100 Foot Waves
“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” ― Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland
I recently watched the HBO documentary series 100 Foot Wave. The show follows big wave surfer Garrett McNamara as he works to establish Nazaré, Portugal as the premiere big wave destination, and chronicles his chase to surf a mythical 100-foot-tall wave. The show features some of the biggest names in surfing, and during interviews they inevitably discuss the attraction and allure of riding giant, potentially deadly, waves. There is often talk of “feeling alive” or “present” because a wave that large asks you to be fully in the moment, or else you’ll be devoured by nature. All the senses come alive for a handful of heart charging seconds. Throughout the series there is footage of the best surfers in the world carving down the faces of transient ocean crags, but nothing ever measures 100 feet. McNamara continues to chase the fabled wave despite injuries, trauma from being caught under water, and an aging body. The show abruptly halts shooting in early 2020 due to Covid, and during that time McNamara and his family retreat to their home in Hawaii. When they return to shooting, the production crew meets him in Hawaii, where he is found playing on the beach with his kids. While sitting on the beach, and appearing to have developed a change in perspective during his time away from Nazaré, the producers ask him about the 100-foot wave, and if it’s still a dream he wishes to achieve. At that moment, he looks over his shoulder and points to his kids playing in the sand and says, “The 100-foot wave is happening right now.” He then profoundly adds, “If you’re living life like you’re riding the 100-foot wave, you’re going to have some pretty great days.”
We seem to be conditioned to chase 100-foot waves, peaks, and gold stars. We are led to believe that only Instagram-able moments matter, and everything in between is the waiting room for the next giant wave. I’ve felt this, been seduced by it, and acted on it. In movement, I was drawn into the habit of fixating on each new great move or skill and posted photos riding these movement waves. If there was a lull, or no new moves were being achieved, I’d try to revisit past waves. While moments riding these massive breaks felt wonderful, they were short lived, and often there wasn’t enough room for anyone else to paddle in next to me. The spaces between swells were spent time traveling. I’d be in the past thinking about the barrels I’d ridden, or in the future imagining the ones that would one day be mine. These periods could be frustrating, sad, depressing, and lonely.
I don’t have a single “ah-ha!” experience that shook me out of my wave chasing ways. I can reference many moments and influences. The Covid lockdown provided time and space to let go of rhythms and patterns, Brazilian jiu jitsu exposed me to uncertainty and surprise, influential teachers and facilitators unearthed the dusted-over potential to play, and dance inspired a passion for improvisation which brought to light that there is magic to be sprinkled on every moment. Over time I’ve developed a hunger for seeing the 100-foot waves around me all the time. I learned there is always a wave to surf, mountain to climb, dance to be had, and game to play. There are potential conversations and interactions all around us; trees to climb, music to shake to, streets to get lost on, wind to feel, and children to mimic.
I’ve come to believe that to see the waves breaking everywhere, we must nurture our potential for full body listening. When I say full body listening, I’m speaking about being present. There are infinite options in every moment, if we can see them, hear them, and feel them. There is no system or blueprint for developing our potential for this full body listening. It’s tightly connected to interacting authentically with our own bodies, other bodies, and the spaces we move through. It’s about creating opportunities for our nervous systems to experience in the way we have biologically evolved to; to communicate with the world around us. Within our own skin and bones, it’s about noticing and observing, without judgement, the sensations of our bodies. In relation to other people, it’s about communicating with other bodies in all the ways we can, verbally and nonverbally. When it comes to space, it involves sensing and responding to the environment around us. And, most often, it’s all happening at once; a dance between what’s happening within me, we, and the world around us. It’s about getting lost and welcoming surprise without anything to win or achieve. We can explore this potential through play, dance, fighting, or not moving at all. It has nothing to do with aesthetics or definitions, but rather what emerges sincerely in each unique moment.
The Pixar movie Soul beautifully captures what I’m describing. There is a scene when a soul that has never been to earth accidentally finds itself in a full-grown human body and is witnessing everything the world has to offer for the first time. She is enthralled by a conversation with a barber, the taste of pizza, the feeling of the wind blowing through the grate from a passing subway, and the beauty of a falling leaf. She interacts with each moment, responding to the experiences like she is descending the wall of a mammoth wave. In the film, they refer to these types of events as “regular old living”, and suggests that this might be our magic, as opposed to having a single purpose. I’ll add, if you haven’t watched the movie, I highly recommend getting cozy with some popcorn and enjoying it tonight.
We are led to believe that life should be rich with great things, but the great things might be our ability to full body listen, be present, and regular old live. It often feels there are forces at play that wish for us not to see the magic that exists in every moment. These forces wish to keep us time traveling, stuck in the past and the future. They tell us we’re not enough unless we’re on top of, or chasing, a peak. They want our senses focused on the technology in our hands rather than the enchantment outside our front door. These forces are strong, and although I’m aware of them and can talk about them for days, I find myself easily tempted by them. But I can say with confidence, and from experience, I promise 100-foot waves are happening all around us. I’m going to go ride one, and you should too.