Big-wave surfing and living in the moment
Dr Easkey Britton is an internationally-renowned surfer, artist, scientist and explorer from Ireland. She pioneered women’s big-wave surfing in Ireland as the first woman to surf Aileen’s at the Cliffs of Moher and Mullaghmore. Easkey is a five-time Irish national surf champion, and holds a Ph.D. in Marine Environment and Society. She is the founder of Be Like Water, a platform to explore innovative ways to reconnect with who we are, our environment and each other, through water.
I can see the wave coming, building momentum. I reposition myself, ready to meet it at just the right instant. Then it comes fully to life, towering over me. At its apex, at the height of its speed, I catch it and ride it. It is a moment of total commitment, when all the mental and physical noise stops. Nothing exists but total awareness of the moment.
I’ve always been attracted to the edge. That curiosity and desire to embrace the unknown, to go to the edge and lean into fear, is a powerful and important aspect of surfing. It’s the kind of fear that embraces vulnerability, the art of letting go. It’s a lot about risk-taking and being honest with ourselves. You can’t commit to a wave if you hesitate, if there’s doubt. Tony Bates talked about this in a talk he gave at the Surfing Medicine International conference in Sligo last year, how big-wave surfing can mirror those ‘critical choice moments’ on the journey of mental health. The relationship between the surfer and the wave, for example: when the surfer turns to face the wave, the wave acts as mirror to who we are, reflecting our commitment, our fear and willingness to face it.
But in order to go to the edge we have to keep trying and, critically, be ok with ‘failure’ – getting caught inside and being pummelled by the surf. We have to learn to never give up, because eventually there’s a break in the waves. A key part of surfing is learning to fall well and safely. The unpredictability of the ocean necessitates surfers have a high capacity for failure, or a willingness to experience failure. As Bates said: “We never learn to stay on the board until we lose our fear of failing”.
Physically, in those situations you need to be strong and prepared, but big-wave surfing is a mental game. Psychologically, how do I prepare myself on those big days, when a storm is raging through the night, delivering all its energy on to a small sloping slab of rock on the west coast of Ireland in the middle of winter?
I’ve always believed surfing is an amazing tool for mindfulness practice – mindfulness-in-movement or, perhaps, ‘blue mindfulness’. It comes back to tapping into that state of presence. If I’m distracted or uncertain, it plays out on those big days. If there’s anything I haven’t dealt with, it will come out. In that way, it’s almost like therapy. My mindfulness practice has helped me be present with whatever it is I’m feeling and to be ok with that, to understand it’s ok to feel that way.
In preparation, how and where I direct my attention really matters. By focusing on the practical, the things I can control – my equipment, how I fuel my body, checking the jet-ski – it helps me get grounded. The safety checks are essential but it’s not so much the checking as the ritual – that’s what tells me I have to get in the right headspace. I use the fear as a call to listen to myself.
Recent research has shown how simply being near water can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and that time spent in the water, especially the sea, can improve our self-awareness, creativity, health and reinforce our connection to ourselves, each other and nature. Marine biologist Wallace J Nichols calls this human-water connection, ‘Blue Mind’ in his book of the same name. Surfing doesn’t just happen when you’re in the water. Some of the lessons I’ve learned surfing are applicable to the way we move through our day. As a life metaphor, understanding and trusting in the power of the process is so important.
The sea can be such a transformative space, capable of bringing moments of joy as well as fear. But we’re amazing at being able to block ourselves from our own joy. That’s why being exposed to an environment we can’t control, the sea, matters – it forces us to allow the experience to happen, to feel the joy of that moment, without trying to control or pass judgement. It allows us to let go of the outcome, which can be a terrifying thing to do.
If I truly get into why I surf, it’s for the heightened state of awareness. It’s what is referred to as ‘flow’, a state of total absorption where, if even just for a moment, there’s complete focus and immersion in the present, without any feeling of having to try. It is a state referred to in transpersonal psychology and integral philosophy as ‘non-dual choiceless awareness’. In neuroscience, evidence shows that when we experience a ‘flow state’ the whole brain is synchronised, firing in concert. I like to think of surfing as more like water-dancing. There’s a quote by T.S Elliot about how we can find our stillness in movement: “At the still point, there the dance is”. The experience of wave-riding is this suspended moment. Being able to shift our perception of time like that, especially in such a busy world, can be a truly powerful thing.
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