I saw the most beautiful sunrise the other morning. As we pulled into the parking lot, the sky was still a deep midnight blue with pink and purple streaks starting to bleed into the horizon. We got to the beach just as the first three surfers made their way into the water. I strapped on the leash to my surfboard, anxious to get into the water too.
The water felt cool and smooth, gliding over my skin as my arms found their familiar rhythm to propel me forward. Slowly, the sun began to appear behind Diamond Head and the Waikiki skyline, turning the sky orange and rendering the surfers around me into dancing silhouettes. I sat and watched for a few more minutes before turning my attention back to the ocean. A wave started to roll towards me, bulging up as if someone was rolling a ball under a rug. I pivoted my board and started paddling.
I learned to surf almost three years ago. It wasn’t something I ever expected to do, not because I didn’t find surfing fascinating. I did. I just didn’t think that surfing was for me.
When I was about five years old, I went to play in the ocean with my Dad. We were vacationing in Sanibel Island, Florida, which we did for several summers during my childhood. We spent all of our time at the beach, sifting through the sand for seashells to add to our collection and searching for an elusive sand dollar – one that I was convinced would bring me good luck.
One day, as my Dad and I jumped the waves and practiced swimming in the ocean, a big slab of water hit us from behind and knocked us over. I remember being submerged and getting a really close look at the coral and rocks near the shore. I waited for my body to resurface. I waited for the ocean to flush me towards the shore. I waited until I finally felt my Dad grasp the straps of my bathing suit and pull me out of the water.
That experience sat with me for a very long time. While I continued to swim, I would only swim in a pool with a big black line on the bottom and walls close at-hand. I wouldn’t venture into the ocean beyond my knees. I didn’t like diving under breaking waves. Years later, I almost disqualified myself during the swim portion of the New York City Triathlon. As soon as the gun went off and I put my head in the Hudson River, panic filled every inch of my body. I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my wetsuit and I couldn’t breathe. I clung onto a rescue kayak on the side of the course until my heart rate returned to a reasonable beat.
Yet, somehow, three years ago, I found myself standing at the ocean's edge, clutching a surfboard and strapping on a leash to my ankle before my first surf lesson. I stared out at the water. What in the world was I doing?
A funny thing happened out in the water. The absolute bliss of catching my first wave was so much more than my fear of the ocean that I was willing to paddle out again and again to experience that euphoria. As I learned the basics of surfing and the mechanics of handling a surfboard, I became more comfortable in the water. I learned the tools and facts that I needed to be safe in the ocean and to face my fear.
As I continued to surf, I kept telling myself that I was being brave every time that I paddled out. I felt brave because I did not panic at the sight of open water. I felt brave for returning to surfing after knee surgery two years ago. Friends and family told me that I was brave for conquering my fear of the ocean.
As I sat on my board during that sunrise surf session in Hawaii, I realized something. I was not brave because I paddled a surfboard in the ocean or because I willingly attempted to ride a wave. In those moments of riding a wave, I am so hyper-focused on doing just that. There is no room for anything else. There is no room for fear. But when the rush (and danger) is over, that is when the emotions flood—happiness, frustration, joy, and anger—and I am left sitting in the middle of the ocean.
That morning in Hawaii, I had a terrible session in the water. No matter how hard I tried, I could not catch a wave. I quickly started to doubt my ability, and I became frustrated with my body and its inability to cooperate. I felt jealous of my husband who was surfing well, even though he had been out there practicing day after day. I was forced to see clearly, perhaps for the first time, how my ego can grow so big that it leaves no room for compassion towards others or myself.
It’s easy to mask these ugly emotions, thoughts and criticism in my day-to-day life. However, the ocean strips away that façade and I am left with just me. In those quiet moments when I sit on my surfboard, moving between the breaking waves and bobbing up and down, I have no choice but to sit there with myself—all of myself. There’s no place else to go.
Every time I step into the ocean, I know that there will be these hard and uncomfortable moments but I continue to dive in. After each session in the water, I emerge a little battered but also more aware and in tune with myself.