Embracing everything life has to offer
Garrett McNamara is a legend in the surfing world who’s ridden some of the biggest waves on the planet. To maintain his surfing career, Garrett spends all his time and energy chasing the next big swell. But when he unexpectedly gets knocked off his board, he has to step away from doing the thing that makes him the happiest. He tells the story of how he learns to embrace all the moments life has to offer, rather than always chasing the next wave.
Embracing everything life has to offer
GARRETT McNAMARA: Teahupo’o is a small village on the southern tip of Tahiti. With its warm water and lush coastline, it is a paradise — the epitome. And its waves are some of the heaviest on the planet. From start to finish, it’s life or death.
ROHAN GUNATILLAKE: Garrett McNamara is a legend in the surfing world, who’s ridden some of the biggest waves on the planet. When he unexpectedly gets knocked off his board, he has to step away from doing the thing that makes him the happiest. This week, Garrett tells the story of how instead of only chasing the next wave and the biggest swell, we can learn to embrace all the moments life has to offer.
In this series, we combine immersive first-person stories, breathtaking music, and mindfulness prompts so that we may see our lives reflected back to us in other people’s stories. And that can lead to improvements in our own inner lives.
From WaitWhat, this is Meditative Story. I’m Rohan, and I’ll be your guide.
The body relaxed. The body breathing. Your senses open, your mind open, meeting the world.
McNAMARA: I start floating in the water. I find my center of balance on my board, and I pull down slightly on my life jacket. I close my eyes and do my breath-ups. In and out. In and out. Raising and lowering my chin with each breath.
I take a moment to connect to the universe. To everything. To think about what I want to focus on, and manifest it.
When I open my eyes, I nod to the jet ski driver. I get up on my board, and he pulls me by a rope into the busy lineup. We skim across the aquamarine surface, kicking up white spray. Giant swells rise up and out of the water, blocking the horizon. We choose our wave. I’m literally like a kid in a candy store. No fear. I’m ready to go.
It’s 2003. I’m at a surf spot on the north shore of Maui. The Hawaiian name is Pe’ahi, but almost everyone calls it Jaws. It’s home to some of the biggest, most perfect waves on earth.
Uncle Dane is driving, and he signals over his shoulder and says, “This one!” I see it coming, and it’s massive. I hold onto the rope as the jet ski pulls me forward at at least 50 miles an hour.
We cruise over a huge swell. A wall of water starts building on my right side. The jet ski turns out, and, as I let go of the rope, it slingshots me down the wave. Now I’m on my own — riding.
My goal on pretty much every wave is to get barrelled. You look at what’s coming down the line, and you make your plan. Only, I don’t really plan it. I just feel it. I follow my heart.
I come down the face of this wave. I see the barrel form in front of me. At the last second, I turn and fade a little to the left. I get right under the lip, as It hits me two or three times — boom boom boom — pretty much just like a kiss, a salt water kiss. It fills my eyes. I’m blind. But I’m in the barrel.
The barrel is like a cavern, this giant tube of water. It’s all around me. It literally makes a home for me. I’m in my own world.
There’s so much power, and speed, and adrenaline. The sense of accomplishment I get from surfing — from catching the big waves — it’s everything. It’s just a beautiful feeling of flowing with nature.
I start to feel a backdraft: the strength of the wave is sucking all the air outside of the barrel and pulling it in. For a moment, everything goes silent. I can feel my heart beating. And then a hurricane force wind explodes behind me, shooting saltwater out like a fire hose. It picks me up and flies me out in front of the wave. I’m just trying to hang on. I’m thinking, I gotta make it, I gotta make it. Somehow, I manage to stay on the board. I come flying out with the spray.
I open my eyes. I throw my hands in the air. Oh my god. Oh my god.
What a ride. The endorphins. The dopamine. I’m buzzing.
And right away, I’m hungry for the next one.
Whenever I go to surf, I’m not there to experience what’s on the land. I’m not there for the food and the culture. I’m there for the waves. I fly in and sometimes fly out the next day. I’m like a hitman. Hit the waves, and then I run.
A few months later, I’m in another hemisphere. Catching a very different wave. Teahupo’o is a small village on the southern tip of Tahiti. With its warm water and lush coastline, it is a paradise — the epitome. And its waves are some of the heaviest on the planet. From start to finish, it’s life or death. Most of the waves in Tahiti break about a mile off shore, where I am now. The waves break on a barrier reef, and you have to kick out before it closes out or it’ll throw you right on that dry reef.
