You Can't Conquer The Ocean


I think it was my fifth surf therapy session with Groundswell Community Project. I was paired up with a volunteer, a surf sister, Rebecca, who I hadn't met before, so I was introducing myself. I was giving her my elevator pitch, a quick synopsis of why I had joined their summer program. 

"Yeah, so I just learned how to swim a couple of years ago and this," I said, sweeping my hand to indicate the ocean on the horizon, " the next thing to conquer." 

We didn't have much time. Rebecca was listening, but at that particular moment she was mostly looking for the best place to help me get in the ocean as quickly as possible, trying to make sure I got on a wave or two on a particularly choppy day. Which is why I doubt she noticed when my own words stopped me in my tracks.

"Conquer" the ocean. Like it was just another achievement waiting to be checked off. Like it was something almost mechanical, merely requiring strategy, calculations and persistence.

Like it was even remotely possible. 

This sudden awareness of how I was describing the ocean was the seed of only one of the many salt water-soaked lessons that I learned with Groundswell Community Project this summer. I am profoundly and deeply changed after spending 8 weeks with their wonderful volunteers and their incredible force of a founder, Natalie Small. And of course, with Mother Ocean.

Only now, after reflecting on my experience for the past month to try and make sure I accurately articulate how it's changed me, have I felt able to share. 

Lesson #1: Invigorating Is The New Terrifying

I'll be honest: I was drunk when I signed up.

While I've made so much progress in my relationship with the water, it still kind of terrifies me. Which is why, even though I'd seen posters all over town for weeks, even though I really, really wanted to join these women and spend my summer in the waves, I was too scared to sign up for Groundswell's 8-Week Summer Surf Therapy program.

I needed a little liquid courage.

So one night I was winding down with a glass or four of wine and journaling, when the following statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere on the page, in my handwriting:

"The answer is: Spend More Time In the Ocean."

I immediately put my pen down, Googled the name of that program I had seen posted all over OB and emailed them to sign up. And then I fell asleep.

Imagine my surprise when the next day I received a reply informing me that there was still a spot left in the program and if I wanted to come, I should join them the following evening when it kicked off.

That was it: I was going to spend my summer surfing.

The thing about having a standing appointment with the ocean though is that you're committing to going in the water no matter what. So when I showed up for my second session and the ocean was dark grey and there were choppy, frightening waves and Natalie asked us to each go around and describe how the ocean looked to us, to tell her what we saw, I was stunned when one of first women said "Invigorating." Another said, "Fun." Another, "Refreshing."

These were not the words I wanted to use or would ever have thought of using. I wanted to say: Terrifying. Intimidating. Dangerous.

But their perception shifted everything for me and made me want to get in and get started for the day. If they thought it looked invigorating, then maybe I was missing something. Maybe I could borrow their words and see what happened.

That was all it took to take me from regretting signing up for this program altogether to ready to play in the waves. More importantly, it made me think: what if I had shared first? How does the energy I bring to any given situation have the power to influence those around me?

Lesson #2: Keep An Eye on Where You Started

Our sessions followed a loose structure: typically, we'd start the session with a reflective prompt, a moment to go around the circle, share something about ourselves and "give love" to each other to thank each woman for her vulnerability.

We'd then spend some time learning about the ocean and surfing: how to read Surfline, how to make sure you didn't put on a wetsuit backwards and inside out, how to read the ocean, how currents worked, how to shuffle. We'd do a short yoga session, pair off with a volunteer and then get in the waves. After, we'd reflect again as a group.

The little bits of surf instruction definitely stuck with me as much as the deeper life lessons I got out of this program. And, like pretty much everything to do with the ocean, it turns out I could convert them into deeper metaphors for life anyway!

photo credit // @DawnPatrolMedia

Like, for instance, their recommendation to always keep an eye on where you started, or where you came into the ocean. A practical tip meant to help you stay cognizant of how strong the currents are, if they're pulling you too far too fast, if you need to get out of the water and reposition yourself.

But this comes up in life too. After all, this is mindfulness in a nutshell, isn't it? Pay attention to where you are and how far you've come, be honest with yourself about the challenges you are facing in the present moment, and most importantly...  reposition yourself if you need to.

Lesson #3: You Make the World More Beautiful

One of my favorite parts in our weekly sessions together was the opportunity to be grateful for and supportive of the other women and our group mission to have some fun in the ocean.

At least one woman per session would share that it was tough for her to be there that night. It's tough to make time for yourself when you're working hard. It's exhausting to try to exercise and play when you would rather just drown your shitty day in a beer and cheese and Netflix.

As women, we don't often have the opportunity to bring all of that to a place without judgment, without anxiety, where the other women understand and try to support you (without crossing boundaries). Somewhere where you always leave feeling better than when you got there.

That sums up Groundswell nights for me. Those women made the world more beautiful and it felt so good to give and receive that light with them in such a supportive environment.

It also served as a good reminder that I don't need a scheduled Groundswell session to realize that other people are having a shit day or to support them in their quest to have fun. I can bring this positivity to every interaction with my fellow humanoids. We can all choose to make the world a little more beautiful each day.

Lesson #4: Protect What You Love

We kicked off my fourth and fifth sessions with a 5-minute group beach cleanup. Each one of us went off in a different direction with the goal of picking up any trash we saw and bringing it back to the group to discuss what we'd found.

Honestly? I thought this would be hard.

These are MY beaches. I live here, I walk on the beach almost every day. There's no trash in OB, we love our community, we keep it clean. I set off to walk along the ocean fully convinced I would not find anything to bring back.

