Struggling is a constant in life, but letting it get to you is not a certainty. You have the strength within you to overcome the sense of drowning and learn to ride the waves of your life.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. – Swami Muktanada

How many times have you felt battered by the steady waves of everyday life? You may feel unable to navigate the tides of continual challenges that continue to wash over you. Often, we find ourselves struggling in that metaphorical sea– strong emotions, urges, unexpected events, illnesses, and difficult relationships – ebbing and flowing like the ocean’s waves.  And just like a surfer paddling out to sea, we try to navigate these waves skillfully and with purpose, yet at times the best we can do is simply try to keep our heads above water.

In our minds, we expect to be expert navigators right from the beginning.  What many of us fail to realize is that it takes years of practice to build the skills needed to manage our emotions and the external events that life will inevitably throw at us. As a mindfulness-based psychotherapist trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) I wholeheartedly embrace the quote above, even if it sometimes seems impossible to achieve.

Just as a surf instructor would not send a beginner out into a 10-foot swell, I would also not expect a novice mindfulness student to stay centered in the midst of an emotional storm of intense urges. Even the most expert teachers lose their balance and get torn up by the coral reef of real. There is real risk involved in surfing the waves of emotion, including the significant risk of feeling pain and discomfort. No one pops up on a monster wave, staying upright and focused, without significant training. And sadly, this is where the metaphor ends. We can opt out of the ocean if surfing doesn’t appeal to us, but we cannot opt out of our emotions without serious consequences. 

Do you want to learn how to surf the emotional waves of life? If yes, start small and experiment with the following WAVE:

Welcome: Welcome feelings, urges, and reactions; allow yourself to open to these sensations, thoughts, and urges without acting.

Attend: By giving full attention to this experience moment to moment, you are not reliving the past or fortune telling the future. Stay present with the full experience by naming and describing what is happening inside the body and mind.

Validate: Identify the truth in your experience (not the absolute truth!) by understanding the thoughts, beliefs, and physiological prompts that resulted in the emotion arising. “No wonder I feel urges in response to seeing a person (or place or thing) that triggers intense emotional memories.”

Exhale: Let go of the energy created by the emotion, or any resistance of feeling the emotion. Allow the body to soften and settle with exactly what is happening in the present moment. Apply soothing touch or kindness toward yourself as a way to restore the body after strong emotional waves. Turn to distress tolerance coping skills for more ideas on how to self sooth in healthy ways.

To become a skillful surfer of emotions, repeat the WAVE over and over. With practice, you will grow stronger and more skillful, enjoying some of the grace and freedom that comes from surfing the big waves.

WARNING: START SMALL. If you find that you are struggling, seek out an instructor (therapist, mindfulness teacher, sponsor, or loved one) to help you conquer the monster waves.  Expect to wipe out, but also be sure to pop back up.

Struggling is a constant in life, but letting it get to you is not a certainty. You have the strength within you to overcome the sense of drowning and learn to ride the waves of your life.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. – Swami Muktanada How many times have you felt battered by the steady waves of everyday life? You may feel unable to navigate the tides of continual challenges that continue to wash over you. Often, we find ourselves struggling in that metaphorical sea– strong emotions, urges, unexpected events, illnesses, and difficult relationships – ebbing and flowing like the ocean’s waves.  And just like a surfer paddling out to sea, we try to navigate these waves skillfully and with purpose, yet at times the best we can do is simply try to keep our heads above water.

In our minds, we expect to be expert navigators right from the beginning.  What many of us fail to realize is that it takes years of practice to build the skills needed to manage our emotions and the external events that life will inevitably throw at us. As a mindfulness-based psychotherapist trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) I wholeheartedly embrace the quote above, even if it sometimes seems impossible to achieve.

Just as a surf instructor would not send a beginner out into a 10-foot swell, I would also not expect a novice mindfulness student to stay centered in the midst of an emotional storm of intense urges. Even the most expert teachers lose their balance and get torn up by the coral reef of real. There is real risk involved in surfing the waves of emotion, including the significant risk of feeling pain and discomfort. No one pops up on a monster wave, staying upright and focused, without significant training. And sadly, this is where the metaphor ends. We can opt out of the ocean if surfing doesn’t appeal to us, but we cannot opt out of our emotions without serious consequences. 

Do you want to learn how to surf the emotional waves of life? If yes, start small and experiment with the following WAVE:

Welcome: Welcome feelings, urges, and reactions; allow yourself to open to these sensations, thoughts, and urges without acting.

Attend: By giving full attention to this experience moment to moment, you are not reliving the past or fortune telling the future. Stay present with the full experience by naming and describing what is happening inside the body and mind.

Validate: Identify the truth in your experience (not the absolute truth!) by understanding the thoughts, beliefs, and physiological prompts that resulted in the emotion arising. “No wonder I feel urges in response to seeing a person (or place or thing) that triggers intense emotional memories.”

Exhale: Let go of the energy created by the emotion, or any resistance of feeling the emotion. Allow the body to soften and settle with exactly what is happening in the present moment. Apply soothing touch or kindness toward yourself as a way to restore the body after strong emotional waves. Turn to distress tolerance coping skills for more ideas on how to self sooth in healthy ways.

To become a skillful surfer of emotions, repeat the WAVE over and over. With practice, you will grow stronger and more skillful, enjoying some of the grace and freedom that comes from surfing the big waves.

WARNING: START SMALL. If you find that you are struggling, seek out an instructor (therapist, mindfulness teacher, sponsor, or loved one) to help you conquer the monster waves.  Expect to wipe out, but also be sure to pop back up.

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