How surfing helped a local therapist improve his practice
As a lifelong surfer who is also in private practice as a therapist here in Santa Cruz, I am often struck by the parallels between surfing and therapy. When I am surfing, I view waves as opportunities rolling through the sea, ever-changing as they interact with the bottom of the ocean. In order to surf them, you have to be aware of where they are coming from and know how to put yourself in the best place to catch them. In surfing, this place is called the peak—the spot where the waves form up the most and are easiest to catch. Before you can even get to the peak, though, you have to paddle out through the already breaking waves, or white water.
Learning to read the white water comes from experience. If you are a beginning surfer, you might try to paddle out directly through many layers of white water, which can be exhausting and futile. Usually, if you try to paddle straight to the peak, white water just pushes you back, but as you become a more experienced surfer, you learn that you have to paddle around the breaking waves. Even if that path is a longer distance, it takes much less effort. You have to acknowledge the power of the whitewater and respect it.
Humans, of course, are also incredibly complex and dynamic, continually altering how they act according to who is around them. And as a therapist, it is rare that you can just jump in and work on an issue with a client. Before you start, you have to be aware of people’s lines of defense. It is usually not a great idea to just barrel through a person’s many layers of protection, since that will often cause their defenses to just get stronger. Instead, you have to honor their defenses, acknowledge them and not directly challenge them, but learn to work with them.
When I was starting out as a therapist and I learned that one of my clients was drinking more than he wanted to, my first thought was, “Well … stop drinking.” But I knew that that approach would not be very helpful. Even though it took longer, it was much more effective to first explore the attraction of drinking and to collaboratively think about what healthier activities could satisfy a similar desire and eventually replace drinking.
Back in the ocean, once you are past the white water, if you want to catch a wave you have to figure out where to be to do that. There are no landmarks in the ocean. The only information you have are the waves that are rolling through. So it is important to watch those waves closely, even the ones that don’t break. These will give you the information about where to be in order to catch a good wave when it comes. In particular, learning to spot where the smaller waves start to form up will give you information about where the bigger waves are going to break.
In the same vein, I have learned that it is important to be highly attentive to your clients and pay close attention to their smaller emotional reactions. These can often predict larger underlying issues. For example, when I was once working with a father and son in therapy, I noticed that the son had a very strong reaction when the father didn’t really listen to what he was saying. It turned out that the son not being heard by his father—on a much deeper level—was an essential part of what we had to work through together.
In the ocean again, you are now out past the white water and sitting at the peak where the waves form up. The next step is learning when to paddle in order to catch a wave. Timing is critical in surfing. If you paddle too early, you might get ahead of the wave and it will break on top of you. If you paddle too late, the wave might not get steep enough to catch, and it will just roll under you and pass you by.
Many of the mistakes that beginning surfers make have to do with timing and positioning. When you are first learning, you paddle for a lot of waves and only catch a small percentage of them. You waste a considerable amount of energy, but expending this energy while figuring out how to progress is an important step in learning anything. This experiential learning phase is essential; there are many things in surfing that can’t be taught. It is a very subjective and qualitative art form. There is no quantitative way to describe what needs to be done to catch a wave; you can’t say that you have to start paddling for the wave when it is exactly 10 feet away from you and has a 37 degree angle. Because the ocean is an incredibly dynamic environment, there are innumerable variables involved, making every wave and every situation different. That is why this inefficient trial and error period is important in learning how to surf. You have to get out there and experience it in order to learn it.
It becomes very satisfying when you start to hone your skills. You learn that if you paddle hard at the right time, and your positioning is good, you can catch the wave with just a couple of strokes. Experienced surfers make this look extremely easy, or even effortless. Once you are more practiced and able to catch waves more reliably, you also begin to enjoy the moments of just quietly floating on the surface of the water, since you know that you are likely to actually ride more of the waves you paddle for. These moments are an important time to savor and contemplate the last wave and rejuvenate for the next one.
Timing and pacing is incredibly important when working therapeutically as well. As a beginning therapist, I was afraid of silence in the room. I would quickly try to fill it with whatever words I could think of, even if filling the airspace was not the best thing to do at the time. I was essentially, frantically paddling for any wave that looked even remotely catchable and kicking out of waves too early when there was more ride to be had. As I matured as a therapist, I became much more comfortable with silence. I realized that it can be a very important time where clients are digesting something or configuring their thoughts into words. I remember when I was working with a client and she came to the realization that she had been playing a parental role with her younger siblings for most of her life. At first she was forced into that role because there was an emotional vacuum in her family, since neither of her parents really knew how to be parents. Now that she and her siblings are adults, she was coming to the awareness in therapy that she had the choice to keep playing that parental role or free herself to start doing something different. I gave her plenty of quiet space to let this realization sink in.
At this point in the surfer’s story, you have paddled out, you lined up where you are supposed to be, you paddled at the right time in the right place and you caught the wave. Now you are actually riding the wave. You become instantly sucked into the present moment in order to flow with your surroundings. The wave is a dynamic force and you have to make split-second decisions and micro-adjustments to stay attuned to it. As the wall of water gets steeper, you shift your body to put more weight on your back foot to adjust how the board is planing on the water. You have to be incredibly flexible and open to possibility when you are riding a wave. When I first catch a wave, I have an idea of what that wave might do, but the reality is I can’t entirely predict that. So when I am riding that wave, I am living fully, using my intuition and interacting with what is happening in the moment.
This correlates closely to my work as a therapist, when it is critically important to be flexible during sessions with my clients, as well as in my overall approach to working with them. It is a frequent occurrence in therapy to enter a session with your own agenda and have a clear idea of what you might want to accomplish, but you have to be willing to let that go if the situation calls for something different, and instead do what seems most appropriate in the moment. There is a surrender of control and a necessary letting go of your expectations and planning for the perfect situation, because in the end you don’t have much control of what will happen when you are working within another person’s emotional realm. This focus on flexibility and patience in both surfing and therapy has to do with the unpredictability of the ocean and the unpredictability of human beings. Adapting to a person’s needs, which change every moment, and attending to someone’s constantly varying emotional climate requires being mentally and physically present, just as surfing does. Both activities, in essence, encourage you to seize the present moment and make the most of what you have right now, which in actuality, is all we can ever do.
David Schulkin, M.A., MFT, is a local therapist and surfer with a private practice in Santa Cruz. Learn more about him at www.davidschulkin.com. PHOTO: A surfer catches air on the West Side of Santa Cruz. MATT KURVIN