Sandy, Surfing, and Finding Flow

As Sandy rolled in yesterday afternoon, I was in the midst of rereading Steven Kotler’s West of Jesus.  In particular, I found myself two-thirds of the way through the text when Kotler starts to brood over if surfing has the greatest transcendent potential of all sports.  As he enjoys surfing and has spent significant amounts of time hanging out with surfers, on the surface it seems like he is biased in his claim.  He speaks with spiritual gurus, surf fanatics, neuroscientists, and considers Csikszentmihalyi’s flow.  The section is an entertaining read, but does not fully compel that surfing is the sport where transcendental experiences (a.k.a. the zone) happens the most.

After sitting back for a few moments and dwelling on the idea, I do think that one can connect the dots to see how surfing is well suited to creating a flow state.  In particular, the uncertaiImagenty of surfing sets the stage nicely.  At the core of flow theory is challenge.  Just about any activity that can be perceived as reasonably challenging can lead to flow.  Standing on a skinny piece of fiberglass in the ocean seems to fulfill this requirement.  Secondly, transcendental experiences in sport create a paradox of control.  The athlete feels in full control, but is making little conscious effort to control things.  I would like to take this one step further and suggest that when in flow, there is a high level of acceptance of the experience.  Acceptance is a powerful psychological skill that reduces the mental conflict created by adversity, allowing for physical skills to thrive.

Surfing cannot happen without acceptance.  Mother Nature simply has too much say in the matter.  A surfer must sit and wait for a set of waves to roll in.  Some days they won’t roll.  Some days they will rock.  The playing field of the surfer is in a constant state of flux and it only lasts a handful of seconds.  A surfer cannot shape the wave in which he rides, he can only try to shape the path he takes on it.  When all is said and done, the surfer is the playful passenger on what Mother Nature throws towards the coastline.

The surf forecast says the remnants of Sandy will throw clean, chest high waves at Nantasket Beach Friday morning.  It may be time to seek out some H20 driven enlightenment.

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