What Surfing Taught Me About Grief and Guilt

Three strategies for dealing with waves of emotion

First published on Medium by Invisible Illness John Walter 📣Sep 20 · 7 min read

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Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

For the last month or so, most mornings have begun with a cup of tea in bed while I log on to local webcams. There are four permanently monitoring the beaches near my apartment. If the surf looks good I slip into my wetsuit, jump on my bike and in ten minutes I am in the surf. If the surf is not looking good, I slump back into bed and slowly shake off waves of grief and depression that have become a regular part of my life.

As I fought the Atlantic breakers this morning, I considered the three ways I was dealing with the physical waves in the ocean and began relating them to dealing with the waves of emotion in my own life.

It starts with making the decision to engage.

How do you deal with your emotions? Do you engage with them? Are you afraid of them? Do you feel you have to conquer or manage them? Do you desensitise yourself and avoid them?

I recognised that often I am unaware of emotional waves approaching and I ignore them until they overwhelm me and I can do nothing but collapse in a heap with Netflix and chocolates.

I related this to my encounter with a wave in Hawaii. It was my first experience of a wave there. I froze. It was too big to go over, but I did not fancy being under that breaker when half a tonne of water pummeled itself down to the sand. In a millisecond of indecision, it hit me full-on, scrambled me up like morning eggs and deposited me back on the beach. I was convinced it had dislocated my shoulder, but only my dignity was damaged.

This is inaction. You feel that if you do nothing, the uncomfortable feelings will somehow stop of their own accord. They won’t. There are many different kinds of inaction. Many different ways we try to avoid feeling any problematic emotion.

Feelings that are not acknowledged have many ways of making their presence felt. Physical ailments can have their root cause in suppressed emotions, as Bessel A. van der Kolk describes in his book The Body Keeps The Score.

Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.

If you related to this, waves of emotion come, you stand there, you let them hit you, and they knock you for six. You have developed your ways of dealing with this, but it is all torturous. Here are three more useful strategies to consider.

They are ways of accepting that these waves of powerful emotions will always be with you, but you can survive them and even begin to enjoy the ride.

Surf Strategy #1: Jump over the wave

You jump over the wave, which in itself is quite an art. I hold my bodyboard in front of me. I push off and then allow the surf to sweep my legs from under me like the tendrils of a jellyfish.

Your curiosity and willingness to explore within, puts you in front of the emotional waves. You have recognised that you have been avoiding dealing with personal issues that arise in your life. You have stepped into the ocean, ready to feel the emotions. You have acknowledged their existence.

As you walk deeper into the ocean, you encounter the waves that have already broken. You cannot ride these waves, but if you stand still and do nothing, you will be battered and knocked off your feet by them.

I experience great joy and freedom diving over waves. I push off with my feet, and my torso is above the turbulence of the white frothing water. As I dive into the stillness on the other side, my legs and feet feel the energy of the wave tugging and pushing, but they are loose and free.

I could not enjoy the pleasure of diving into the cool water on the other side, without having the courage to face the wave and dive over it.

I have many examples in my life of confronting demons, and finding the process has given me freedom and vitality.

I would be interested in your responses to this image. Have you faced up to something traumatic and painful that has been haunting you? Rather than avoiding it, have you thrown yourself into it and experienced that joy and freedom on the other side?

Surf Strategy #2: Duck under the wave

If a wave is too big to jump over, I duck down in the water and allow the surf to break over my head. This manoeuvre needs careful timing, or your head and body can feel like they could part company with each other.

In the surfing analogy, you duck under a wave when it has already broken, but it is too large to jump over. You preserve your safety by ducking under it. For a few seconds, you are aware of the turbulence above you, but you are safe in the darkness of the deep water.

On the emotional roller coaster of life, you may often want to duck for cover. Sometimes it is essential to preserve your safety. Some struggles and confrontations are just too big. Please don’t feel you have to stand there and let them crash into you. There is no shame in dropping out of the firing line. You preserve your mental health by stepping away for a moment.

Ducking away is a temporary avoidance, but you are acknowledging the issue. You know it is there, but you are choosing to deal with it at another time when maybe you have more energy and resilience.

Surf Strategy #3: Ride the wave

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You ride the wave, which takes great skill. You need to read the currents and the flow of the water around you and make sure you are in the right place to catch a wave just as it breaks. You can improve your chances with a lot of observation and knowledge of the ocean and the layout of your beach.

You may be familiar with the “ride the wave” metaphor concerning emotional and mental health. You either ride the wave, or you are overwhelmed by it. Some writers present it as a binary distinction, and I don’t think this reflects the depth and complexity of human emotion.

In my surf this morning, I had to deal with over a hundred waves. I got a good ride on four. I had numerous aborted attempts, and for all of the rest, I had to use the other two strategies.

Jumping over and ducking under waves is all part of the surfing experience. If you do not master those two skills, then you will never ride a wave.

Riding the wave of your emotions is not possible every hour of every day. I am not going to give you handy tips or a prescribed method in a “one size fits all” format. It takes study and practice.

Study the waves of emotion throughout the day, Notice when you are reacting to circumstances, when you are not speaking your truth, filled with anxiety, crying uncontrollably or whatever your emotional manifestation may be.

Practice noticing the emotions, acknowledging them and then carrying on with the day.

With study and practice, you will learn to recognise the waves when they are building up. You will learn to recognise the instinctual fight, flight, or freeze reflex and make a considered decision on the path to take.

You have no hope of riding the wave if you do not study the patterns. Develop the self-knowledge that will help you see the wave beginning to break. You will then be giving yourself the opportunity to ride the wave. You will not always be successful, and you may have to abort at any time, but without the willingness to explore your inner life you will remain standing there being battered and bruised until the tide goes out and you drag yourself off the beach.

Your curiosity and engagement with your emotional life are what puts you in the right position to kick-off and ride down the glassy front of the wave and feel the power behind you driving you forward.

Your emotional struggles become the driver of your life rather than the obstacle you can never hope to surmount.

Finally, recognize when you’ve left the beach.

In terms of mental and emotional health, you need to accept that “riding the wave” is a metaphor for a state of wellness. You are functioning joyfully in life alongside the waves of difficult emotions. The two cannot be separated. If you feel you have eradicated the difficult emotions from your life, then you have probably left the beach.

We desensitise ourselves in many ways using alcohol, drugs, sex and other addictions. That is leaving the beach.

Some people retreat into an intellectual bubble to avoid the emotional world. That is leaving the beach.

There is a phenomenon called ‘spiritual bypass’.

a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks” Fossella & Welwood 2011.

That is leaving the beach.

An Invitation

I invite you to join me on the beach, to overcome your fears and dive into the water. To run joyfully into the surf and experience fully the energy of being alive.

I would love to hear your responses to this imagery. I don’t feel I have any answers to the specific issues you are facing in your life, but I write about things that are meaningful to me in the hope that they light a spark in others. Your responses then spark new creations from me, and so we bring life into the community.

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