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Lessons from the Ocean: Learning to Let Go

“I’m just here for the scenery!” I shouted to my husband. It was 5:30 am and I was sitting on my surfboard just beyond the breakers at sunrise. He was far enough away from me that I had to yell, because he was very busy scouting for good waves - and he was actually catching them. Me, I was just proud of myself for getting up so damn early, into the water, and swimming out past the crashing waves that had been a barrier for me just weeks before. And the scenery was breathtaking at that hour. Lots of clouds in the sky because the rainy season had started earlier than usual, and the light in the sky and the color of the water was pure magic. But the truth was I also really wanted to catch a wave. Like actually surf. For most of our time in Costa Rica (six weeks total) I had been mainly surfing the breakers, a few smaller unbroken waves when I got lucky, and had been pushed into a few ‘bigger’ waves during surf lessons. For the first three weeks in fact, I hadn’t even tried to venture out past the breakers. I was too scared. So I played it safe and small.

There had been several moments over the last week there where I was utterly frustrated with myself and my lack of success in the waves. My 13 year-old was catching waves, popping up quickly, and I was so excited for her. But I was also envious! And of course Joe, my 6’2” athletic husband, surfs well. The comparison game in my head was on fire. My head knew it was so stupid to compare or be envious or even frustrated, but my emotions wouldn’t listen. I just wanted the fun (and success!) they were having!!

Joe had mentioned at one point this thing that a famous YouTube surfer guy had said that really rang true: when you surf, you have to be in a flow. As in, you can’t go out there, be all stiff and scared, comparing yourself to others, and expect to 1) catch waves 2) have fun 3) be present in the moment. It won’t work.

And of course the same is SO true for painting. You cannot force your way into a good painting. You can’t start from a place of comparing yourself to others, or feeling “less than” or “not good enough”. You cannot be in your head about making something that you like or that others will like. You can’t start out thinking “I have to make a beautiful painting.” You have to be in some state or form of flow.

I’m still working on how to get into this state of “flow” more consistently in my painting practice. But I will tell you that my best work has happened when I care a lot less about the end result and truly enjoy the process of painting. The one thing I know for sure is this: flow can only happen when you let go. Let go of all the striving and effort, let go of comparing yourself to others or caring what others think.

This is not easy work. This type of letting go is a life-long process - for me at least! Some of the ways I battle over-thinking and comparison traps is through journaling, prayer, meditation, and being vulnerably honest with people about the inner dialogue that plagues me at times. When we bring our hard stuff into the light, it diminishes its power over us.

Back to the ocean: that morning I was finally able to let go. I was genuinely enjoying the beauty of the moment. And then a smaller wave I thought I could catch came along. I paddled. I caught it. I stood up on the board. I rode it all the way in. It was pure magic.

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