Surf and Mindfulness – or how surfing can impact the way we understand the world

An interview with Claire Berthomieu

Translation Iona Elerbe

Claire Berthomieu is interested in surfing as an object of study and seeks to understand how surfing can change our way of understanding the world and influence our choices.

Why did you choose surf as your object of study?

What interested me is that surfing requires a very special state of consciousness, which aims at reaching a sensation of harmony and balance with the ocean. I seek to understand surf in its entirety: the culture, the way of life that surf brings about and the innovations that surfing proposes. I wanted to question the practice of surfing in order to understand, among other things, whether the mental disposition of a surfer is comparable to the sought-after state of mindfulness as described in Buddhism and modern schools on mindfulness. I also tried to find out whether this state of mindfulness could have impact on creativity and the creation og eco-responsible innovations within the surfing industry.

What did you find out?

My findings overall relate to ecology. As a result of modern society, the current state of our ecology is so alarming that it should be considered an urgent matter that needs to be resolved as it threatens the quality of life of the human species, if not their survival. As for surfing, marine pollution by hydrocarbons (oil and gas) and especially the accumulation of plastic waste is particularly problematic. We must consider transitioning towards a different human and industrial ecology that is designed and developed through, for example, the circular economy, renewable energies and biomimicry. To move forward in this direction, contemporary man must understand how nature functions and the environments in which he/she evolves in order to be able to come up with relevant technological innovations.

How does this relate to the surfer?

A surfer needs to learn about the weather, analyse and understand the water by observing its movements and the power it carries and observe wind directions and the wave cycle for an extended period of time. He has to adapt each of his gestures and choose the most suitable time for his take off. Last but not least, the surfer must establish and maintain his physical balance, his concentration etc. He has to be fully focused in order not to fall. All his senses are awake as he is in immediate interaction with an element in motion. The learning curve is very long and the time spent by surfers observing the movements of a wave, before taking off on one, could be likened to what Buddhists call the practice of contemplation, which you find in Eastern philosophy, different meditation practices, yoga etc.

What is mindfulness?

According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of the school of modern mindfulness and ‘mindful based stress reduction’ and who has studied Buddhism and Eastern philosophies at length, mindfulness is the state of true presence, where you bring your full attention back to the present moment.

You find this state of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha insisted that he did not present himself as a god or a messenger of a god and that awakening was not the result of a supernatural process or a supernatural being, but rather the result of paying attention to the nature of the human mind, and this could be discovered by anyone. The Buddha thus explains that mindfulness means directly seeing the ultimate reality in all things. To be acutely aware of one’s own thoughts in order to liberate oneself and achieve spiritual awakening.

In short, mindfulness is a state of being that opens up a complete and clear vision of everything that stimulates one’s interactions with one’s environment. This state can only be achieved once one has learned to use all one’s senses in a harmonious and balanced way. This is very far from modern Western culture, where Man can no longer read what stimulates life around him, as he has gradually separated himself from the symbiotic relationship that he could have with nature and the living environment. After having developed technologies of an impressive scientific finesse, modern Western man must now know how to achieve a state of mindfulness to reconcile himself with nature.

How did you investigate surfing as a practice?

I was curious about how surfing brings about a state of mind that is close to mindfulness and which could inspire a form of creativity conducive to creating innovations for sustainable development and ecological transition. I tried to answer this question by directly interviewing surfers. It appeared that reading the water and the movements of the waves, as well as the anticipation of the breaking of a wave, which is essential in order to position oneself to successfully take off and be able to surf the wave, suggests that the eye of the surfer is perpetually in motion. The surfer’s eye analyses the wave continuously – which in itself is a complex natural, mathematical, fractal model – and this induces a quasi instantaneous ability to interpret the probability of the wave breaking, and also induces very fast decision making.

A surfer who has surfed for a long time and under various conditions has a non-conscious or even reflexive capacity for probabilistic analysis. In addition, immersing oneself in the water on a regular basis seems to have a positive impact on one’s physical well-being. It also allows you to connect with the elements. This feeling of unity with nature during surfing could also be the starting point for the development of a consciousness about ecology, which is very important. Only the water world can hinder the experience and the need to be alone to feel it.

Physical fitness also contributes to an improved surf experience and achieving mindfulness. Surfing seems to increase eco-sensitivity, because of its links with the natural elements, as well as creativity. In fact, studies have shown that mindfulness reduces cognitive rigidity. Mindfulness induces a state that allows for divergent thinking without censoring – in other words it induces an improvisational way of thinking, allowing new ideas to emerge. But further studies will have to be carried out to deepen this research and the answers that have emerged.

Concretely speaking, how does one reach mindfulness, whether through surf or through another practice?

As I mentioned earlier, mindfulness consists of maintaining one’s attention on the present moment and connecting with the sensations that present themselves to us. The surfer, when he goes in the water, forgets his worries. Surfing allows him to totally disconnect from the worries of life, the overflow of information, the stress of everyday life. He listens to the natural elements in which he immerses himself and is forced to focus on his sensations and his immediate environment. This immersion chases out all external thoughts and he can dedicate himself fully to what it he is doing and feeling.

In a similar way, the practice of meditation aims at observing one’s sensations without judging them. One experiences one’s body and one’s mind, both the conscious and the unconscious, in order to cleanse oneself, to unburden oneself. It is not a matter of thinking about anything, but of focusing one’s attention on specific elements, such as breathing, or on the contrary, letting the elements of the present moment come towards you in whichever order they present themselves (e.g. sounds, thoughts, memories, feelings etc.). As the psychiatrist Christophe André said: “It is about taking the time to stop doing, in order to be. If we do not remember to create protected and privileged areas, we will transform ourselves into work machines. Mindful living is simply about the moments, when one stops. When one takes the time to breathe and to realise that one is alive in an exciting world. Of course it is important to act. But without forgetting the why. The idea of ​​mindfulness is simply to become more present in one’s own life.”

In surfing, the idea is not to stop doing, but to be fully inhabited by what you do. This being present in our actions, as opposed to the hyperactive dispersion of our thoughts, is conducive to well-being. In a world where we are turned towards others, especially through the exposure to images on social networks, we have to reconnect with our inner selves.

Ultimately, surfing forces us into a kind of mindfulness. Apart from the necessary physical training, mindfulness too requires training, it is not so simple. It is a type of “personal ecology” that helps us to get out of the autopilot that governs our lives. Other than surfing, you can practice mindfulness by concentrating on your breathing for a few minutes.

If we continue this practice, it seems that the mind awakens to become more creative and more acutely conscious of the environment – two aspects that can also bring you satisfaction and happiness.

In addition, here is the trailer for a small film that is part of a crowdfunding campaign that deals with the same subject. Five female surfers and a neuroscience specialist from the United Kingdom, all from different generations, reflect on self awareness to explore what makes us happy and look into the discovery of common traits across different life experiences.