Place Of Encounter | Oceanographic 17
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We are experiencing a kind of collective trauma. How do we find our way through that? How do we heal? One of my favourite writers, Robin Wall Kimmerer, has written that if “we restore the land, we restore ourselves.” And the same goes for water: if we restore the water, we restore ourselves; restore the ocean, restore ourselves. There is no quick fix, and there are going to be many different ways to heal, but I do believe there is healing to be had in our connection to water.
Fear is held in the body. It can freeze us and numb us. Sometimes it’s only by moving our bodies that we notice the hold fear has on us: the physical tightness, stiffness and rigidity that comes with it. Any kind of movement in nature is going to help with our restoration, with feeling into, moving through and shaking off that fear. And if we can’t go outside or be by the sea, even visualising the swaying movement of kelp on an incoming tide, or a seabird in flight and how it might feel to move like that in our bodies can create connection and ease tension.
When surfing, there is this very raw ability to feel fear in the body without getting too caught up in the head. It is visceral. But with surfing there is also the opportunity to move through it. It allows you to have an experience of meeting fear, feeling your vulnerability and moving through it to discover something far more powerful than the fear itself on the other side. That feeling you get when you finish riding a wave, where there is a sense of total presence, and you are filled with a buzzing joy and full-body aliveness from the thrill of the ride.
I find that being in the sea really confronts me with my emotions. Whatever I’m bringing into the water will be mirrored and revealed. It can be a powerful way to work with moving through fear because you have to. You can't resist a wave that's coming at you. You have to learn to move through it or go with it, to ride it out and see where it takes you.
Water leaves a powerful imprint on our bodies. We take something of our watery experiences with us when we leave the water. The feeling and sensation of having moved through fear and discovered what's on the other side stays in the body too. When we return to shore and life throws challenges at us or when waves come at us unexpectedly in our lives, the body knows - it remembers and knows it is possible to move through this new challenge, and to resurface on the other side of the turbulence.
This imprinting happens gradually, through a persistence of time given to the water. It is a gradual building up, or as health geographer Ronan Foley calls it, an “accretion”, where the layers and layers of meeting waves and feeling into your fear build up and form a protective coating on your skin allowing you to call upon courage. But it isn’t always there. It isn't a given that if I one day I mastered being able to ride a 20 foot wave, that it'll happen again. Some days you are just off. There's just so many elements: sensitivity to our surroundings; the energy we’re holding; how we’ve tuned into our body; the emotions we have - all of that will follow us into the water.
“Going into the water and entering and inhabiting our bodies fully, is about being able to cross a threshold and enter into your own world.”
I think the power of surfing for me, is that the wave reveals or mirrors what it is that's most alive in me, all of it. Any emotional baggage; the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. It can leave me feeling quite exposed or raw. Even unsettled, and at times it can be really uncomfortable. But that’s the magic of it all. The magic of water, it’s such a powerful place to meet yourself, again and again. It gives you permission to feel exactly what you’re feeling. That’s what it means to find strength in vulnerability.
I realised with my surfing that I was sometimes leaving parts of myself behind that I felt didn't fit. It was a story I told myself, that there was this role I was expected to play; be fierce, be fearless, be brave, take it on the head as hard as the guys. In those moments I could never find any flow. I realized it was because I had left part of myself behind and hadn't showed up with all of who I am.
Surfing has become my place of encounter, where I really get to encounter myself.
This is a powerful thing. For women, especially, there is a lot of body shame and there’s a lot of fear around expressing things with the body and in the body. This is heightened during the pandemic, when how we are allowed to move, be, interact, touch is being increasingly controlled and restricted.
Going into the water and entering and inhabiting our bodies fully, is about being able to cross a threshold and enter into your own world. And sometimes being able to leave the land-life behind for even a moment. It’s a place where we can feel held by the water, as the sea swimmers in last issue’s column shared with us.
One of the most powerful things that anyone has shared with me was when I asked a woman in Iran, a student of sports science and mother to a young up-and-coming female surfer, what the sea means to her. She told me that, “the sea is without judgment. It may be vicious, it may be calm, but it's always honest about how it is.” The ocean gives us permission to feel and be all of who we are.