The air is misty and magical. But the weather here can change at any minute. Even with the danger here, I’m just as excited. I have to constantly tell myself to slow down, do everything properly, think things through a bit.
But while I’m in my head, looking out towards the horizon, I hear everyone else in the channel start to cheer. Someone else just caught a wave, a monster, the wave of the day.
Damn! I should have been on the rope. I shouldn’t have waited. I should have been ready when that wave came.
On the drive back to the beach in Teahupo’o, all I can think about is what I did wrong. The wave I should have been on. I’ll be thinking about that all day.
Still, I’m grateful I get to live this life. I really grew up with very little money or stability. I had a lot of freedom, but it was sometimes chaotic. When I start surfing at 11-years-old, it quickly becomes my whole focus. The confidence I get from it — the thrill — I want more. Now I’m 35, and surfing has been my career for over a decade. I could work a nine-to-five instead, but I wouldn’t be happy. I’m happiest chasing waves — chasing what I love. So I come up with a plan. I put my passion to work. The bigger the waves, the bigger the sponsorship, and the more I’m able to keep surfing.
I feel a need to stay focused and determined to ride anywhere, anytime. To find the biggest waves all over the world. I’m hungry for it. Hungry for the feeling it gives me. And I don’t feel like I need to experience anything else.
I’m underwater. Everything is white foam. Chaos and pain — excruciating pain. Like lightning. I don’t know what’s wrong, but something is wrong. I can’t move my arm.
I pop up above the surface of the water just in time to get pounded by another wave. Everything from the past two minutes is pretty much a blur. I’m at Mavericks, a Northern California surf spot with some of the biggest waves on earth. It’s 2016. I’m 48 years old. I’m here to qualify for a surfing competition. But as I catch one of the biggest waves of the day, I get sucked up to the top, and my nose catches, and I get flown off the board. My body skips across the water like a stone, and the lip lands right on my body.
Now I bob helplessly in the churning ocean, barely buoyed by my flotation vest. Pain radiates from my shoulder. I’m tossed around like a rag doll. And all I can think is, I hope it’s broken and not dislocated; they never really heal quite right. But with a break, I’ll heal up in two or three months and still be able to ride like before.
Another huge wave starts to crest behind me. I worry I’m too close to the jagged rocks on the shore. Then I see Ion Banner, the jet ski driver, racing towards me. I try to lift my arm, but my hand keeps hitting the bottom of the sled. All I keep thinking is, I need to get out of here, I need to get out of here before I go on the rocks.
Finally, I get a hold of the sled with one hand. Ion starts to drive away at full speed. “Slow down, Slow down!” I yell. He’s going fast to get us to safety. But the pain in my shoulder is agonizing. Please just be broken. Please just be broken.
As the pain pounds in my shoulder, all I can think is, “I shouldn’t have had to be here. I shouldn’t be here.” For most of my life, I had zero interest in surfing Mavericks. It’s cold, murky, kelp everywhere, a big rock right in front of the lineup, and giant great white sharks. I should have trained more. I should have listened to the signs. What a bad idea.
But I’m driven by my ego and my pride. My belief that, if there’s a big wave out there, I have to be the one to surf it. I’m always chasing that next swell, no matter what. To me, that’s what it means to embrace life. Now I’m paying the price for my ego.
GUNATILLAKE: What does the idea of embracing life mean to you? Does it mean only chasing the highs, chasing achievements, no matter the cost? Or, is there a world where we can appreciate all moments? Even the small simple ones, like right now.
McNAMARA: “Our mind is so powerful,” Nicole tells me, as she pulls my arm up and over my head to help me stretch out my shoulder. “Whatever we want to happen, we can make happen,” she says.
It’s been a few months since my wipeout at Mavericks. I lay on the futon, while Nicole pulls my arm toward her, then all the way to the right side, and all the way to the left side. Our baby son, Barrel, plays on the floor nearby. I groan and ask Nicole to stop for a second. The pain is excruciating. She’s patient with me. But she’s also firm. She knows what it will take for me to heal.
We’re only 50 yards from the beach on the Hawaiian North Shore. I can hear the ocean. I hear the wind rustling through the trees all around. And birds. The birds chirping in our garden. But when we begin the next stretch, there’s no more sound — just pain.
My shoulder injury from Mavericks is not a dislocation. It’s a break. But it’s a bad break. The bone shattered into nine pieces. The shaft breaks off from the head and lodges itself in my pec. Months of intense recovery turn into years of lingering pain and discomfort. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
Nicole helps me do these three stretches five times a day, every day. Every time is gnarly. The pain is deep and dark. I try to embrace it. I’m trying to remember that it’s temporary like Nicole always says, but it feels like it’ll never end.
