Struggle and Flow
When your entire vision is filled with a great wall of grey water rushing towards you, you only know one thing: it’s trying to kill you. That was the thought in my head as I resolutely clung to the surfboard and pushed against the sandy bottom. The wave crashed, swept me off my feet, pushed me back. I came up spluttering, spitting salt, blinking, and shoved my feet back down to the bottom – and I did it again.
“You wanna go?” the surfing instructor called, when I finally made it out to him, chest deep in shallow water off Manhattan beach. Of course, chest deep on him was up to my collar bone.
“Yes!” I sputtered, even though I wasn’t remotely sure it was true.
We were mostly past where the waves were breaking. He grabbed the front of my board.
“Get on!” I got on, hauling myself on my belly into the position he’d taught me in our fifteen minutes of instruction.
He towed my board out a little more, powering through the waves that made me gasp. He kept his eyes on the ocean and when he saw what he wanted in that grey wall, he shouted “Here you go!”, turned me around, and gave me a push.
I was moving, moving fast, pushed up above everything. I lifted myself onto my knees, felt the rush of it. I tried to bring my left foot forward, felt the split second of imbalance, knew exactly what I’d done wrong, and then I was in the drink. I hit the bottom and bounced back up into the surfboard, shouting “Ow!” with my first breath, hand on the crown of my head. The strap on my ankle pulled as my surfboard was hurtled past me towards the shore, pulling my leg out from under me again.
I got my breath back and grabbed the strap, resolutely dragging the board back towards me. I checked to see where Colin was, out ahead of me and to the left, clinging to his own board. Then I started the struggle again, heading back out to sea.
If that’s not the perfect metaphor for samsara, I don’t know what is.
I hear a lot of teachers talk about impermanence, change, how we need to see it, know it, accept that its happening every moment, too fast for us to even track. Clinging to the illusion of anything solid and lasting is just like me clinging to that surfboard as every wave hit. Except the surfboard is all in our minds. Only the ocean is real.
“The ocean never stops,” he told us in our five minute safety briefing. “There might be little lulls, but it never stops moving, so you have to keep and eye on it. Always be ready for the next wave.”
There’s Dharma if I ever heard it.
I hear a lot of teachers say the trick isn’t to avoid the painful, struggling places of our lives, but to learn how to live in them gracefully, without adding our own suffering. There’s some truth to that. There’s no use fearing the waves, resenting them, wanting them to go away. When you accept that they’re big, they’re scary, and they will roll you over and push you around, they’re far easier to deal with.
I can swim, though I’m not graceful about it yet. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in the ocean before this, and never out far enough my feet couldn’t touch bottom. But I was game for surfing when Colin suggested it.
I had started to figure out the waves, how to get past them with the minimum of effort, which was still quite a lot. I’m sure I could spend another ten years improving that skill. I got out to where they stopped crashing, and hung in the gentle swells, my feet rarely touching the sandy bottom. It’s peaceful out there. I managed to get my surfboard turned and ride it back in most of the way before tumbling off when I tried to stand. I liked the peace I’d found out beyond the churn and I liked the ride back to shore. So I tried it again. This time, as I waited to turn my board, a big wave crashed further out than most. It rolled me and I lost my board, the strap on my ankle yanked and burned. It took the last bit of energy I had and left me sitting on the sandy shore, dragging my board back towards me through the shallow water. Eventually I got up and hauled my board onto the dry sand.
I was tired, but I waded back out into the water to wash the caked sand off the front of my wet-suit. I stood in the waves, about waist deep, and let them lift me off my feet as they passed. It was easier without the heavy surfboard dragging on me. I watched as Colin took one more run at it, finding a big wave. It wasn’t any kinder to him than the last one had been to me.
As the three surf instructors herded out little group back to the surf bus, one of them asked “Did you have fun?”
A lackluster bunch of “Yeah’s” floated back across the sand. Such a soggy bunch of enthusiasts were we.
But you know, I did have fun. And I would do it again. (I asked for a wet-suit for my birthday.) But next time I would just take a boogie board, struggle a little less, and go with the flow.
PS – The lesson was provided by Camp Surf. They did a good job. I would recommend them.