Learning to Surf the Waves of Our Mind
In Acharya Shunya’s Vedic Spiritual Studies Program, we learned about how our subjective experiences of the material world (Jagat) is called samsāra in Sanskrit. Samsāra is composed of our perceptions, ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and patterns based in Ajnānam (ignorance of Supreme Reality). The Vedic Rishis (sages) have compared Samsāra to an ocean. Our ignorance can, indeed, be as deep as the ocean.
We were recently assigned to write an essay contemplating on the nature of the ocean of samsāra as part of our recent completion of the first chapter of The Bhagavad Gita (which we are studying as part of the Vedic Spiritual Studies Program). At the same time, I happened to go on a family vacation to visit Hawaii, where I felt inspired to experience the physical ocean as a way to attempt to more deeply understand its usage as a spiritual metaphor for the ocean of our ignorance.
On this trip, I therefore took every opportunity that arose to experience the ocean in as many different ways as possible. We took whale watching tours in boats. We snorkeled. We went on a moonlight kayaking adventure. We did paddle boarding. And then one day, we took our very first surfing lesson.
The surfing lesson taught me many experiential lessons, bringing to life Acharya Shunya’s Vedic spiritual teachings in unforgettable ways. The experience of surfing was, in so many ways, like the experience of applying the knowledge we learn to our lives. Both are much harder to do than other people can make it seem! And yet, when we are able to do both successfully, the joy we feel is truly unparalleled.
We learn how, in the Vedic tradition, there is a three-pronged learning process for assimilating spiritual knowledge. The first is called Shravanam, which means deeply listening to the words of the teacher who has special knowledge of codified spiritual texts (called Shāstra). The second step is Mananam, or contemplation. After we contemplate on what we have heard in a systematic manner from the Āchārya (spiritual teacher), we then proceed to Nididhyāsanam, where we integrate and apply the teachings to our daily lives, and meditate upon it as we do so.
Our initial surfing lesson on the shore was like the process of Shravanam. We sat with our surfing instructor to listen to him, and followed along with what he taught in terms of surfing exercises. We felt comfortable with our surfboards. We felt like we understood how they work, just as Self-Knowledge seems easy to comprehend while we’re in the classroom. Then we contemplated on what we had learned as we practiced the exercises on our own for some time on the safe and stable shores of the beach. We asked questions and had our doubts cleared.
Then, it was time to swim out to the ocean, where we would apply the knowledge we learned on the shores to the waves. The waves of the ocean are like the subjective emotional responses and seemingly uncontrollable thoughts of our mind. When we are in control of our minds and all the wavering thoughts, which otherwise can be directed towards harming ourselves and/or others, we are ready to surf the waves of our minds. The surfboard symbolizes the knowledge of Self. And the process of surfing is similar to the process of applying and trusting in the teachings of Vedānta, which ultimately take us beyond our mind, to an experience of our true Self.
“Oh, they just make it look so easy!” It’s normal to react like this when observing other surfers gracefully riding the waves. It looks like everyone else has it all together except us. We can feel similarly as spiritual students when it seems like other students are progressing faster than us, and are experiencing more clarity, inner peace, and grace in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs.
We, on the other hand, struggle to keep our heads above water. Though we have the surfboard of Self-Knowledge, we don’t really know how to use it yet! Despite having a surfboard, every time we may try to apply a teaching to our lives (to surf a wave), it feels like we get swept up by the repetitive movements of the waves of our habituated mental patterns (called samskāras). Even getting back to the part of the ocean where our teacher is and where we can begin surfing is challenging. On top of that, our knees keep hitting the coral reefs beneath the surface of the ocean. Now our knees are bleeding. It all feels so overwhelming. We may even want to quit at times, but then quitting the battle is not an option, as that would mean drowning in samsāra.
So we persist, using the surfboard of Self-Knowledge to push ourselves up each time we encounter a wave as we paddle our way and make it back to the community of fellow surfers poised to ride the waves. This is similar to returning again and again to our community of fellow spiritual seekers. Here, we find out that we are not the only ones whose knees are bleeding. Everyone, in fact, gets scraped up by the coral reefs of samsāra. We just don’t know it. It’s all happening at a deeper level, beyond where our physical eyes can easily see.
We feel less discouraged by falling down and getting scraped by the reefs. We learn that these reef scrapes are, in fact, such an integral part of the experience of surfing that native Hawaiians call them “Hawaiian tattoos!” After getting beaten up by the intensity of the waves of our own self-berating and other-berating thoughts, the waves calm down as we get closer to the teacher, who presents a brand new perspective.
“You can actually befriend these same waves by going with the flow, listening and standing the way you were taught when you’re told,” the surfing teacher gently reminds and encourages us.
There is another way!
The waves will come. As long as we have our minds, thoughts and emotions are bound to arise in them. These emotions, we learn, arise even in the mind of the master. Whereas we, without the special knowledge of surfing acquired from the surfing teacher, tend to get swept, overturned and submerged by the waves of the mind, the master gracefully rides these same waves of emotions.
The master started out like we do, by struggling. In seeing the teacher’s example, as well as that of fellow surfers applying the teachings well, we, too, can start to pick ourselves back up, no matter how many times we may have fallen into the ocean of samsāra, swallowed its salt water, and gasped to breathe. We re-view, re-listen, and re-learn. What may have initially seemed so easy in the classroom is not easy after all, so we pay extra attention. We ask even better questions this time. And listen and learn as if we never have done so before.
Having rested our muscles in the process of re-assimilating understanding of how to apply our boards to actually surf, we start to feel ready to try again.
Then, fear takes over. We remember how painful it was to fail at surfing the last time we tried applying the knowledge. It’s easy for the fear to cause us to freeze and not want to even bother trying again. But then try we must, as our knees are bleeding, and the only way to really heal them is by taking our surfboard to reach the shore by surfing. This is similar to how the only way to really heal our emotional wounds is ultimately by riding the surfboard of Self-Knowledge to the shore of liberation from samsāra (moksha).
We muster up our willpower and courage. We pray. And then, no matter how much fear we may be experiencing inside, the memory of what the Āchārya has said awakens in our being. Faith takes over. “Your existence is not limited to these small waves. You are actually one with the whole ocean.”
With the conviction of these new spiritual thoughts, we embark out again. This time, when the teacher tells us to stand, we do so without a second thought. The waves come. We are still standing. We have mastered the waves this time. In the process of gaining greater mastery of the mind, we experience a oneness between the surfer, the surfboard and the ocean they meet in. These moments are sacred. They are, in fact, moksha moments. We gain a glimpse of our true Self, which is one with the whole ocean. This glimpse of Ultimate Reality is so inspiring that we wish to experience it again and again.
The more we practice gaining mastery of our minds with the spiritual surfboards of Self-Knowledge that we receive and learn to apply from our spiritual teacher, the better we become at riding the waves of our minds. We start staying connected more and more with our true Self in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs.
We surrender more.
And begin to gain a greater appreciation and respect for our internal and external challenges. As without the waves of samsāra, we would never get to learn to surf, or experience the true courage, power and strength of our own soul. The waves are our opportunities to experience ourselves as something beyond each passing wave, to come closer and closer to knowing the profound freedom and abiding joy (Ānanda) that is our true, infinite ocean Self.
The author Ananta Ripa Ajmera is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as Director of Program Development at Vedika Global. She is author of "The Ayurveda Way," a collection of 108 practices for body, mind and soul that she learned from Acharya Shunya.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.