My doctor tells me I should never surf big waves again. I can’t even imagine that. For the past several years, Nicole and I have lived half the time in Nazaré, Portugal where the coastline and the weather patterns create unheard of swells. Before my accident, I even got the record for surfing the world’s largest wave there. Still, I keep going back. Looking for more. Our life has been built around my pursuit. And now … just supposed to … stop?
At home in Hawaii, I keep a constant eye on the storms brewing. I always worry a swell is going to pop up somewhere, and I’ll be so far away that I can’t get to it. It’s really hard for me to make commitments to anything. I feel like I have a monkey on my back. Now I’m trying to carry that monkey with a wrecked shoulder.
The pain is what finally pushes me to see the other side. Now, when I think of surfing, of heading back to Nazaré for the next swell, I remember the possibility of injuring myself. I don’t want to go through this again. For the first time, I hesitate to get in the water. But if I’m not chasing the next wave, what am I gonna do instead?
As Nicole gently pulls on my arm, massaging the knots in the muscle, she tells me to think about everything I can still do. But I don’t know how I’ll ever get back that feeling of being in the barrel. I’m realizing that the waves, they won’t always be available to me. I feel like I have to learn to love the land as much as I do the water. I have to embrace the moments in life outside of my passion. The problem is I don’t know if I can do that.
We drive through rolling hills that seem to go on forever. They’re golden, with deep green trees scattered throughout the vineyards. The roads are narrow. Sometimes a little too narrow, and we have to pull over for cars to pass.
There’s all types of farming and agriculture around us. Every field has something growing. Through the car window, I see hazelnuts, mulberries, peaches, cherries. There are olive trees everywhere. I’m amazed. It’s my first time in Tuscany.
I look over at Nicole in the passenger seat, and the wind is just blowing through her brown hair. She smiles, and I smile back. I rotate my shoulders a little bit. It’s been about three years since Mavericks. My shoulder has healed to a point where I can surf again, but it’s never totally better. Today, it feels a little sore. We drive past a little town, and I look out at the limestone buildings with terracotta-tiled roofs. The architecture here is incredible. You see it in books and movies, but there’s nothing like seeing it in person.
When a friend invites us on this first trip to Italy, I’m not sure about the idea. If I’m spending money to travel, I want to be surfing. But, it’s been Nicole’s dream to come here.
That night, we have dinner at our hotel in Pienza. And the food is out of this world. Usually I treat food as fuel. But here I’m enjoying the fresh pasta in a velvety tomato sauce, creamy risotto with sharp cheese. Finally, the chef brings out our dessert — Tiramisu. I take a bite. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted.
When the waiter comes to take our plates, I take out my phone and sneak a glance at the surfing forecast. It tells me where the biggest waves are hitting at any moment around the world. I do this at least seven times a day.
GUNATILLAKE: We all have those things that take us out of the present, and keep us from embracing all the moments life has to offer. We all have patterns of distraction. I know mine, or at least I think I do. What are yours? The next time you feel a pattern emerge, intercept it, even with a smile. Embrace it.
McNAMARA: When I look up, I see a kid from a nearby table has wandered over and started talking to Nicole. The little girl’s face is full of smiles. I already know what a great mom Nicole is, but as I watch her with this kid who‘s never met her, I see how effortless it is for her to be fully present. Her compassion. Her willingness to listen. It all comes through. The sound of the little girl’s giggles fill the room. Within a half an hour, the little girl is calling Nicole “mom,” and the parents are like, what happened here?
Nicole is not thinking about the swells she didn’t catch or what she could have done differently. She’s in the moment. In the same way that I feel present and connected in the barrel of the wave, she feels it all the time.
Looking at her, I’m starting to think, maybe that’s something I want. The ability to fully enjoy this experience on the land and relax. To let that monkey on my back slowly release its grip.
I’m finally seeing what it looks like to not just chase the next wave. To not just fly in, surf, and leave. But to be present, no matter where I am. To experience every moment like I’m in the barrel.
I get up super early, and I walk outside. We’re in Montaldo, Italy, staying at one side of a valley that’s shaped like a crater. Perfectly domed. A vineyard stretches out in front of me about 300 yards, all the way down to the valley floor. And back up the other side until it turns into forest. Old growth forest, all different colored trees with a few houses tucked away.
It’s misty, and a thick fog comes rolling in every morning. But a few magical rays of sunshine are starting to break through the trees at the top of the mountain. I take a deep breath. The air is cool and crisp. You could run for miles without overheating.
