Surfing is, in essence, being in a relationship with the sea. Before you learn to surf, you must learn to be close to the water.
A learner soon finds that the ocean is neither good nor bad. It is indifferent. And it is always shifting. Waves are powerful forces, and each has its own personality, its own feel, shape, and intensity. This is what makes the ocean so challenging to learn in and what makes it such an endlessly wonderful place to play.
The best thing one can do when first learning to surf is to not surf. Instead, learn how you move in the ocean, how the ocean moves around you, and what waves feel like. Begin to create a sense of your ability to be in the ocean. This is the intuitive foundation you will need if you’re going to learn the necessary skills.
It seems to me that learning happens just at the edge of the known, at the outer reach of comfort, but still in the presence of safety. Where the mind feels secure it is free to gather information, create new connections, and forge new associations. In a state of fear, our minds are preoccupied. Build that learning edge, delicate at first, then solidify it with experience.
Leave the board on the beach. Sit in the sand and watch. Watch with no particular focus. See what patterns your mind collects. How do the waves move as they break? Where are they breaking? Is there a current? Sit and watch and let intuition do its magic. Even to this day, after a lifetime of surfing, the first thing I do when I get to a new spot I have not surfed before is to slow down and look. Ten minutes of observation will save you hours of struggle.
Now get in the water — still without your board. Learn how you feel in it. You will notice that those surfing well are those most attuned to the ocean and the waves they are riding. See if you can feel a sense of being in relation to the ocean.
Swim out and feel the waves. Do you feel how they roll over you as you swim through them? Where the turbulence and pressure are? Do you feel their power and energy as they stand and crash? What about the current pulling at your legs deeper down? How do you feel here? When a wave passes over you, are you calm and at ease, or desperate for that next gasp of air?
Let your body tune in to the movement of this ever-changing medium. Let these movements become a part of your experience. Feel your mind shift out of survival mode and into a place where it is ready to learn how to play.
The field you are playing on is fluid. The ocean is never still, each wave is different, and every aspect of it is changing. When we learn to ski, the mountain does not move. When we learn to drive, the road is a fixed and stable thing. When we learn to surf, there is not a single element in the entire equation that is not in movement. Learn to be fluid with it.
This same quality that makes surfing hard to learn is what keeps it forever new no matter how much you do it.
The surfboard itself is just a tool that allows you to relate to the ocean. That relationship is the primary thing, even though the ocean does not recognize you. The ocean will never love you back, but there will be times you swear you feel it does.