Case of the Missing Self – Part One
By Len Barrow
Surfers and watermen routinely go through unusual experiences that they cannot describe to non surfers. They say “only a surfer knows the feeling” is a description of this phenomena. We literally cannot describe the wonderful experience to non-surfers.
Despite this let me try to describe the experience and the outcome as it is both exciting and it relates to our study of Zen and the waterman experience.
Sometimes when I surf everything comes together perfectly. You time the take off just right, launch into the lip effortlessly, do a floater in the sweet spot, or position yourself for a tube ride. In this moment you are at a high state of attention, a bit fearful, and the serotonin and adrenalin is rushing through your body.
I had a most unusual experience once at Mokuleia on the North West shore of Oahu. The day was semi large and the waves were hollow yet make-able. I took off on a set and heard my friends hoot. My next memory was kicking out 70 yards in at the end of the wave with a feeling of intense exhilaration. I did not know were I went nor what I did yet I felt content strangely intimate with nature. It was like a birthing experience. YET I COULD NOT REMEMBER ANYTHING ABOUT THE WAVE: IN EFFECT I DISSAPEARD YET WAS THERE AT THE SAME TIME.
I paddled out to where my friends were sitting to find that I had gotten a perfect stand up barrel. How could I have missed this experience? Also, how could I miss something like this and feel so good about it?
I thought about it and came up with this answer. In surfing, whenever you think about something while you are on the wave, you screw up you maneuver or barrel or what have you. In a way your mind and self has to be completely emptied out. When your mind is scrambled it is hard to enjoy the surfing experience. Perfect surfing comes when you are in tune with the wave , its timing and its sections that you forget the chatter in your head, you forget your ego and you literally blend in the wave and nature: something I would term as a type of background consciousness that we all have. For me, this “Falling away of the self” is one of the requirements of surfing in its top form.
Interestingly, this is similar to Zen meditation and its goals. In Zen meditation one is taught to watch ones breathing. As a breath comes in it is counted. As a breath comes out it is counted. This process goes up to ten and you start over again. If a thought comes in to your mind you just let it go or don’t grasp to it and begin your counting at one again. The goal is to calm the mind and let the self fall away. You get to a point of the ego diminishing and the self meshing with the background of nature; a similar feeling that I get deep in the barrel!
I find it wonderful to see that calm focused surfing is so similar to Zen meditation. I wish that the reader would try to apply the things I have discussed. Here is how to do it. Before paddling out don’t drink a tank of coffee. Have some water. Take your time waxing up and walk down to the break. Don’t be in a frenzied hurry. Begin focusing your mind on the conditions. What is the swell direction? Where are the channels? What is the tide and current doing? Then sit quietly on the beach. Keep your back strait and cross your legs while sitting down. You can do this without drawing too much attention to yourself. Here is where you count your breaths. Count the in breath as one and the out breath as two. Go up to ten. When a thought comes into your mind just recognize it and let it pass by as a cloud in the sky would pass a mountain (your mind being the still mountain , unmovable!) and start at one again. Don’t worry if you can barely get to three or four. It takes practice and you get better with time.
Take this calm mind and paddle out into the water, this time counting your paddling strokes in the same manner. You can take two strokes of the left and right arms as “one” count and so forth. When you get out to the break, don’t focus on the crowd but focus on the conditions and where the bowl is. When your mind wanders refocus it on the conditions just as you would refocus your mind on your breath while meditating. This is very important. Refocus on the conditions (it never gets boring because the conditions are always changing) just as you would refocus your breath in meditation. Use the breath and refocusing on the conditions “as the hook of the mind“ This is actual Zen terminology.
Then take this relaxed mind set to your wave and just flow with it. Have a go with this technique. It may do wonders for your surfing. If not, it will surely enhance your enjoyment of the surfing and waterman experience.
Stay tuned for my next article: Case of the missing Self Two