Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Surfing the Waves of Life

By Eknath Easwaran

Not long ago my wife and I went for an early morning walk on a secluded beach near our home. The coastline in northern California can be rugged, and on this stretch the waves were uncommonly high. I found myself absorbed in watching a huge log with which the sea was playing like a cat. Wave after wave carried the log onto the shore and then rolled it back, unresisting, in the curl of the backwash. Finally a huge swell swept it far up onto the sand. It lay there sodden, as if to say, “I came here all by myself, and now I’m going to stay here. I like this place.” But a few minutes later another rush of water lifted it free again and carried it back into the sea. Along it went without a sign of protest, buffeted and rolled at the pleasure of the waves.

I couldn’t help feeling that for the most part, this is what our lives are like too. The Buddha would say that most of us live at the mercy of circumstances, going wherever life takes us. Even those whom the world calls great, especially if we look beyond their sphere of greatness, often seem to have had scant say in their lives: they may have conquered many thousands, for example, yet lived at the mercy of their own whims and passions. Like the Buddha, we might observe these vagaries and wonder to ourselves, “Is that all there is to life, being buffeted to and fro by circumstances until the show is over? Is that the best a human being can manage?”

As a former professor of English literature, when I saw those massive waves bearing down with the foam on their crests tossed by the wind, I immediately recalled some lines from Byron describing the “white manes of the sea.” I felt as if horses were charging down on me, and my first impulse was, “the cavalry is coming. Let me run for my life!” It was a normal response. But far out in the water, I noticed with surprise, were two young fellows whose response was just the opposite. They had no desire for a glassy surface. They wanted waves, fierce waves, the bigger the better.

Coming from South India, I had never seen surfing until I came to California. The sport still fascinates me. I stood back and watched while one brave soul turned his back on a powerful swell and tried to get to his feet. The wave picked him up and tossed him aside into its crest, spinning his board into the air like a missile. If that had happened to me, I would have swum straight for the beach and hauled myself out on the sand, leaving my board to anyone who wanted to claim it. But this fellow was made of different stuff. He retrieved his board and waited there for the next wave to come. Again the same thing happened – and again he came back for more.

The other young man had more experience. He knew just where he wanted to be, and when the next wave rolled in he caught its pace with a couple of swift, sure strokes. In seconds he was on his feet, cutting back and forth along the face of that wall of water as if making the ocean do his bidding were the easiest thing in the world.

Suddenly the wave arched overhead and crashed down, apparently drowning the poor chap in an avalanche of water. I expected to see his board shoot into the air like his friend’s. But a moment later, crouching like a runner ready to spring from the block, he shot triumphantly from a tunnel of spray and swung his board up over the back of the wave, out of danger. The same waves from which I had wanted to run, he had harnessed and learned to ride.

All of us, I think, would like to enjoy that kind of mastery in living. Who doesn’t respond to the thought of taking life’s waves and riding them with effortless grace? Countless books today appeal to our yearning for a key to life, or at least to a part of life, which only experts know: methods, secrets, tips, or tactics for mastering the forces that otherwise master us. To judge from the records of ancient civilizations, this must be one of the oldest of human desires. Is there a key to our destiny? If so, do we have a say in it, or are our character and fate fixed by the stars?

The Buddha’s answer, set out more than twenty-five hundred years ago, has a very modern appeal. Our destiny, he said, lies in our own hands: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. We are formed and molded by our thoughts.” It follows that what we shall be tomorrow is shaped by what we think today. To this penetrating observation he added a simple twist. “Don’t try to control the future,” he would say. “Work on the one thing you can learn to control: your own responses.”

If we merely react to life, this implies, we have no more freedom of choice than that log the ocean was playing with. We go where life pushes and pulls us. But if we can choose our responses, we have mastered life. Like a skilled surfer, we don’t need to ask for perfect waves. Where is the challenge in that? We show our skill by how well we can handle whatever the sea sends. 

This excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran's book Conquest of Mind.