You Can't Stop the Waves but You Can Learn to Surf

At the core of anxiety – whether health anxiety, death anxiety, relationship anxiety, or generalized anxiety – is the need for safety. As I’ve been writing about in my last few posts, left to our own unguided minds, the ego will latch onto our stories to try to gain a foothold into the ever-changing flow of an uncertain world in an attempt to create safety. This never works. As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This means that to try to soothe the anxious mind with a method devised by the anxious mind would be like asking your three-year old to comfort herself without the help of an adult. The mind’s ways of trying to create safety under the delusion of control are not only stemming from a primitive part of our brain – the part that feels the anxiety to begin with – but were actually often developed in childhood or adolescence. They are, quite literally, our inner toddlers and teenagers in the driver’s seat of mind.

In order to break through the mind’s habitual responses to fear, we have to reach for something higher. We have to set our minds in a new direction. We have to strengthen the central column of self, learn effective ways to release worry on a daily basis, and connect to practices and habits that elevate us instead of descend us further into anxiety. When we do this, we navigate life in a completely different way. As Jack Kornfield writes in A Lamp in the Darkness:

I remember seeing a poster in a health food store in Santa Cruz in the 1970s of the Hindu guru Swami Satchidananda with his long, flowing beard, standing on one foot in a little orange loincloth in the yogic posture called the tree pose. What was remarkable about this picture was that Swami Satchidananda was balanced in the tree pose on top of a surfboard on a really large wave. Underneath, it said in big letters, ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’ The spirit of the practice of equanimity and peace is not that the waves will stop, but that our heart and mind can become so open and balanced, that we can behold the turning of the seasons of the world from a place of stillness.

What would it be like to ride the waves of life with more grace? Can you imagine what it would feel like to have a stronger core self that would allow you to take some of the waves in stride and come back to center more quickly? These waves can come in many forms: relationship anxiety, work anxiety, health anxiety, fertility anxiety, worry about children, nameless dread, existential depression, transitions both big and small. If you’ve been following my work you know that anxiety plays the game of whack-a-mole: as soon as one external stressor or internal pain gets resolved, another one pops up in its place. These are waves. Our task is to learn to ride them.

How do we do this? The key is in committing to a daily practice. There are so many ways to have a daily practice. Those in the meditation world champion meditation as the path. Those in the religious world espouse the power of prayer. Those in the yoga world swear by the power of yoga. These are all excellent ways of strengthening the central column, but they’re not the only way. When it comes to daily practice, what’s essential is to find the ways that work for you, that speak to your soul, ways that elevate you out of the default fear stories and connect you to daily reminders of something greater. In those reminders, we remember that we are not our stories. Through those practices, we lift ourselves out of the habitual and well-worn grooves of anxiety and reinforce other, healthy neural pathways. Creating and growing this practice is what I’ll be teaching in Grace Through Uncertainty: A 30-Day Course to Become More Comfortable with the Fear of Loss by Falling in Love with Life.

The goal isn’t to eradicate uncertainty; that’s not possible. It’s not even to create more certainty. The goal or path is to become more fluid as we hit bumps in the road, including the bumps that our minds create. This is what it means to have “grace through uncertainty”: through practices that connect us to higher mind and help us tap into the current of positive energy and wisdom that surrounds us, we are naturally able to anchor into a well of well-being. The equation is the same whether we’re talking about relationship anxiety, health anxiety, or any other way that anxiety manifests: grow love and shrink fear, for the more we connect to the energy of love, the less room there is for fear to fester. This is our ultimate task in being human.

25 comments to You Can’t Stop the Waves but You Can Learn to Surf

  • K

    What role does forgiveness play in your work Sheryl? What to do when people you love hurt and betray you? You know they love you and made mistakes and are genuinely repentant and working on themselves. And yet, the idea of forgiveness is so repulsive to my ego mind. How do we access higher parts of our Self and let go of the hurt. Would love to see you write on this topic. 🙂

    • It’s an important topic, K, and once that I’m asked to write about quite frequently. It’s probably more than a blog post can encompass, but I would encourage you to start with what your relationship with yourself is like in terms of forgiveness.

      • K

        I have always been hypervigilant and felt uncomfortable in my own skin & unforgiving towards myself(because of childhood bullying?). Maybe that’s a good place to start? Soften my own harsh judgements about myself and try to release myself from the’inner bully’ which is ruthless, knows no forgiveness and tries to actively sabotage the relationship I have with a flawed, but beautiful human being, whose essence I’m very much charmed by(is this love, though?)

      • K

        Thank you for your constant guidance, Sheryl. I think of you as one of my life gurus. I have never learnt so much about my root woundedness, my anxiety, relationships, love from any other human being. Life still is hard. But people like you make the process more smooth. Or shall I say, we learn to enjoy the bumps on the road as well.

