Article: Zen Surfing


Photo: Tim Marshall

The Zen of Surf

Surfing means paddling out into the ocean, often at dawn, often alone, and sitting there on your board waiting for waves. You look at the horizon and watch. Minutes go by while fish, seals, dolphins, and sharks swim underneath your legs. You breathe in, you breathe out.

It is not surprising that there is a connection between surfing and meditation. Except for those exceptional days, when wave after wave rolls in, you have nothing to do except float there in the ocean, in relaxed alertness. When I began meditating in 1968, one of the first rituals I developed was to go to the beach before dawn, and meditate for 20 minutes, then go into the water at first light to catch a few waves before going up to the University to take classes. By the way, as of 2006, I am a total newbie surfer again, after not being on boards for 20 years. I have been in the ocean continuously, swimming for miles and bodysurfing, but not board surfing. Wow, it is HARD. I am just beginning to remember some moves.

Gazing at the Horizon

Depending on the day, surfing is mostly paddling and waiting. We spend a lot of time gazing at the horizon, reading waves as they first appear on the horizon as a ripple, and jockeying to get in the right position. There is a lot of meditative awareness involved here. The whole experience is a contemplation of the relationship of the body to infinity. There are many skills to surfing, and as the surfer masters them, awareness is freed up to be with the ongoing ecstasy of the situation. Every wave is different. Every day is different. The tide is always changing, coming in or going out. The swell is always building or fading. The waves, as they roll through a break, move the sand beneath them, which changes the shape of the following waves. The ocean invites the surfer to perceive each ripple, and each moment, as individual, never to be repeated. This surfer throws herself in to this universe of rhythms and dances.

The Art of an Empty Mind

The impact of the water on the body, the immersion in an undulating ocean, the repetition of paddling, the relaxed alertness, all this serves to call attention to be at home in the universe in ways that are akin to meditation. When we have thoughts going through our head it is because there is something unfinished back on land. Now we are at sea, and we can look back at our life on land with a different perspective. The ocean is saying, “Tell me what is bothering you. Open your heart. Let me heal you.” Surfers need to practice an ashtanga toward life, aware at all times of ethics, honor, the dance of money and physical objects, consideration to other people, suppleness of body and mind – their own version of yoga – in order to be able to enter the ocean and just to be there with a clear head. So you can be there with the waves.

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