Discover more from Becoming a Butterfly
How life is like learning to swim in the surf
Today, after waiting a week, my wish was fulfilled and a new friend agreed to go swimming in the ocean with me.
Now here in El Zonte, El Salvador, it feels like everyone is not only swimming, they are surfing.
I tried surfing. The board was big and awkward to carry. I balanced it on my head. And a part of me was both having fun and grumpy. Did I really want to learn yet another new thing? After living in Colorado for nine years, I had learned and tried a lot of things. Skiing, mountain biking, rafting, backpacking, skate skiing, cross country skiing, volunteering with disabled skiers. During the pandemic years, I even took up roller skating again. There have been so many, many things.
I have been watching people surf for weeks now. It is beautiful. It looks like fun. And I know, based on past experience, that that kind of outward ease, comes from a lot of practice.
Right now I simply want to move, I want to exercise in some way that is fun and simple. I love hiking. I love yoga. And I love jumping over waves in the ocean. I was a young eight year old when my older friend held my hand and taught me how to float over the swells. She held my hand and showed me how to dive under waves that had already broken.
So, the day after my surf lesson, I thought about what I really wanted and what I really wanted was to go play in the waves here like I did when I was eight. Maybe I would surf and that could come later. First I wanted to just have fun and to do that I had to get more comfortable in the ocean.
Waves here are not like the waves in California. They are big.
Sure, sometimes there are nice, fun waves and everything seems comfortable and then something huge will thunder in. I have attempted playing in them and found myself hovering close to shore in the churned up, sandy water, not really actually swimming.
I figured the surf god, Alex, who owns my hotel, could take me out and teach me how to read them better, how to understand currents, and basically, how to feel comfortable swimming in the ocean.
He agreed and then ignored me. I did offer to pay him. But I don’t think people who love to surf understand someone who wants to go and simply frolic in the waves, without fearing them.
Becoming a Butterfly is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It took another week until my wish was fulfilled. I met Mathieu, who is a French Canadian studying to be an Osteopath. Mathieu talked about fascia, trauma held in the tissue of the body, and a few other things that made me decide he would be a good like-minded friend. When he texted and mentioned he had been swimming for fun for two hours, I asked him if I could go out with him sometime.
I experience three parts to the surf. There are the tiny left over bits near the shore where the children and other mostly non-swimming people sit in to cool off.
Then there is the churned-up water, middle part, where the waves have broken, you can still stand up, and they tend to push you around and knock you over. This was the zone I typically put myself in. I would get thrown around, sometimes find some smooth, unbroken ones to jump up and over, and mostly my bathing suit and eyes would get sandy and I would not get the full swimming experience I desired. The waves further out just looked too big to get through.
So, I stayed in the difficult zone.
This is kind of like life when we keep trying and suffering and things are hard. You know when you push yourself towards something and hold yourself back at the same time and life just tosses you around for what seems like forever?
That is the difficult zone.
A little guidance can help you get out beyond that. That is just what I needed and what I got. Maybe you will find it useful as well, even if you are not trying to swim in El Salvador?
Mathieu teaching point #1:
Stop thinking and planning.
When you go into the waves, or into your experience of life, it is very helpful to stay as relaxed and present as you can, in the moment, with what is happening.
Now sure, we have all heard this. It reminded me of Eckhart Tolle, or why people have espoused meditation. But Mathieu mentioned this was about what to do right in the midst of life, in the midst of those waves. I didn’t need to go back to my room for a few years of meditation to prepare for navigating the difficult zone. I just needed to relax as much as I could and asses what what coming at me.
So, simple, right? Except some of those waves, or people, or life experiences are just tough and often unexpected. Sometimes, my immediate reaction is anxiety and stress.
I would have tried to argue with him about this before we got into the water, and since my local driver had already purchased a t-shirt for me that said, “thinking,” I figured there might be something to what he was saying to me that I needed to learn.
Stop thinking and planning.
Ok. Point taken.
Mathieu teaching point #2:
Stay as relaxed as you can.
Stress and anxiety create cortisol in your body. This restricts the blood flow to your organs including your brain. Which is a good thing if something might eat you. It is a bad thing if you want to use your brain for its best purpose: in-the-moment, present moment thinking, to assess the waves coming towards you and how you will deal with them in a relaxed way. (Please keep in mind that I am not talking only about waves here, and I imagine you know this).
If you are anxious and stressed, you create cortisol in your body and this constricts your blood vessels. Your brain does not get as much blood and you actually stop thinking as well as you could and need to in order to handle the challenging situation.
So, stay as relaxed as you can.
Mathieu teaching point #3:
Push into it and touch the bottom.
When a large, skyscraper sized wave is coming at you, take a bigger breath than you think you will need (there might be another right behind it), dive into and under it and touch the bottom so you don’t lose your bearings.
Now, for me, the diving into and towards it is counter intuitive. It is not always easy to lean into things. In surfing, you need to put weight on your front foot. In skiing, my friend would say, “Be aggressive, Terra, lean into it.” You have to own it. You have to own that this experience is coming towards you and you are not going to avoid it. So you go for it. You push yourself towards it and down under it.
After a few tries, I started to get the hang of it and then I felt myself dragged along the sand. I came up grumpy (yes, lately, grumpiness has been a thing for me here at times…but it comes with humor too and in the end, all emotions are welcome, right?).
