How many times have you felt battered by the waves? We often find ourselves struggling in that metaphorical sea of waves – strong emotions, unexpected events, illness, and difficult relationships. They ebb and flow just like the waves of the sea. And just like a surfer in the ocean, we try to navigate them skillfully. We try to keep our heads above water.
In our minds, we expect to be expert navigators right from the beginning. What many of us fail to realize is that it takes years of practice to build the skills needed to manage our emotions and the external events that life throws at us. As a Mindfulness-based psychotherapist trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, I wholeheartedly embrace this quote, yet at times it seems impossible to achieve.
Just as a surf instructor would not send a beginner out into a 10-foot swell, I would also not expect a novice mindfulness student to stay centered in the midst of an emotional storm. Even the most expert teachers lose their balance and get torn up by the coral reef of real life. There is real risk involved in surfing the waves of emotion, including the significant risk of feeling pain and discomfort. No one pops up on a monster wave, staying upright and focused, without significant training. And sadly, this is where the metaphor ends. We can opt out of the ocean if surfing doesn’t appeal to us, but we cannot opt out of our emotions without serious consequences.
Do you want to learn how to surf the emotional waves of life? If yes, start small and experiment with the following WAVE:
Welcome: Welcome feelings and reactions; allow yourself to open to sensations, thoughts, and urges without acting.
Attend: By giving full attention to this experience moment to moment, not reliving the past or fortune telling the future. Stay present with the full experience by naming and describing what is happening inside the body and mind.
Validate: Identify the truth in your experience (not the absolute truth!) by understanding the thoughts, beliefs, and physiological prompts that resulted in the emotion arising.
Exhale: Let go of the energy created by the emotion, or any resistance of feeling the emotion. Allow the body to soften and settle with exactly what is happening in the present moment.
To become a skillful surfer of emotions, repeat the WAVE over and over. With practice, you will grow stronger and more skillful, enjoying some of the grace and freedom that comes from surfing the big waves.
WARNING: START SMALL. If you find that you are struggling, seek out an instructor (therapist, mindfulness teacher, sponsor, or loved one) to help you conquer the monster waves. Expect to wipe out, but also be sure to pop back up.
Patty Thomas Shutt, founder of Sacred Treehouse, is a licensed psychologist and co-owner of Therapeutic Oasis of the Palm Beaches. Dr. Shutt is passionate about helping others discover the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. She offers Beginner Meditation & Advanced Meditation classes at Sacred Treehouse, in addition to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindful Self-Compassion and various book studies throughout the year.