Thoughts from the deep blue :: Clare Watson
The wave rising in front of you has travelled across the ocean, building momentum over thousands of kilometres and gathering energy, to find you, waiting. For this wave to appear, many factors have aligned: the daybreak, the swell, the tide, the wind. In a moment it could pass you by, the energy dissipating into sound and friction against the sand – unless you paddle into position and jump to your feet, harnessing the flow that runs beneath you. Last year my fiancé Dean and I set off on a year-long surfing trip. We called a time-out on our long distance relationship and cashed in our frequent flyer points to get back to our seaside roots, having grown up on the NSW South Coast together. On our travels we surfed in some incredible places, from well-known hot spots in Indonesia to remote stretches of the Pacific coast of Mexico. We had plenty of grovel sessions in sloppy waves too. Every day we felt better for it.
But in the last few years I’ve also experienced hiccups in my mental health, little hurdles where I don’t feel as spirited as my younger self. Mostly, it’s a feeling of being unable to tame racing thoughts, whether that be the press of anxiety or because of a disruption to my sleep patterns. It might last just a day or spill over into weeks.
As for my brother, he lives with bipolar. His experience has been a chief influence on my understanding of mental health; I like to think that our brains just function on different wavelengths. I admire the resilience he has shown to navigate the high and lows of what can be a destabilising condition – and have since taken note of the behaviour of my own brain.
When I’m feeling scattered, restless or uneasy, I fall into the ocean for solace. The constant presence of the sea is dependable and in the ocean I find a natural rhythm that calms my mind.
Science has shown that our brain waves can – and will – align with external rhythms: the tempo of a song, the beat of worn joggers on pavement, the sound of waves crashing on the shore. When our brains are stimulated by these patterns, our neurons begin to fire in sync with what they hear, which can have a calming effect.
The ocean certainly resets my mood; it also gives me my bearings. Born from a salty childhood, the beach to the east, the ocean has always been a steady guide: a reminder to lead a healthy lifestyle and to take care of myself; a place to catch up with close friends or talk through difficult problems.
When you need a breather, the ocean offers a physical separation from the land too. Go, leave your troubles on the sand and dive in the sea. To echo the Australian author Tim Winton, the ocean allows you to truant for a while from terrestrial problems. It’s a retreat, an escape, where you can filter through messy thoughts in an open space – or not think about anything at all.
Surfing, for me, is a moving meditation that helps clear my head. Like yoga and long-distance running, surfing brings my concentration to the immediate task at hand, no further than the wave in front of me – particularly when on guard in big swell. You can’t help but focus on pressing sensations like the adrenaline flooding your veins, the (lack of) air in your lungs or the spray from an offshore wind raining chills down your back.
And yet, while the sea will quiet my mind, it can also be provocative beast. The ocean has its own moods: murky grey when a storm is brewing and glass-bottle green when it’s calm. Sometimes the ocean matches your state of mind; other days you’re fighting against it. I find that getting thumped wave after wave can draw out disproportionate frustrations, perhaps a shadow of other yet-to-be-acknowledged feelings, but there are times too when I enjoy getting knocked around in the white water. I’m smiling amongst the bubbles, knowing that I’ll surface on the other side.
Dean and I are back in Australia now, home long enough to lose our tans and sun-bleached hair. Maybe we’ll pick up our Endless Summer dream again soon, but regardless I know we won’t stray from the ocean. We’re lucky to live beside the sea, in sync with its tides, where a dose of salt water therapy is never too far away.
Mahalo Clare Watson for sharing such an inspirational story! If you are passionate about mental health and the ocean and would like to share your story we would love to hear from you. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.