Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Surfing at Swami’s

January 20, 2016


The other weekend when I was in San Diego I was very lucky to have a chance to go surfing. Luke Wientzen, who is helping to coordinate the fledgling meditation activities of this sangha in southern California, is a skilled and experienced surfer, and kindly took me to a famous break, Swami’s, in Cardiff by the Sea, about half a mile from Mandiram, the yoga studio where we were holding our sits. Swami’s break got its name from Yogananda’s beautiful hermitage perched on the cliffs above.

After the exhausting paddle out, I was planning to take a much-needed breather, before even thinking about trying to surf. But right then, there was a perfect wave. Luke turned to go, and I thought, why not, and followed him. Without any clear idea of what I was doing, without any thought at all, I found myself up on the board and riding the wave to the right – a great thrill.

Over the decades I have occasionally been trying to learn to surf, but the opportunities are few and far between. Years ago when we lived in the UK we used to go to Scotland each summer, to a little island where there was a surf beach, but it was small waves and the regularity required to get any proficiency was never there. So the ride was a surprise. I half wondered if Yogananda hadn’t kindly given a helping hand.

Or maybe not. After that first wave, I took forever trying to paddle out again, getting swamped by wall after crashing wall of white water. It wasn’t even a medium-sized day, it was a small day, but it was still overwhelming. I spent the rest of the session struggling to catch anything.

Surfing is very complex. If we think about it, it’s basically too complex to make it work deliberately. Only our bodies, our muscle-memory, our unconscious reflexes, can make the multiple small frequent adjustments that allow a surfer to ride a wave.

The thinking mind only gets in the way. That’s what happened to me the rest of that session: the first wave was such a surprise that I didn’t think at all. Thereafter I was trying to work out how to repeat what I’d done, and therefore couldn’t.

This probably relates to our practice in many ways. But one way is that it’s relevant to sesshins, or intensive meditation retreats. Over time, over years of going regularly to retreats, we stop trying to think, plan, assess and manipulate our way through them. Instead, we learn to let go, to let each moment be what it is, and to ride the retreat like a wave. Then they can become intensely and deeply enjoyable (although not necessarily consistently). Our bodies and our psyches naturally start to surrender by themselves, and we learn to ride the wave of the retreat.

It takes time, it takes practice, but it happens. And over time, we then slowly learn to ride the greater sesshin, or retreat, or practice-ground, that is our life itself, until it’s clear that life is nothing but a retreat, nothing but practice, and all that’s left to do is to practice refraining from harm, doing good, and staying as aware as we can.

* * *

At a certain point in my own practice and training I remember feeling like the world was one great chess board, or board game, in which certain places, occasions, encounters were upholding reality, they saw it, knew it, acknowledged it, and the rest of the board was lost in clouded, murky views that hadn’t been dispelled. The game was to recognize the beacons of reality, and not get lost in the misconceptions everywhere else. The game was called Life.

For a while it was helpful to experience things this way.

* * *

Sometimes we may feel an urge to go and live in a residential practice community, or in a hermitage: to remove ourselves from the “world.” But this lay practice we follow does indeed have its integrity too: meaning it can be quite a thorough path of growth. That happens when we realize simply that we are never out of the place of practice, nor apart from the community of practice. This life, this city, this country, this moment, this geopolitical situation – they are the place of practice.

As Yoka Daishi once said, unless we find peace in a busy city street, we won’t find it in a mountain hut.

Image: Surfer, CC0 Public Domain, from

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