Surfing the waves of the mind

Sunlight on loch

Last weekend, on a local well-being day, I heard a quote about meditation which I’d never heard before, but which made instant sense.

‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’

Waves on lake
Wavy Highland loch (C) Alyson Tyler

Wow, I thought. How come I’d never heard that before? It’s a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the most influential practitioners and writers on meditation and mindfulness in the last 30 years in the English language.

It sums up precisely, not only how we can approach meditation, but also how we can approach life.

In one approach to meditation we can try to observe our thoughts neutrally, and let them pass. Like clouds in the sky. Or waves of the ocean. A wave (thought) comes, we are absorbed by it, then it moves on. We try not to get caught up in it. We try not to get dragged down by it, into the murky depths of our mind (or the deep waters of the sea). If we can ride it smoothly (surfing), staying on the surface, the thought (and the emotional baggage it might come with), can pass on by without any disturbance and we can sit and watch and wait for the next wave (thought).

Sunlight on loch
One of my favourite Highland lochs (C) Alyson Tyler

As well as within a meditation practice, the quote also relates to how we approach life’s challenges. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, we face small, medium and bigger challenges. For some people, most of the time, they can ride (surf) these occasional challenges (waves) and there may not be much disturbance, stress, anxiety, worry etc. For for some people, all waves become big waves, big trouble, causing lots of stress, worry, depression etc. Also, for some people, they may be able to surf waves some of the time, but at other times, even a small wave can cause them to feel over-whelmed. But this is moving into the much bigger topic of stress and our ways of coping with it.

Returning to meditation, the above quote (which is actually a chapter title from one of Kabat-Zinn’s books: Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life), can help us when we sit and meditate; to try to see the thoughts as waves, and to surf them smoothly, resting gently in the space between them rather than letting them overwhelm us. Waves will always come, but we don’t have to be de-railed by them.

Surfers at Borth beach
Surfers at Borth, Wales (C) Alyson Tyler



2 thoughts on “Surfing the waves of the mind

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