Posted by: Mark | December 14, 2009

Caught Inside

Yesterday I got to meet Jaimal Yogis, author of Saltwater Buddha. He is the third published author I’ve met–Dom Sagolla and the poet Li-Young Lee are the two others–and being in his presence was just as inspiring as with the other two.

His book has been resonating with me since I read it, especially the section called Paddling Out. Jaimal accurately points out that the actual act of surfing–that is, standing up and riding a wave–occupies only around 1% of the time we dedicate to “surfing.” The bulk of our effort is actually in paddling. In the case of Ocean Beach, that paddling can be soul-crushing, with thirty minutes of ice-cream headache inducing duckdives just in order to get out to the waves to play. And life is similar: you tolerate the paddling affiliated with surfing because you love the ride, and in the same way, we should tolerate and even embrace the parts of life that are less-than-appealing.

As I pointed out in my last post, I have had a lot of time to surf this fall, and I have spent much time reflecting upon the emotional and spiritual benefits that surfing has afforded me. Inspired by Jaimal’s reflections upon paddling, I can’t help but to give voice to a thought I’ve been toying with for a few months, about being Caught Inside.

At Ocean Beach, the paddle out can be brutal, but I find it even more brutal to get Caught Inside. To the non-surfer, let me explain. Waves break in an area called the impact zone, and to ride waves you need to sit just a tad bit outside of the impact zone, in what is called the line-up. When you ride a wave, you have to balance unaudulturated greed with caution. On the greedy side, this is it, your chance to enjoy that 1% of the time that you are actually wave-riding, so you want to go for it! However, if you go for it too long, and ride the wave all the way to the inside….well then you need to re-negotiate the impact zone again. In fact, on big days I find that my adrenaline is pumping the hardest not when I’m taking off on a 15 ft wave, or bottom-turning and looking up into the green beast, but immediately after the wave. After kicking out, I position my board to embrace the horizon and paddle ferociously  to try and sneak through without having a dozen waves break directly on my head.

On occasion you can get lucky, and sneak back into the line-up almost immediately.

However, very often at Ocean Beach you get unlucky, and get Caught Inside. You pop out of a wave, and the sheepish grin is quickly replaced with a cold grimace, as you end up taking wave after wave on the head, and duck dive time after time after time after time in vain. I often find that getting Caught Inside induces temporary amnesia. I lose track of pretty much everything. At first, I hope that maybe I’m just stuck with one set of waves, and that I’ll still punch through into the line-up with relative ease. However, as the duckdives add up and my sense of hope dwindles, I forget the last wave I took that forced me into this predicament, I forget where I parked car, I forget why I like surfing so much that I keep on paddling, I forget that I haven’t always been Caught Inside and that eventually I will get through it. Getting Caught Inside at Ocean Beach is surfing’s Sisyphean struggle.

In the Fall of 2009, my autumn of existential crisis after existential crisis, I often felt like I was Caught Inside…in my life. I would find myself in a situation that was so discouraging, and would last so much longer than I expected, that it assumed the characteristics of infinite. There was no end and no conclusion. I’d forget that I wouldn’t always feel this way, and that I haven’t always felt this way. My struggles, while temporary, were blindingly monopolizing. Time crawls when you are suffering. However, all good things, and all bad things pass. When Caught Inside at OB, eventually a merciful force will send a lull in the waves, and the charging cavalries of white water will rest enough to let me get through. Getting Caught Inside takes total humility. You can’t just paddle through it. The waves need to feed you a break in the action, period. The greatest paddlers get Caught Inside. It has nothing to do with you, it’s nothing personal, it is the way of the water. If you sprint paddle too quickly, you will tire yourself out and make things worse. In order to get through, you have to accept the paddling and keep it slow and steady, so that when Moses does part the seas for you, there’s enough fight still left inside to take advantage of the opportunity.

Being Caught Inside offers the paradoxical challenge of admitting your own powerlessness while at the same time taking charge of what you can control. The ocean will settle when it wants to, not when you want it to. That is powerlessness. However, when it does, you need to be ready to pounce. That is power. And of course it is the same in life. We’ve all been Caught Inside in suffocating life circumstances. We can’t give up in these situations, but likewise, we can’t fix them by ourselves. We need to find the balance between what we can do, and what we can’t, and paddle out at that rhythm.

Because eventually, whether you can see it or not, you won’t be Caught Inside. You’ll be back in the line-up riding waves.



  1. I have cursed god directly on only a few occasions. All of them have been while caught on the inside at OB.

  2. “Getting Caught Inside at Ocean Beach is surfing’s Sisyphean struggle.”

    Adding surfing to the bucket list. Adding “get Caught Inside” to the bucket list.

    Great post, Mark.

  3. It’s pretty hard to remember that good things are coming when you’re Caught Inside (in the life sense, I mean). Hopefully this realization will make things a little easier for you.

  4. I can totally relate to this post in so many ways. A couple of weeks ago I got caught inside at PB – I got slammed by about five 10 footers in a row. Now I’ve been surfing for about 8 months now and have gotten pretty good in a relitively short period of time but I definitely have no business paddling out in surf that big. It started small at around 4 feet, a good sensibile wave height for my experience level. But the surf picked up in such a short period of time that I found myself in big trouble.

    So I was looking for advice on what to do in that situation as I’d nearly drowned and began blacking out at one point. I came literally 2 seconds from involuntarily inhaling water and it seriously made me question my committment to the sport. There probably is no good answer. I get tired of people telling me to be careful, because no matter how careful I could be aside from quitting all together – it wouldnt help save me from that rogue set. I guess staying calm and pacing yourself is the best answer Ive heard to this point. Thanks!

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