We’d bike in the dark to the break, our surfboards throwing us off balance, and then paddle out into the cold water. It was so black we could barely see the waves. We would float out there as the moon sank behind the palms–alone except maybe for tiger sharks submerged under the silvery waves until a huge orange sun rose right out of the sea. Dolphins swam by, coming just inches from our boards. There was really nothing better in the world.


In Zen practice, one is often taught not to try to do anything, to surrender, to just be with what is happening moment to moment, to let the present wash over you. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 because the retreats in which one is meant to intensively practice this nondoing are very difficult. It’s hard to stay still for hours at a time. Harder still to resist the urge to run out the door.


The language of “doing nondoing” comes largely out of Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy that seems to be modeled almost completely off of observations of the natural elements, particularly the movement of water. “Softness triumphs over hardness,” wrote Lao -Tzu, the greatest of Taoist sages. “What is more malleable is always superior over that which is immovable. This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them, of mastery through adaptation.”

It was also the principal teaching of dawn patrol.


On the usual crowded days at Pohoiki, I was too self-conscious to actualize these principles. I tried too hard, powering through my turns until I fell, or getting overly excited in crucial situations, hardening instead of relaxing and applying my weight. I wanted so badly to perform well that I’d thrash around on the wave instead of intuitively reacting to its movements.

But on dawn patrol with only the sun, Rom, and an occasional pod of dolphins around, I could finally let go a little. And it was surprising what relaxing could do. The steep sections that previously seemed impassable were suddenly passed. It happened just by feeling where the wave was going, and keeping my eye on where I wanted to be.

The modern Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru described mind and body in Zen like this:

The body moves naturally, automatically, unconsciously, without any personal intervention or awareness. But if we begin to use our faculty of reasoning, our actions become slow and hesitant.

Or, as the sixteenth-century master Takuan Soho advised a young samurai,

Try not to localize the mind anywhere, but let it fill up the whole body, let it flow throughout the totality of your being. When this happens you use the hands where they are needed, you use the legs and eyes where they are needed, and no time or energy will go to waste.

This is what surfing was starting to teach me. I still botched plenty of good waves. But it felt like a new type of surfing was starting to be accessible.

“Mate, I think you’re beginning to get this.”

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