Within 5 five feet, I found a cigarette butt. By the time I was headed back five minutes later, I couldn't have carried another piece of trash if I'd wanted to: my hands were too full.

We dumped our finds into a pile in the center of our blanket and discussed what we saw. Dozens and dozens of cigarette butts and plastic water bottle caps. Glow sticks. Straws. Zip-loc bags. Bits of styrofoam, microplastics, plastic food wrappers, clothing tags, more cigarette butts. (On a related note, people still smoke this much?)

As a prompt, Natalie asked us what actions we take when we love someone or something. Someone suggested that when you love someone you try to protect them.

That's when it clicked: when you love something, you protect it.

So what was I doing on a regular basis to protect the ocean?

It shouldn't have been as world-shattering a revelation as it actually was. But as it turns out, I had been in denial about the health of one of the things I love the most. I mean... beaches in India and Mexico were polluted, not here. And yet, after seeing the trash scooped up in two five minute clean-ups, I decided to start really protecting what I love. That weekend, Ryan and I went on what I hope becomes a regular date for us: we cleaned up the beach for a couple of hours.

The amount of trash we found was astounding. People playing on the beach asked to look inside our buckets and they were completely shocked by how much we'd picked up from the beach around them. Hopefully it inspired them to do the same.

I am so much more mindful about how my own actions can either contribute to or help solve this problem... and, as the kids would say these days, so much more woke about the real status of the ocean.

Lesson #5: Everything You Do Is A Vote

During those same sessions, Natalie said something else that really stuck with me: "Everything you do is a vote."

For example, every time you buy a plastic water bottle, you are voting for more plastic water bottles to be made. Buying power is real and you can use it to help save the ocean. Embarrassing, when I consider that I showed up to my first Groundswell session with a plastic Smart Water bottle.

Again, I'm still super humbled that I'm only coming to accept these concepts now... I know other people, Ryan included, have tried to teach them to me for years. It was just something about the magic of this program and the way that Natalie and the other volunteers explained their deep concern for our oceans that made the weight of these issues hit home harder than ever before.

Before, I guess I didn't really understand how me buying one water bottle was a big deal. I recycle, so it's fine! But as Ryan pointed out, the concept is: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Recycle is supposed to be the last resort. Recycling isn't good enough. There are other steps that need to be taken first.

Our assignment that week was to put all of the single-use plastics we'd used into a paper bag and bring them to our session the following week to air out our dirty laundry. Knowing that I was going to have to expose my careless habits the following week made me really start paying attention to how much single-use plastic I was "voting" for and how much of that came from laziness and a lack of mindfulness about my choices.

For example, if I didn't want to wash a fork at work, I would just grab a disposable one. Didn't remember to bring my coffee jar? I would just order my cold brew in a plastic to-go cup.

This lesson has really had an immediate impact on how I live my life, and not just as it pertains to plastics. I remember Natalie's words every time I do anything: they're helping me to be more mindful of how I spend my time, what foods I eat, and what I buy.

Everything you do is a vote and what you vote for always has an impact in some way.

Lesson #6: Set Your Intentions

I feel like this is a lesson I will learn over and over again for as long as I live my life.

During the last wave of the day in my first session, the volunteer I was paired with, Jacklyn, looked me in the eye and said, "What is your intention for this wave?"

I hadn't really stood up yet and I desperately wanted to. But I was also positive that putting pressure on myself was why I wasn't standing up. That, and fear.

I reminded myself why I had joined in the first place: because I was drunk to spend more time in the ocean. Deep down, I believed the ocean could heal me if I could just learn to relax and enjoy her.

"To have fun and stand up," I answered, in that order. And I did just that, riding a wave for a few seconds and ending my first session feeling all the stokes.

The power of going into something after first stating your intention is undeniable. In following sessions, I would try to do this during our yoga sessions before getting into the water. It reminded of two things I always forget to be important truths:

Do more yoga. Set my intentions.

Lesson #7: You Can't Conquer The Ocean

Oh yeah, and that day with Rebecca? The one where I declared I was going to conquer the ocean? It was a shit show. 

I think I sort of got up on my knees on one wave before nose diving into the sand and then having a full on panic attack about the waves coming at me from three different directions and rip tides and stingrays and anything and everything I could use as an excuse to meekly tell her that I was done for the day, minutes after we got in the water. Instead, we chatted and cheered on the other women and wrapped up with a great goofy group shot. 

But on the walk home and in the days and weeks that followed, my introduction and my flip, naive comment about wanting to conquer the ocean really bothered me. 

Was it because the ocean so swiftly humbled me by tossing me around in her crazy waves? 

Was it because I was sad about how I'd been subconsciously treating and perceiving her all this time, as though she was an enemy to be conquered?

Or was it because these words were a crystal clear symptom of a neural pathway that's kept me stuck for so much of my life?  That everything I do has to be an achievement, that I have to be the best at it, that it's either a success or a failure? The same head trash that makes it so difficult for me to just enjoy things, to play... to have fun? 

I can't conquer the ocean. No one can. And I don't want to. To conquer means to "successfully overcome (a problem or weakness)." I don't want to overcome the ocean. I want to respect the ocean. I want to protect the ocean. I want to enjoy the ocean and play in the ocean and find peace in the ocean. 

And besides... she isn't my "weakness" anymore. I understand now that she never really was.

photo credit // @DawnPatrolMedia

photo credit // @DawnPatrolMedia


Groundswell Community Project is making the world more beautiful. For more information on what they do and how you can get involved, stop by their website

Or watch this short surf film about their recent trip to bring surf gear to Cuba. After all, if this doesn't make you want to be part of the Groundswell, I don't know what will.