Oceanic Lessons: Surfing, Freedom, and Transcending Ego

"The sea is one of the greatest teachers I’ve come to know."

“The sea is one of the greatest teachers I’ve come to know.”

“Freedom is to stand naked at the moment, having no expectations, nothing to lose or to gain. The empty then is fulfilled, just to be emptied again at the next moment. The Absolute Freedom is, to become every path, at any given moment.” ― Grigoris Deoudis

The ocean is both a liberating and humbling place. When the weight of a world consumed with the acquisition of wealth, petty concerns, celebrity nonsense, wars and rumors of war, and a saddening disconnect from nature becomes too much of a burden to carry, I hear the sound of the sea calling my name.

Through surfing, I experience what I call pure freedom. A freedom I have yet to attain from any other pursuit in my life. The freedom is found in each moment, like that of the salty waters beading upon my face. Paddling over, under, and into waves. Standing witness to the beams of sunlight bursting through the clouds. Feeling the exhilarating energy of riding a wave, as the pulsating vibration intrinsic to it, travels throughout my entire body. To sit quiet and fully aware, floating upon the ocean surface, connecting with the Earth at an intimate level-this is pure freedom.

For many years, these simple pleasures that are parts of the totality of the surfing experience were almost always background. These wonderful things were shoved in my mental trunk so to speak, probably under some wet moldy towel and a stinky wetsuit. The maneuvers executed while riding a wave, they were always sitting in the driver’s seat. They were also the backseat driver, yelling at and berating me. My obsession with performing flawless off the bottom-off the top wave riding, without falling or fail, eventually pulled me farther away from the initial reason I began surfing in the first place. It also gave rise to an ego and attitude that emanated off my body in the water. In my pursuit of becoming what I defined as a “good” surfer, I also became an asshole while surfing.

But the ocean, like the arena of life itself, is filled with numerous lessons. The sea is one of the greatest teachers I’ve come to know.

The ocean can be relentless in its motion. The waves harsh and unyielding. Get caught in the impact zone on a big day, you may find yourself in a situation that fills your entire being with dread. Spinning aimlessly underwater. Being dragged to the bottom as if caught in a whirlpool, then pinned to the ocean floor. Paralyzed. Trapped. Then when the sea decides, you are released, swimming through the spiraling darkness to break through the ocean’s surface. Resurfacing, gasping for a breath of air, then mounting your surfboard and finally, paddling for safety. Anyone who surfs has been in this situation more than a few times. Like I said, the ocean can indeed be a humbling place.

We don’t need some sort of near death experience to be humbled in the ocean. Sit. Just sit and survey your surroundings while patiently waiting in the lineup. This view can certainly put things in perspective for us. We are small in the vastness that is the planet Earth and her ocean, not to mention the solar system, the galaxy, or the universe. With this realization, again we are humbled and taught a greater lesson: We are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

While continuing my loving pursuit of riding waves, I have found further freedom and humbling states as I age. In a conventional sense, I don’t surf as well as I did in my twenties. Sometimes I fall in places I wouldn’t have in the past. I don’t line up as many turns. I’m not executing my turns with the precision I once had. Also I have had some injuries over the past few years that I know are due to my body reaching the forty mark. Although these are realities I deal with that one may consider negative, I’m enjoying my time in the water as much as I ever had. I feel I appreciate surfing and have more fun while doing it now. I have also noticed that although some skills have fallen away, I’ve gained some new abilities that were not present before. Trading aggressive ripping for a smoother style, grace, and poise.

The need to be one of the best surfers in the water has been stripped away. I won’t attempt to pretend I don’t care about how I surf, I certainly do care about my surfing. I surf as much as possible. I still pay attention to and refine my surfing, while trying to ride waves to the best of my ability. So on that level, there may not seem like much change has taken place. What has happened is the joy I feel while surfing has become more important to me then how I’m performing.

I imagine as I continue to surf into middle age and eventually old age, more “baggage” will be dropped. Each year as I enter the water, I can drop my own expectations that really never serve to help my surfing, as the mental projections only cripple my natural flow. As my ego is slowly dissolved in the ocean waters, there is a doorway for that young boy who started surfing over twenty five years ago to walk through. The boy who always had a smile ear to ear while sitting on his surfboard. It didn’t matter how many waves he caught, how well he rode them, or who was watching. What mattered was the pure freedom experienced in the pursuit itself. What mattered was surfing.

All Photos: Christor Lukasiewicz. Hurricane Gonzalo Swell.


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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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