Travelling to far flung shores and learning about local cultures, traditions and attitudes have made Sam Bleakley a worldly surfer. In these places it is important to be present and conscious of yourself, your state and your surroundings, just as it is when spending time in the ocean.
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment; the practice of fully focusing one's mental awareness on the situation at hand. A state of mind that surfers, bobbing in the water waiting for the next set, might not even be aware that they are practising.
As spring stretches into summer, the lure of journeying to the coastline gets stronger, and the world suddenly seems very big, liquid, a host of opportunities. Transcending from the interior to coast, from shelter to adventure, you shake off any desire to make boundaries, build borders and write ‘to-do’ lists, swim out into the ocean, disconnect from the nine-to-five 'noise' of modern-life, and now look back on land with a fresh perspective, as still as a bird.
When we get too trapped in our desires to ‘do’ and ‘achieve’ we forget to stop, listen and notice. Crossing boundaries to the place where land meets sea, then gracefully traversing this frontier, aluminates the quiet blue space between moments, and the environment captures our attention beautifully. The sky delights. The sand shivers with millions of minerals. The sea is streamed with colour. Things might start awkwardly, but then the environment captures our attention. We are here, we are now, we are alive. We can let go. And a new noticing emerges. No matter how wild and windswept and hostile, the coastline can suddenly feel generous and nourishing.
And of course moments of stillness can help us to regain a sense of self, of composure or centring. This is mindfulness (being present). And mindfulness in the ocean offers something extra. It does not simply take us inside ourselves to find a still centre, but rather orients us within the environment to find place. We are immersed in water and the salt-soaked zone just above the sea’s skin. Around us, terns dive and fish jump. We are active, alert and intent on balance. Mindfulness in the ocean is a moving out of mind into the world, into an acute sense of what the environment demands of us – where winds, currents, coastlines and lunar-tidal movements meet.
Here, at the coastline, we can resist the urge ‘to achieve’ and ‘do’ and simply attempt to ‘be’, appreciating the here and now, in this this strip between land and sea, sensitively exploring a symbiosis with the ocean. This involves thinking democratically and appreciating the varieties of cultures and ways of life that are present. This round of movement, from interior to coast and coast to interior, is like the rise and fall of the lung in a steady breathing cycle, like the beating of the heart.
And the call of the coastline is like a ‘call of the wild’, but sometimes you follow wide-eyed only to see beaches openly used as dumps and toilets, littered with plastics. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘the world is presence, not force.’ The world does not set out to control us, it merely presents itself in all its glory and moods, yet we are bent on controlling it and our methods have been crude, destructive and are now boomeranging back with a vengeance.
"At the coastline, we can resist the urge ‘to achieve’ and ‘do’ and simply attempt to ‘be’, appreciating the here and now..."
For thousands of years we have developed techniques of focus on the self and the inward life. But the invention of selfies and social media has, arguably, dried up our receptivity to the outer world. We have instead become acutely sensitive to the inner life. As a result, we have a surplus of ‘ego’ and an ecological crisis. We need to recover sensitivity towards the world around us – reconnect with its cries and pleasures, its sufferings and beauties. Getting to the coastline is an ideal way to do this as a mindfulness given by nature. The saltwater soul of the ocean is to be mindful of nature’s body, a connoisseur of the seas, tutored and formed by them.
The coastline brings you face to face with the raw beauty of nature at different volumes and tones. As one is taught and shaped by the ocean – its colours, temperatures, forms and patterns – so one becomes more tuned to its needs and then more ecologically minded and sensitive. This is a great vehicle for getting us right into the heart of the oceans’ and coastlines’ workings so that they can teach us how to care for them, and above all, how to be mindful.
When I was a kid, my dad told me a Maori folk tale about a big-headed villager who boasted that he could bring home a whale that would feed the whole community for a winter. The young man tricked the whale into letting him ride it, just like a surfboard, lulling the whale into going straight into shore so that it beached itself and died. The whale was a totem animal for the neighbouring village and they were shocked when they heard how the whale had been tricked, as they would never eat their totem or treat it badly. Many of us may, at times, behave just like the big-headed villager – unaware of how our activities mistreat the environment and how we abuse our animal relatives. We should have the opposite mindset – respectful of sea life and acutely aware of the environment. At the coastline we can be somewhere between fish and bird. There is a powerful lesson to be learned from all sea life, so well adapted. Humans work against currents and winds, powering machines to journey in the straightest possible line. But this is hugely inefficient. Turtles and sharks use the currents to travel. Dolphins in pods leap so high because they work collaboratively to produce strong vortices and eddies in the water that supplement their muscle power, allowing them to burst higher and further than their body mass should allow.
The ocean may knock you down and drag you sideways. But such bruises generate a kind of wisdom, and they are suffered because the rewards are immense. The ocean will open you up and widen your horizons. Coastlines will layer experience upon experience in building character. The sea will focus your restless personality and give you calm. The French poet St-John Perse described this as a ‘tidemark’. This is like a salt-stain that cannot be erased but is enjoyed as a permanent print on the psyche of deep satisfaction – something achieved above and beyond the ordinary, a risk that pays off. Not just the mark of time, but of time well spent. The coastline is calling.
Words by Sam Bleakley | Photographs by Jack Johns and David Gray