So, I asked for more instruction.
Because I did push myself into it, I told him, and I touched the bottom, and then I got my ass kicked (yes, I was complaining).
What did I not do? I didn’t own and continue to navigate and dance with the water. I didn’t push myself off the bottom a little (I didn’t have to let it drag me over it like a piece of sand paper). Sometimes, a list of steps to navigate the surf are simply not enough. In the end, it seems to me it is all about dancing and doing what makes sense.
School taught me to follow directions. Life is teaching me how to go beyond that.
Push into things and touch the bottom to keep your bearings, and then dance with what comes. Let go of rigidity. Success and competency does not come from simply following a list of rules or steps; you can be an artist and use those steps or rules as starting, not ending points.
Mathieu teaching point #4:
No matter what you do, there will be waves that will tumble you around. This is how you grow and learn. There is no perfect, easy path to swimming in the ocean. What you can do is learn to be more relaxed and accept the moment, no matter what.
No more to say on that one except, “Shoot, I know he is right and I like to think there is some easy place to get to that will last…” But I wouldn’t learn much that way. Or grow. There is that.
Mathieu teaching point #5:
You will keep doing what you do, even if it isn’t working, until you reach a breaking point. Then you will relax and find your way, in the present moment.
For me, he pointed out I will continue to overthink things until I just get sick of it. What does this mean? Well, I will focus on yesterday or tomorrow in a way that is anxiety producing until I am done. Or I will analyze the sh***t out of how to swim effectively in an ever-changing ocean, and carefully memorize each step, until I truly understand that it is easier to just navigate what comes, one wave at a time, in the most relaxed way I can. And not judge myself when I am not relaxed or find myself rigid and following steps.
Sometimes, the waves are so big, or unrelenting in life or in the ocean, that we hit rock bottom in some way, and that is a turning point. For me, it was a divorce after 22 years of marriage. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I reached “that” point. When my husband-at-the-time suggested marriage counseling, I said “no.” I truly felt beyond it. For some of you, marriage counseling is a great thing to do if you reach that point. You might just need a little coaching to get through some waves with more ease. For me, I didn’t have an ounce more in me. Done.
This reminds me of stories I have heard from friends struggling with various addictions. There can be a point where you are simply done. Rock Bottom.
Eckhart speaks of this type of moment whilst sitting on a bench. That is when his transformational moment happened.
So we struggle until we don’t. It is part of the process. There is nothing wrong with that or with us. It is how we grow. Waves will keep coming that challenge you and that challenge me.
Sometimes we stay in the “hard” zone, or in the frothy, close-to-shore part. That’s ok. And it is nice, and usually more fun in my experience, to go out a little further with a good guide.
You can do what I tend to do and overthink the waves and life in general (try writing a meaningful blog once a week as a perfectionist) . Or we can say those words I wrote about before, “What can I learn from this?” And take the whole experience as a gift, answer the question as best we can, and look for the next wave to come in.
Eventually, after enough struggle, you will simply find that you relax and wait for the next wave to come in. You will become more at ease in the moment.
Mathieu teaching point #6:
When you get through one wave, make sure you open your eyes to see if another one is coming.
It is easy, isn’t it, to breathe a sigh of relief when the “difficult” person leaves, or you finish your challenging day. And usually, it is over. But not always. Life is like dancing. There is always movement and sometimes another wave is coming right behind the first one and it is good, again, in a relaxed way, to open one eye just a bit, even if there is lots of sandy water in it, and take a quick peak so your brain can do what it does best, and navigate the present moment.
Well, that seems like enough on the tips.
How did it go?
Well, in the morning, before my adventure with Mathieu, I was contemplating the ocean. I thought to myself, “is it an energy being I could communicate with?” And my mind (oh God), quickly dismissed any sense of deva-like ocean presence. It was just so big…
So, I got into the water with Mathieu and eventually was faced with a big oncoming wave. Now mind you, things were looking pretty good. It was the calmest day I had seen in the ocean. There were waves and in that moment, they were smooth and not too big. Until one came that was.
I dove under, followed Mathieu’s advice and felt it, seriously, spank me on the rear. Not like a little splash. Like an alive thing.
Later it slapped my feet and I knew I was being played with and yes, the ocean, like everything, is alive, with a personality.
There were moments where Mathieu suggested I simply float on my back. We went out beyond the middle zone, where I had stayed out of fear. We went where the waves mostly came in beautiful swells and where there was room, when necessary, to dive under them deeper and not get thrashed around so much.
Sometimes life, like waves, is like that. It is easy to stay in the “hard” zone because going past it is scary. And it takes some skill and a little support or training to get there.
As one huge wave came towards us, I grabbed his hand. And I took a big breath. It helped.
Later, with his encouragement, I floated on my back. I never thought I was good at that, but the salty water was buoyant and often, incredibly peaceful. There is a feeling of being in the ocean, in warm water, with the sound of waves, floating over swells, relaxed me. I won’t forget it. And I won’t forget that life is not always like that. But those moments of relaxing help.
They help you relax through the waves. They help when you feel your way in life, sometimes touching the bottom and pushing off a bit when you need to so you don’t get scraped up.
They help you stop thinking and they help you think when you need to, as your blood flows with ease to your brain.
Waves are like that.
It was a good day, and I learned a lot more than simply how to swim in the ocean.