It’s time for July’s conscious interview!
This month features Sam Bleakley. Sam is an international longboard surfing champion, travel writer and geographer. He is a specialist on emerging surf cultures in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, with particular interest in a new wave of Asian surfers who advocate the ancient practices of mindfulness in Buddhism and Taoism. He has produced and presented surf travel films all over the world, and is brand ambassador of UK surfing project, The Wave. He is currently researching a PhD on surfing, Haiti and new modes of travel writing. Sam lives above a Cornish beach with his family and his new book Mindfulness and Surfing: Reflections for Saltwater Souls is published by Leaping Hare Press.
Where is home?
Gwenver Beach, next to Sennen Cove, just north of Lands End at the western tip of Cornwall, UK.
When did you first come across mindfulness / meditation?
Likely not the answer you’re expecting for, but, if you define mindfulness and meditation as ‘being in the present’, then surfing was my primary introduction to mindfulness. Surfing is a powerful way to be ‘in the present’ and engage intimately with not just the internal mind, but (and for me equally important) the external environment. I believe that mindfulness in surfing is, paradoxically, a moving out of mind into the world, moving against the grain of inner-directed thought and reflection into an acute sense of what the environment demands of us – for example (as a surfer) where winds, currents, beach shapes, wave types and lunar-tidal movements meet. In this sense, we move from ‘egology’ to ecology and we generate a ‘bodymindfulness’, locating ourselves in place and space.
I got interested in the history of mindfulness through regular surf travel to Hainan, China, and a developing understanding of the ancient practices of Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism is about the polite and obedient citizen; Taoism is about a return to the rhythms and presences of nature, typified by the wild ‘mountain man’ in solitary retreat and contemplation. Taoism and Confucianism are indelibly imprinted on China as complementary expressions of the raw and the cooked, nature and culture. At the heart of Taoism is a paradoxical wild calm. Nature is a vortex and you are at its eye, involved but not involved. This is a great definition of the need for mindfulness when life and family is a complete storm of stress. At these time I need to position myself in the eye of that storm, and do what I term ‘sea air sound therapy’ (possible because we live at the coastline)….either sitting or standing, with the kiss of the wind on my face and the waves in sight, closing my eyes, breathing slowly, with a steady cycle, in through my nose, with a depth that allows me to hear the air in the back of my throat. I visualize a horizon across my eyes. I follow this line from its centre, moving away toward my ears. I tune in to the sound of the sea. I let the waves, tide and wind merge as one. For me, the trick at this point is to not be sucked in to my inner world, but to stay focused on the sounds, smells and tastes of the environment and allow them to shape my experience. This mindfulness is not being in my mind, but being present in the environment. Suddenly the family storm has calmed.
Describe one practice you do everyday to keep calm and centred?
There’s a good example above. Also, having a surf as mindfulness does not simply take me inside myself to find a still centre, but rather orients me within the environment to find place. I am immersed in water and the salt-soaked zone just above the sea’s skin. Around me, terns dive and fish jump. I am active, alert and intent on balance.
How can the business world benefit from mindfulness?
Tremendously. Businesses that are less obsessed with making money and more interested in personal, community and planetary wealth are key now, and in the future. Those values are priceless and sustainable. I am always cautious of good business ideas that meet enthusiastic investors who are only interested in the potential financial profits. At those times I pull out of the collaborative project. When the creative process, or the value of personal, community and planetary health are key, then I’m motivated to move forward. To be honest, our minds do not just need to be tuned to our own needs and purposes, but to the needs and purposes of the environments in which we live, for it is these environments that sustain us. Caring for the planet we all share is key, and without that shared responsibility as a priority for all people, we simply destroy the blue and green spaces that future generations have a right to engage with as we have. And surfing is a great vehicle for getting us right into the heart of the oceans’ and coastlines’ workings so that they can teach us how to care for them, and above all, how to be mindful.
What does ‘digital wellbeing’ mean to you?
Digital wellbeing for me is striking a balance between on-screen, and off-screen, online and offline, face-to-face and written exchange, virtual conversation and real life experience.
Do you think technology will increase or decrease wellbeing?
For me, the pillars of wellbeing are mindfulness, resilience, positivity and empathy. Surfing provides all of this and more. Technology can both increase and decrease this. It’s impossible to generalize. Like a healthy diet, variety, moderation and balance are key. It’s easy to engineer a feel good factor through online work and engagement. But this can backfire as a younger generation learn to ‘date’ and ‘break up’ through Snapchat without even meeting up for a real date and developing self confidence and social skills. We don’t know how the next generation will capitalize on technology for wellbeing, but currently I see both the positives and the negatives within my work, and my kids and step kids (who range from 2 to 19 in age).
Self obsession across all media has, arguably, dried up our receptivity to the outer world as we become acutely sensitive to the inner life. As a result, we have an egological surplus and an ecological crisis. We need to recover sensitivity towards the world around us – its cries and pleasures, its sufferings and beauties. Surfing is an ideal way to do this as a mindfulness given by nature. The saltwater soul of surfing is to be mindful of nature’s body as we cultivate a ‘bodymind’.
But technology can equally inspire and empower people to be active, belong to communities, have a voice, celebrate positives when ‘newsworthy’ is normally filled with negatives. For me, how technology can engage with cultural exchange is key. Difference and ‘otherness’ are important issues to confront on the planet because positive cultural exchange is a way we can all become more tolerant of one another, and live more peacefully by celebrating our rainbow-spectrum of approaches. Otherness can also be an environmental other, such as testing your limits in new experiences, or getting out of your comfort zone. It’s always healthy to get away from the screen and do something that facilitates a deeper appreciation of yourself (your limits, desires and passions and abilities), the environment (particularly, for me, coastal change and perhaps ocean and beach pollution, such as marine plastics) and culture (of celebrating difference and cultural exchange).
Paperback or kindle?
Both, depending on the context.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
My late great Geography teacher at A-Level College, Barry Blamey, said “You will never know how wonderful it is to stand on top of the highest mountains until you have been in the deepest valleys.”
What is your favourite quote?
“The world is presence, not force,” by the poet Wallace Stevens. But it’s hard to match the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who wrote, “Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better; it has no equal.”
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
Home. Cornwall is a great place to be in spring and summer. I’m happiest when I’m on the beach with my kids. Cornwall’s gorse clad cliffs, bright granite, quartz sand and clear water is priceless. There is a wild, rugged and raw energy to Cornwall that is unrivalled. Those warm snaps between May and October can deliver colours and experiences that I’ve had nowhere else – rainbow spray combed off the back on waves, seals, dolphins, basking sharks, and a local landscape that inspires me. Currently, a highlight in life for me is surfing with my kids.
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