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September 18th, 2019
Channel surfing isn’t exactly a phrase that makes much sense. Certainly anyone who’s watched enough TV knows what it means: flipping through channels somewhat aimlessly in search of something interesting to watch. If we get overly pedantic, this is similar to what surfing is overall: waiting around on a floating board and occasionally taking interest in a passing wave and using it to go somewhere, then paddling back out to watch for more promising waves as unpromising waves move by.
But when we think of surfing we do not think of all the boring time spent merely floating and waiting. We think only of the exhilarating thrill that comes with the right wave, catching it and flying along on as it grows to a crisp edge before curling in on itself.
If we take the whole activity of surfing, we can pose a a simple and easy question:
Would it be a good idea to try and catch every single wave that comes our way?
No, the reasons are obvious: the small, weak waves won’t result in much of a ride. And – more importantly – we’ll miss the opportunity to catch bigger waves because we’ll be busy paddling back out to the right place.
This description of surfing is useful because waves are very much like thoughts in the ocean of consciousness that we experience.
A thought pops up and before we know it, whole minutes have passed before we ‘snap out of it’ and come back to the present moment.
What was I doing? Oh yea… is often the following thought. And it functions very much like the surfer paddling back out to catch another wave.
Here’s the catch where the analogy turns ripe:
With thoughts, we try to surf every thought that comes our way.
At least, this is what happens for the most of the time for people who do not have a meditation practice.
The analogy extends further when we return to the reason why surfers don’t try to take every wave: they don’t want to miss out on better waves because they’re busy trying to surf a weak small wave.
This same reasoning can be applied to the very thoughts that we have.
The more time we spend entertaining a particular thought or line of thinking, the less opportunity we have to happen across a more productive thought.
This might at first sound a bit odd, but since we have a finite amount of time alive, then there is a finite number of thoughts that we can have and explore.
Just as you only get a certain number of years on this planet, you also only get a certain number of thoughts.
Now, to be sure, that number can be drastically different depending on the mental strategy that we employ. If we spend years perseverating over negative thoughts, then we are literally having fewer thoughts because we are only riding the wave of these negative thoughts over and over.
However, with a meditation practice, particularly a practice that orbits the frame work generally described as ‘mindfulness’ or vipassina, we gain the ability to choose what to do with a thought when it pops up. We gain the ability to stop spending time with a thought by taking a step back, and letting it dissolve in the same way that a surfer lets an unpromising wave pass by.
Even though this might sound straight-forward and obvious, this is a deceptively subtle concept for those who don’t meditate, because without the trained ability to take that ‘step-back’ from one’s own mind, it’s impossible to notice any difference between riding a wave, and letting it pass by, because both constitute an experience of living.
We can bring back the concept of channel surfing with TV to elucidate the point a little further. It would be odd to simply turn on the TV and simply watch whatever station it’s on without ever having a thought of changing the channel to see if there’s something better on. That’s why we channel surf. But without a mindful ability to pause and observe the nature of our own mind, this is exactly what people do – they simply go along with whatever thought pops up. The alternative requires training and one of the first tools that becomes available through meditation is the ability to let go of less useful trains of thought.
In the analogy of surfing this ability would be like surfing a small boring wave, realizing it, and then instantly teleporting back to the spot where you have the opportunity to catch a great wave.
In short, you only have as many great thoughts as you make room for. Inevitably this means letting go of as many useless thoughts as possible as they pop up. And given the fact that much thinking is habitual, it’s crucial to develop this ability because there’s probably a lot of useless thought to slag through before a golden shining thought comes undulating through our conscious experience.
Breaking a habitual thought pattern is ultimately the practice of letting it go, and continually letting it pass by every time it crops up.
This leaves us free to thought surf just like we channel surf, in order to find some better thought that can inspire some better action, that can ultimately lead to a better life.