Mindfulness and Surfing In-The-Now …

Left-to-Right: Gerry Lopez, Dick Brewer, and Reno Abillera. Photo Credit: SURFER Magazine.

Mindful Surfers? Left-to-Right: Gerry Lopez, Dick Brewer, and Reno Abillera. Photo Credit: SURFER Magazine.

What kind of images does the term mindfulness evoke for you? You’d be forgiven for jumping straight to the scene shown inset given the recent heightened enthusiasm and zeal for mindfulness and the promotion of all things mindful by new–age ‘wellness’ industry types. Certainly, for healthcare professionals, whose practice supposedly emanates from scientific evidence – although the legitimate question could often be asked, how many of the interventions we advocate are truly underpinned by robust (complete, unbiased, open-access) scientific data, as opposed to inherited and unquestioned established practice – the area of mindfulness and how to approach it is commonly greeted with an uncomfortable awkwardness. Perhaps this reaction is nothing more than diffidence, or maybe even a healthy professional scepticism, the result of a scientific training. So we thread cautiously, perturbed by the meeting of two seemingly incompatible worlds, a curious juxtaposition; that of scientific endeavour, and that of Vipassana (Insight) meditation, derived from the Buddhist tradition, from which mindfulness originates.

Before I lose any ardent scientists, it is worth reminding ourselves that Buddhism is not a religion, rather an ethical tradition. Secondly, the practice of mindfulness does not imply reclusive contemplative asceticism requiring prolonged immobility in a monastery set high in the Tibetan Himalayas. Although, such a serene environment would almost certainly be conducive to any meditative practice regardless of its tradition of origin! Mindfulness, or the act of being mindful, is a practice that can be incorporated into any daily activity. In the scientific literature, mindfulness (1) has been defined as:

“the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are”

The exploration of mindfulness-based practices and their therapeutic applications within ‘conventional’ medical/behavioural and cognitive therapy circles began in the late 1970s through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He set up the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester in 1979. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues offered Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to people with a range of conditions, including chronic pain, panic, anxiety, stress-related GI problems, headaches, sleep disorders, even heart disease, hypertension, AIDS, and cancer. By the early 1990s, they had evaluated the efficacy of their approach to anxiety (2) and chronic pain (3). The evidence demonstrated that most patients experienced sustained physical and psychological symptom reduction. Moreover, they also reported a positive change in attitude, behaviour, and self-perception, and that of others and the world at large.

Encouraged by this latter phenomenon, three psychologists, Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams, embarked on a journey in the mid 1990s to develop a relapse and recurrence prevention therapy program to help patients with recurrent depression stay well. Ultimately, incorporating elements from cognitive behavioural therapy, drawing on the pioneering work of Aaron Beck (4,5) during the 70s and that of others, in combination with mindfulness-based practices and after much experimental work, research, and clinical evaluation, they successfully developed a maintenance cognitive therapy grounded in the practice of mindfulness now known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). In 2003, at the time of publication of the first edition of “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression” by Segal, Teasdale, and Williams, there was only a single trial showing that the intervention was efficacious, and a total of 52 publications that year concerning ‘mindfulness’ in the scientific literature. Ten years later, upon release of the second edition (6), there were five additional research trials evaluating MBCT – including two which compared MBCT to the most commonly used relapse prevention treatment: antidepressant medication – and, in 2011, 397 ‘mindfulness’ related scientific publications that year. The evidence is clear and highly consistent: MBCT is highly effective in relapse reduction for patients with the longest and most recurrent history of depression.


What Lies Beneath? Photo Credit: Dustin Humphrey Photography

The process of bringing our mind to stillness and cultivating awareness in a systematic way is mediated by following our breath. In life, our breath is ever present. Hence, it is the perfect object on which to focus our attention. By drawing our attention to our breath we can remove the continuous, ruminative noise of the mind. In doing so, we access the present moment, free from past reminiscences and future imaginings and awaken to our experience.

Whether we, as surfers, recognise or not, the very act of riding waves behoves awareness of the present moment. The ocean wave itself is a transient, malleable form ever changing in response to any number of variables … bathymetry/bottom contour, wind direction, swell characteristics, even another surfer positioned further out on the shoulder duck diving, and in doing so, hastening the green face to break prematurely.


Find out more about the practice of Mindfulness at the 4th Annual Surfing Medicine Conference!

Manel face 2Manel Saltor will lecture on The Mindful Surfer – Mindfulness Meditation – Mental Preparation. Manel hails from Barcelona in the Cataluña region (Spain) and is a life-long surfer and practitioner of Vipassana and Mindfulness meditation. He began practicing at the age of 24, doing multiple retreats and workshops in Buddhist philosophy and psychology. He has studied and practiced with the disciples of Ajaan Buddhadasa – a great Therevada Buddhist Monk, founder of the Suan Mokkh Monastery, and one of the six most important Vipassana Meditation teachers worldwide. Manel has taught Mindfulness and Vipassana meditation in a number of countries across the globe. His passion for sport, surfing, and the ocean, combined with his understanding of the mind and life led him to develop a mindfulness-based mental training methodology for surfers, the Mindful Surfer workshop.


1. Williams JMG, Teasdale JD, Segal ZV, Kabat-Zinn J. The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.

2. Kabat-Zinn J, Massion AO, Kristellar J, Peterson LG, Fletcher KE, Pbert L, Lenderking WR, Santorelli SF. Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry 1992; 149:936-943.

3. Kabat-Zinn J, Lipworth L, Burney R, Sellers W. Four-year follow-up of a meditation-based program for self-regulation of chronic pain: Treatment outcomes and compliance. Clinical Journal of Pain 1986; 2:159-173.

4. Beck AT. Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: International Universities Press, 1976.

5. Kovacs MB, Beck AT. Maladaptive cognitive structures in depression. American Journal of Psychiatry 1978; 135:525-533.

6. Segal ZV, Williams JMG, Teasdale JD. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression – 2nd Ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2013.

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