  • Very well written!!! I’m in midst of transition as I’m in the final year of my college and my relationship is turning 1 yr old this October. I’m guiding myself through relationship anxiety and intrusive thoughts for this whole time with the help of your blog… please don’t to

  • Please continue writing the blog… world need people like you to tell us the truth about life…

  • Ravenna

    Beautiful, as always. Signed up for the course, luckily I am able to. I am excited and scared and resistant at the same time 🙂

    “Grow love, shrink fear” sounds so easy and yet its so so soooo difficult when fear has been so much stronger all your life! I think the practice that connexts me to a peacefullness inside of me is playing my ukulele, theres something so magical and calming about music to me.

  • Florence

    This is great, and really expresses what I’ve been experiencing recently. I have such a longing for challenge and difficulties to be kept at a distance from me, which means I can be avoidant and fearful. But I feel like I’m being invited (I believe by God) into a place of not having the mountains and challenges removed, but from having my ‘feet enabled like a deer’ to be able to ascend and negotiate the difficulties. It feels like new and scary territory as everything within me just wants the problems to be taken away. But I’m being taught to lean into the work of my foundations at the core of myself being strengthened. I’m mid-work, so the ups and downs are very apparent!

  • Shellley Landsburg

    I want to take your course Grace through Uncertainty however I cant do the Sept 28th . Will you be offering this at another date?
    Thank you
    I love your e letter and blog 😀

  • Lisa

    I work in a very fast-paced competitive environment. Last week one of the executives in my company started pushing me on one of my projects. Immediately, fear started to set in because I worried that I hadn’t done enough fast enough. Normally, I would react to that fear out of haste and respond very quickly hoping to soothe my fears. But this time I let it ride, just like in the article. While situation did float in my mind all weekend, I decided that on Monday I wiuld deal with it. I didn’t let it ruin my weekend. I didn’t call 10 people to ask their advice or if they thought I would be in trouble. Instead, I regrouped and thought, “well I’ve added value and so many other ways. I know that I have done my best!” If he is disappointed, then it isn’t the end of the world. It may not sound like much, but I felt my own self with skyrocket. So, after working in dealing with fear and anxiety for a long time, at least this time, I didn’t let it grab hold!

  • Elizabeth

    I too am mid-work and your weekly emails are just so affirming, Sheryl. There have been many moments in the past few months in the midst of all the terror where I’ve felt like the universe sent me to you: you speak a language that I totally understand. And now you’ve quoted my favourite Einstein quote! I’ve been going on about this statement for years and I think it hits the nail on the head: you can’t solve your problems with the same kind of thinking that conceived of the problems in the first place. Revolutionary! But oh so difficult to truly understand. It’s taken a dark night of the soul for me to really get this on a spiritual and emotional level.

    I’m currently going through the Break Free course for a second time and immersing myself in the work of David Richo; I listen to Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations (her conversations with Pema Chodron, Maya Angelou and Marianne Williamson are just divine); I am cultivating a mediation practice and writing an awful lot of letters to myself. I’ve realised that my work is about learning about how to respond in a healthy way to thoughts and feelings, to engage in spirituality and effectively learn how to grow up and parent myself. I am by no means out of the anxiety woods, but I feel like I’m on the verge of leaving the swamp behind. Thank you Sheryl. I am beyond grateful for your work.

  • Christy

    Wonderful and timely Sheryl x

  • Georgina

    Thank you Sheryl, it’s come in handy. I won’t be able to join you this round but I’m confident at some point in the future I will.
    Your courses were so healing that I can’t thank you enough. I’m sure this will be as life changing as all the others.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I have had a horrible 3 weeks, I went down the rabbit hole of anxiety and i admiited myself into hospital. I felt this overwhelming anxiety i felt suicidal. I have discussed to my husband that I dont feel happy. I told him i cant live with this
    anxiety anymore. I feel so bad that i even suggested separation as my only option. I feel this is best for my peace of mind.I feel I am getting worse. I did the work and i was getting better but the last 3 weeks the anxiety took over.

    • I’m so sorry you had a setback, Angela, but I’m glad you got support. I know how hard you’ve worked on yourself and also know that “doing the work” isn’t a one-time event. It’s a regular, ongoing, daily commitment to learning to tend to our thoughts, feelings, body, and soul in loving and compassionate ways.

  • Angela

    When you feel so stuck with fear its so hard to do the work, i left my job and I am staying at my mums place. I am too frightened to go back home. I feel like my marriage is over. I so desperately dont want it to be over, i feel i have no choice.
    I never thought i would be here, i thought i would get better and better but i have gone worse instead. What do u suggest i do? Please tell me feeling this way will pass.

    • Yes, it is hard to do the work when you’re stuck in fear. The problem is when you believe the projection that says that problem is your husband, and that your mother is more comforting than your husband. Given when I know about your mother (from what you’ve shared through this blog), that lets me know that fear is distorting your perception. I suggest you go through the Break Free course from the beginning, and also make sure that you’re working regularly with a skilled and compassionate therapist who understands relationship anxiety.

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