Saturday, April 23, 2022

Learning to Surf

     When I was a kid, I loved to play in the surf, on the mid-Atlantic coastline. The waves there are usually only a few feet high, big enough for a little kid to find exciting, but not too big for her to body-surf with all her big siblings coaching and watching out for her. I learned that the ocean is a powerful, unpredictable thing. I learned to dive through the waves on the way out, and to ride them back in to shore. I learned, when a wave would take me by surprise and knock me off my feet, to hold my breath, curl up and roll with it, let it pass, before trying to struggle up onto my feet again. I learned about the power of riptides, how fatal it can be to try to swim against them, and how to go sideways instead, parallel to the shore, until the rip looses its grip. 

    One of the key concepts I'm learning from my ADHD life-coach is called "surfing."

I'd heard of it before, from Nir Eyal in his book Indistractible, but my coach, Kristen Carder, is teaching me how to actually do it. It's a way to manage the feelings that can derail good intentions, from big ones like anger, shame, or craving, to less intense ones like boredom or doubt. It's a practical expression of the Buddhist concept of impermanence. It depends on some of the same skills I learned playing in the surf as a child: to respect the wave of emotion; to face into it; to wait for it to pass over before getting back on my feet; but then, to push back up and float in on the next wave; and sometimes, to swim sideways to a strong current rather than trying to fight through it or be carried away by it.

    It's Easter week. One of the common images for the death and resurrection of Christ is that of a grain of wheat, that can't grow into next year's abundant crop except by falling into the earth and dying. It is the universal cycle of life: the seed dies in the ground as the new sprout emerges from it; the flower falls off as the fruit forms; the fruit rots when the seeds mature. It is the universal cycle of our own lives, too. We become ourselves through our lived experience; but then, if we want to continue to "become," to continue to grow and learn and improve throughout life, we have to be willing to let go of who we have been until now. We have to question who we are, who we think we are, what we think we're capable of, and why. And that can be really hard. We have huge blind spots, and we may need other people to reflect back to us a truer picture of who we are and who we can be. On the other hand, we can also hinder one another in this work. We take on particular roles early in life or early in a relationship, we form first impressions of one another, and then we may cease to really see each other as the new people we're growing into. We may run out of curiosity towards one another, and close down the possibility of change.

    All the changes we go through, even when we are changing into better versions of ourselves, are challenging to us and to each other. There is something in our primitive instincts that fears change, even positive change, more than it hates a rotten status quo. We identify a change we want to make in our lives: to pay down our debts, or to eat a healthier diet, or to learn a new skill. We make a New Year's or Lenten resolution. It's something doable, a change we're capable of making. We start out great, it feels great, we're full of energy and hope -- and then after a few days, or weeks, ... we start to get really uncomfortable. We get irritable, we get antsy, we get frustrated. We fall short of perfect, and blow it all out of proportion. Our devil-you-know brain seizes on the discomfort to convince us to give it all up. This is me, now, evolving from the burned-out and stressed-out woman I used to be into someone who has grown and learned enough to be able to help others heal, too. I've made a good start at pivoting toward a positive vision of the future, and then I start to get derailed by frustration and self-doubt. 

    This is where "surfing" comes in. You get knocked down by a wave of internal resistance, all kinds of uncomfortable feelings: stop, curl up, let it wash over you and tumble you around. Close your eyes and hold your breath, pay attention, and wait for it to pass. It's just a wave, it's going to crest and recede. It's just a feeling, it's not a fact. Respect the power of your feelings, but don't buy into the thoughts your change-averse brain serves up to justify stopping your progress. Let the wave roll over you, and then jump up and catch the next wave, and ride it like a pro. Get back on the wagon, recommit to your resolutions, and eventually, your brain will catch up and start defending the new improved normal just like it did the old, unsatisfying version. And then stretch to the next new challenge, catch another wave, and know you'll get tumbled again. It's worth it to keep growing. 


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