Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What a Good Swell Does to the Mind

Sometimes I wonder if surfing is all that good for me. When this swell began, almost a week ago, I can remember that while I was sitting in the lineup I was busy thinking about my assignments for school, considering various ways of writing code for my job, and so on. This was a familiar and typical mental state: Active and discursive, producing copious amounts of information, working obsessively at certain problems; perhaps not arriving at a solution, but certainly giving me the impression that I was interested in, and engaged with, my work and my studies.

Over the course of the weekend the weather and the waves improved. I can remember that at a certain point, somewhere around the third day, I began to stop thinking. It was as if the waves had washed away the top layer of my consciousness and had left behind only a few inane preoccupations that rattled around, almost randomly, in my brain. My mind was now, in a feeble, disjointed way, pondering the “value” of surfing. As I duck-dived the oncoming sets (for some reason this only happened when I was paddling back out) I would say to myself, “When you surf nothing accrues to you, personally. Therefore it has no value.” The sentence and the preoccupation with the value of surfing recurred every time I duck-dived a wave, but my brain was incapable of pursuing that thought any further. Once I made it outside my mind became focused on categorizing the size, shape, and movement of the incoming swells and was almost completely quiet. Now and then parts of a Matisyahu song would become audible in my head, but that was all.

By my fourth and fifth days surfing, my brain was almost completely shut down. As I paddled out I was aware only of a sensation of extreme pleasure and identification with every aspect of the water. I did not feel my wetsuit any more; it did not constrict my movement. My body balanced efficiently and firmly on the board. I did not rush or strain. Once I made it outside, I sat quietly in the lineup, watching the pelicans, the wind, and the waves. I was aware of my breathing and of the other surfers around me but there was no reflection, no attempt at categorization, no thoughts of my life on land, no problems to solve. I can only discuss this in the past tense because at the time I wasn’t reflective, so of course what I’m saying cannot be completely accurate. I’ll never be able to describe exactly what it was like out there, but writing about it now, with most of my mental processes re-activated, it’s almost disturbing.

Occasionally, when I was padding back out after riding a wave, the sentence that I’d formed a few days before went through my mind – “Nothing accrues to you personally from surfing” – but it came and went sporadically and at long intervals. At night my dreams centered on the sensation of surfing. I dreamed that I could surf without a board. I also dreamed that I was surfing a hill – that the earth had literally assumed a wavelike form and was propelling me down its face. I was enjoying myself immensely but there was no verbalization – I communicated to the other figures in my dreams by impulse and feeling.

As my life in the water became easier and more rewarding, my life on land became increasingly confusing and difficult. I never made a decision to devalue my other pursuits, such as work and school, but I found myself unable to engage with these things. They required so much thought…my success at them was somehow bound up with the resurrection of that sleeping layer of consciousness which I now found to be annoying, repetitive and useless. It seemed to me that almost all of my mental processes were ritualistic and functioned to provide distance between my emotional self and the outer world, a distance which I felt I no longer needed. I was relating to the world from a place of perfect security that was bound up somehow in my experiences with the waves and with the idea of the ocean as some vast being which cared for me personally.

This is a nice state of mind to visit, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to live there. People keep sending me bills in the mail which they expect me to pay, and all that ocean identification stuff does not seem to have any effect on the bills. The bills march on. The solution to the bill problem is a “land” thing, and, in my case, involves a job, which requires productivity.

Yesterday I really needed to get some things done at work. I sat at the computer, looking at the lines of code which I’d once written, trying to decipher them. There didn’t seem to be any underlying logic here. It was all gobbledygook; I didn’t know where to begin. I needed to take a set of information from some parsing routines which I’d written and output this information as a properties file. I didn’t see how in the world I’d ever do it. I stared at the screen, sighed, and lay down on the floor. I got up. I paced. I had a cup of coffee. I called a co-worker and listened to her gossip. I played around with the idea of having a panic attack. I checked the surf report and saw that there were still waves. I almost talked myself into going surfing again as a way of “finally getting it out of my system” so I could concentrate. I ate an early lunch, then I ate another lunch right after the first. I called some co-workers. I looked at pictures of girls in bathing suits. I lay back down on the floor. This went on until almost three o’clock in the afternoon. My mind simply would not work on this problem! It no longer saw the point, and refused to engage. Through an effort of will I forced myself to begin writing code, even though I had no idea how it would work out. After several minutes of hacking around, I found a problem to solve, and then another. By six o’clock I was done. I’d lost track of time, I’d gotten into the groove, and I was done. I was very grateful and not worried at all. As I went downstairs to get something to eat, I could hear the chatter in my mind, as if someone had switched a radio back on. My boss and I were having a conversation about some enterprise information management software. Someone in my head was offering a commentary on the Australian Open, more specifically on Martina Hingis’ comeback. I listened indulgently, and with interest. I’d actually rather missed these voices. I was comforted by the idea that the buoys were falling and that there would be no reason for me to go surfing tomorrow.

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