When injury prevents participation in the thing that brought you the most joy, meditation can help
Inactivity for an athlete can mean boredom or even depression. Especially for those sports that come with an adrenaline rush.
Something beautiful happens when your physicality is melded with the power of nature. That moment of meditation that big wave surfer Bianca Valenti called “one million percent focus.” There is no time to think. You must rely on all the training, muscle memory and brain programming that you’ve logged up until that moment in order to survive.
Of course we love the adrenaline high that comes from adventure sports but there is something else, something more primal, even spiritual, that takes place when you find your safety depends on you and you alone. I’ve experienced this at the top of a 20 foot boulder. I needed to make one more move in order to top out the cliff. But bouldering without ropes meant if I missed the hold I risked serious injury or worse. On the other hand, the longer I lingered the more fatigued I became. I was already too fatigued to safely down climb. Something inside of me switched to survival mode. My brain went blank, into a meditative space. I completed the boulder problem unscathed… and somehow… reborn.
The moment the thoughts stop.
Surfers know this feeling at the instant they decide to paddle for a wave that terrifies them. Skiers and snowboarders enter this zone as they plunge themselves into a powder covered bowl or down a shoot. A hiker setting off into the wilderness with only a pack of provisions strapped to her back knows she must depend on her own strength to complete her mission. Even a yogi on her mat knows the feeling of partnering with nature – the strength of her mind meets the strength within her own body to find depth in each pose.
In the meditation zone.
One day I had traveled to a point break south of Puerto Escondido to catch a significant swell. I remember the current being fierce. Remaining in position meant non-stop paddling with 70-80% effort. I didn’t want the biggest waves of the set so that meant sitting a little inside. It also meant that if a big set rolled in and I didn’t get out of the way I would be instantly swept hundreds of yards down the point where I might not be able to get out of the water. My safety and survival depended on 100% vigilance. Every sense was on high alert. I listened for waves breaking outside, I watched the horizon intently. I even tuned in to the movement of the other surfers in my peripheral vision. For whatever period of time I remained in the water that day there were no other thoughts in my brain. The past wasn’t there to haunt me with guilt or regret. The future wasn’t a reality filling my head with worry or anxiety. Allowing my mind to wander away from the present would have resulted in disaster. When I finally exited the water I was shocked to see it had been over two hours. It felt like just a few minutes.
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How long and to what depth can I stay in meditation flow?
To some extent we enter this “flow” state every time we do our sport, no matter the intensity level. You enter into the flow of nature in order to achieve self realization, however fleeting it may be. The question is how much of the force of nature can I take on today before I agree to tap out. And sometimes instead of tapping out when we should, nature forces our submission, through injury or worse.
And wouldn’t it be great if it didn’t take death-defying acts to catapult us into fleeting moments of clarity?
As I write this I have an ice pack under my back. Nature forced a submission on me six months ago and now entering the ring with her means seeing how far I can walk from the house before pain forces me to turn back. Of course I miss the adrenaline rush and the feeling of exerting my strength. But even more, I’m desperate to stop the thoughts that enter my brain at a million miles per hour. Instead, I’m starving for those moments of “one million percent focus” that surfing gave me.
I’m a yoga instructor so meditation comes with the territory. I’ve had a meditation practice for about seven years. But to be honest, I’ve been inconsistent and it has always seemed like a chore to me. Recently, after five months of injury rehab, I re-injured myself and was confined to bed rest for two solid weeks. The pain was excruciating, but the thoughts were worse. What if I never surf or do yoga again? What if I am permanently disabled? Why am I even here? Can I just get a ticket out?
I was suffering from two types of pain- the pain from my injury and the pain from my thoughts.
I was suffering from two types of pain- the pain from my injury and the pain from my thoughts. There was little that could be done to placate one of these sources of pain. The other was completely under my control, and in fact, self-inflicted. So I turned to meditation. Here is what meditation looks like for me right now.
I can’t sit for more than a few minutes so I make myself comfortable laying down. I choose one thing to focus on. Sometimes it is my breath, sometimes a mantra, sometimes the physical sensations in my body. Then, as soon as I notice I’m thinking of anything else, I simply say to myself “thinking” and then I get back to my focal point (breath, mantra, sensations etc).
The thinking is almost immediate. Maybe I need to find a new career? Maybe I need to find a cheaper place to live? What if I have to ask my parents for money? What if my mom was right about me all along!? “THINKING” And I get back to inhaling and exhaling. By doing so I’ve just avoided coming up with a doomsday scenario and effectively decreased my depression and anxiety. I call it “thought arresting”. The thought pops up, I notice it and redirect it.
Daydreaming rather than Dooms-Daying
I’ve even begun imagination meditations. Once I’ve turned the volume down on the negative or non-pleasurable thoughts, I let my imagination run uninhibited. We are all artist in some way, for me, my paint is words and my canvas is blogs. During these imagination sessions, I let my creativity run wild. Like a little kid playing a made-up game, my daydreams become fanatical and silly. It’s totally fun and always sparks my creativity.
Joy is a choice, but it takes work. Meditation is the right tool for the job.
I can’t walk, sit or stand for more than a few minutes. I can’t work, surf or even go out for dinner with friends But I can be at peace, and even find joy. By entering the playing field inside my head I’m able to find the same space I find in big surf or on a rock wall.
I’m not kidding you, it’s so fun and it’s all I want to do! I am addicted to the pleasure that I’m getting from each mediation session. Suddenly 10-15 minutes isn’t nearly enough and I find myself coming out of my meditation and daydream session after over an hour feeling like it’s been no time at all.
We enter the playing field at the level we are able to participate. Being stronger doesn’t necessarily mean having more fun.
I’ve been feeling better these last few days. So today I entered the ocean on a surfboard, just to paddle not to surf. It was thrilling just to be out of bed! When I realized I had forgotten a leash I knew how important it would be not to lose my board. Having to make a strenuous swim would have meant re-injury. I would need to be sure that I didn’t get caught inside on any big sets that could rip the board form my hands. That same feeling of excitement came over me, knowing it was up to me to keep myself safe out there.
I am weak, I’ve lost a significant percentage of my muscle tone. And this is the level at which I am able to enter the game. That could be depressing, and at times it is. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many many people find themselves in much worse predicaments than I am in. Meditation is accessible to all of us. Our minds always have a challenge for us. Whether it is just paddling a surfboard to the lineup or surfing a triple overhead foot wave. Entering that flow state offers a reprieve from our thoughts, a sense of something greater than ourselves and a reason to keep coming back.
How to meditate:
Here are three simple things I’ve learned about meditation:
#1 There is no such thing as a “bad” meditation.
You can’t do it wrong or be bad at it. Some days you have a lot of thoughts and some days not as many. One day is not better than the other.
#5 Try meditation when you would normally kill time with your phone.
I find it helpful to have a dedicated time to meditate in a comfortable place for an extended period of time. In addition, I’ve been trying to do it throughout the day. You can just take a few minutes to do it anywhere. Rather than reaching for my phone, I can practice “though arresting”- at a traffic light, standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for my next appointment to arrive, etc
#3 Get started with guided meditations
There are a ton of great resources. I like Meditation Mini’s podcast. Deepak Chopra and Oprah offer free 21-day meditations you can download. These are great to get you started for those who have never been exposed to meditation practice. I find that the more I practice meditation without the help of a guide the more I enjoy this too. Enjoy the journey, that is all that matters.