlike most sporting environments you experience, waves are inconsistent, constantly changing, and often only last for a few seconds (much like thoughts, but unlike thoughts they’re real).

A wave’s height, speed, shape, and power shifts not just wave by wave, but when you’re on a single wave. They constantly change when you’re riding them, their size, angles, and steepness shifts. Sections appear, and a ‘closeout’ can smash you at the end of your ride.

Except for the new artificial wave parks (few and far between), each wave is different and importantly the time you get to practice your take-offs, stand up, connect your turns, etc. is often only a few seconds. Sometimes you paddle out and float around out the back for an hour, only to catch a single wave.

In addition to waves, you need to choose the right surfboard for you, consider the wind, tide, varying temperatures, rips, and of course the other surfers trying to get on the same wave as you (in a place like Bondi 98% of the time it’s super-crowded).

Just like surfing, practicing meditation and learning to be more mindful is bloody difficult. So, let’s have a quick look at meditation (one of the best ways to become more mindful), and wrap the article up with a few tips.

During my studies on the different mindfulness and meditation schools of thought, I’ve bounced around a bit (like a cork floating on the ocean), however, I keep getting pulled towards Insight Meditation. It was founded by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg in 1975.

Jack, Joseph, and Sharon are friends with Baba Ramdass (one of my gurus), and a few other legends who brought the idea of mindfulness and meditation to the western world about 50 years ago. Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence fame was also part of this group. They seem to be mates with the Dali Lama (Daniel who co-authored a book with him). And coincidently, if you look up Jon Kabat-Zin - whose quote inspired this article - he studied and taught at the Insight Meditation Centre, before creating Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy.

I don’t know about you. But I’m beginning to see the interconnectedness of it all 🤨🙏🏽.

So, let’s jump into a few tips on how you can improve your mindfulness, followed by some techniques to get better at meditating.

3 Tips

1. Remember, your thoughts and feelings are not permanent, and do not define you. Your thoughts, feelings, and emotions are like most things in life, transient and everchanging. Just because you thought or felt something yesterday, that does not mean you have to think the same way today. While thoughts and feelings feel real (they’re feelings after all), often they’re not. One technique to help you separate your thoughts from your identity is change your internal narrative (self-talk). Instead of thinking ‘I am angry or sad’, think; ‘I have anger or sadness’. Recognise that when you’re angry or sad, that it’s an impermeant state that does not have to generate an action. You’re not angry, you simply feel angry at a point in time. Here’s a helpful article if you want to explore this further: [Don’t-believe-everything-you-think-or-feel]. In addition, when it comes to thoughts and feelings not being real, here’s a quick exercise that proves they’re not real. I’d like you to think about a time in the past when you were particularly nervous about an upcoming activity or event, but when it happened it turned out that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was going to be. If you’re like me, it’ll be easy to think one of these situations (important work meeting, presentation, team event, sports practice, best man speech, etc.). Because the activity/event wasn’t as bad as you thought it was going to be, that proves that your thoughts/feelings before the event weren’t real. Got it? Not real.

2. Reduce your expectations. When it comes to mindfulness and meditation, recognise that you will not improve your concentration straight away. It will take months to improve enough so that you can find a few minutes of space or stillness when meditating. And often you go backwards. IMPT: That doesn’t matter, the intent and process is what counts. It’s like learning to surf and expecting that you’re going to get a tube ride after a few months. That’s just not going to happen, likely it’ll take years before you get your first tube (just ask any surfer).

3. Don’t take this sh#t too seriously. There are thousands of different ways to introduce mindfulness and meditation into your life (I’m only sharing a few that worked for me). So, if one doesn’t work for you, don’t worry just try something else. And when you find a method that resonates, relax about how fast you’re improving (or not), and have a bit of fun with it. IMPT: One thing I’ve noticed with my spiritual ‘gurus’ is that they don’t take life too seriously 🤡.

6 Techniques

Here are a few ideas that have helped me introduce meditation into my life (I’m still pretty sh#t at it, but by practicing I’m getting better):

1. Start with less than 5-min each day. 5 min = 0.003% of your day. One of the main reasons we fail at introducing new habits into our daily routine, is that we make them too difficult (atomic habits anyone?). So, keep it super simple and easy, remembering that you’re playing the long game. Forget 20 minutes, even 10 minutes – start with 1 min if you want.

2. Stretch instead. Like most people over 40, I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours sitting at a desk, so I’ve had my fair share of back, neck, and leg pain. Stretching not only prevents injury, when I combine it with relaxing music / meditation sounds it improves my mindfulness.

3. Try one of the many free meditation apps available (google it to find out which might be the best for you).

4. Read ‘Seeking The Heart Of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.

5. Practice diaphragmatic (deep belly) breathing. For more than a thousand years, Buddhists, yoga practitioners, and eastern healers have believed that the breath is the foundation of our life force and energy. Which is why many meditation practices and yoga classes include a strong focus on deep breathing techniques.

Find a comfortable chair and sit down with your feet flat on the floor. You should be sitting up straight which will help you take deep breaths. Relax your shoulders and put one hand on your diaphragm (above your belly button), and the other on your chest.

Step 1: Slowly exhale through your mouth, getting all the oxygen out of your lungs. Focus on this intention and be conscious of what you’re doing.

Step 2: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, you should feel your lower hand (on your diaphragm) rise. If your hand doesn’t rise that’s OK, relax and try a few more slow breaths until you feel your belly button push out.

Step 3: Exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your diaphragm contract.

Step 4: Repeat steps 2 and 3 above, concentrating on your breath.

In addition to simply breathing in and out (simple is good), you can also try these options to improve your concentration on your breath:

  • Say ‘in’ on each inhale, and ‘out’ on each exhale

  • Count to 10 (1 for each exhale, 2 for each inhale, until you get to 10, then repeat). This simple counting technique is harder than you think! When your mind wanders (which it will), don’t worry simply start counting again at 1.

6. Give Box Breathing a go. Also known as square breathing, it’s a simple stress release technique used by the Navy Seals to heighten performance and concentration. In a nutshell you inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, then hold your breath for a count of 4. Repeat. Guideline below.

Find a comfortable chair and sit down with your feet flat on the floor. Keep your hands relaxed in your lap, focus on your posture. You should be sitting up straight which will help you take deep breaths. Relax your shoulders

Step 1: Slowly exhale through your mouth, getting all the oxygen out of your lungs. Focus on this intention and be conscious of what you’re doing.

Step 2: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose counting to four slowly in your head. Feel the air fill your lungs, one section at a time, until your lungs are full.

Step 3: Hold your breath for another slow count of four.

Step 4: Exhale through your mouth for the same slow count of four, expelling the air from your lungs and abdomen. Be conscious of the feeling of the air leaving your lungs.

Step 5: Hold your breath for the same slow count of four before repeating this process (starting at Step 2 above).

What started as a social post, inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s quote, became an article inspired by my love of surfing and mindfulness.

I hope some of the above tips and techniques help you introduce more mindfulness and meditation into your life. If you live near a beach, I also recommend you give surfing a crack, because being close to and on the ocean can also be a meditative practice.

Just be patient because whether it’s surfing, mindfulness, or meditation, you’re playing the long game, so be gentle on yourself, and have fun along the way…

Cheers, Gareth

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