Nicole and I now have three kids. We come back and forth a lot to Italy as a family. It turns out I really enjoy good food. And I like diving deep into the history of the places I visit. We’re actually thinking of buying a house here, which feels like a big step.
As I walk through the vineyard, I look down at the school that my kids can go to. I start to imagine the regenerative farm we want to plant. The fruit trees and the tomatoes. That’s the goal anyway. Farming in Italy. At 55 years old, I’m still a professional surfer. But I’m starting to toy with the idea that there’s room in my life for something else.
I think to myself, this is a new journey. It’s a new chapter. This could be fun.
As the mist burns off, I look up at the clouds sailing across the sky. They look like waves. Each one a monster. Just beautiful, perfect waves. Set after set after set.
Part of me still hungers for that big wave. It makes me happy to know that the best surf spots in Europe are only a few hours away. But on this misty morning, that feels off in the distance to me. I’m not really thinking about those waves. I’ve got waves right here, in the sky.
I reach for my shoulder. No pain. So nice.
Not every day on the land can be a vacation. Not every experience is as picture-perfect as being in the Tuscan countryside. But I’m making an effort to be content wherever I am. The water will always be my first love. But with Nicole’s help, I’m learning to love everything else.
It’s our choice to enjoy the experiences we encounter or not — even the pain, though that’s a tough one. When I’m on land, I’m working on loving the land. I’m working on finding satisfaction in things that aren’t my lifelong passion. My career, my obsession. I don’t always get it right. But when I’m at my best, I’m not just focusing on chasing the next swell or the biggest wave. I’m embracing all the moments that life has to offer. I’m living as if I’m riding the biggest waves all day, every day.
Rohan’s closing meditation
GUNATILLAKE: Thank you Garrett.
It’s quite the journey that Garrett goes on, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I definitely recognize part of my own story in Garrett’s. I’ve definitely done the thing of chasing the echo of highs I’ve had. And I also know the kind of anxiety that comes with that mindset of always looking ahead for the next thing. And the missing out of what is actually present while you do that.
So what I’d like to share with you as part of our closing meditation together are two mini practices that each represent different ways of softening this urge to be elsewhere. So if you’d like to take a few breaths to reset how you are, we’ll begin.
Let’s start with that moment during that most delicious meal in Pienza. Despite being surrounded by so much that is wonderful, Garrett still feels the tug of having to check the wave reports, to know where the biggest action is around the world even though he won’t be going there. I know this one too. Modern life has so patterned me to check my phone a gazillion times a day, that it has become an instinctual reaction when the mind is idling a little, so it looks for stimulation. What helped change my relationship to it all, for me, was turning it into a meditation technique.
The first part of the technique is simply to watch the pattern while it is happening. Sometimes, you only notice it when your hand has already reached for your phone and is scrolling down the screen.
Other times, you catch it earlier in the process, and as you get better at noticing it, you might even catch it just as a twitch in the hand. Once you’ve become more aware of the whole process of going to check your messages or the wave reports or whatever, the second part of the technique is noticing if any particular emotion or feeling precedes the movement at all, precedes the urge.
As I started to do this over a few days, I noticed that there was a strong correlation between when I felt bored or lonely, and my then going to check my phone. When you are able to notice that snippet of emotion and leave it as it is, just by having that level of awareness in that moment can cut out the habit of constant checking. This starts to short-circuit the need to fix the boredom or the loneliness, and the pattern is able to fizzle itself out.
The second practice I want to share is a different take on this idea Garrett brings up of always leaning into the future, into the not-here, into the next.
For this mini-meditation, the invitation is to pay attention to our mind — its awareness, its thoughts, and classify. Classify what is happening in one of three ways: past, present, or future.
So if you’re thinking about what’s just happened, that’s past. If you’re itching to do something else, something different, that’s future. If your mind is settled and steady with things as they are happening now, then that’s present. Oh, and if you’re not sure, then you can just call that not sure.
So that’s the idea. We watch the mind and, every few seconds, classify what time zone the mind is in.
I’ll do a little demo of what’s going on in my mind right now:
Give that a go, saying the words out loud or silently to yourself if that’s easier.
Noticing what timezone your mind is in: past, present or future.
And if you notice your mind is flitting here and there, unable to settle into the present, why not take a tip from Garrett? Lean into the lovely. Notice what is here, what is in the present that has a quality of loveliness about it. Be that a bit of warmth, maybe some calm, even just a hint of a sense of quiet. Take your time.
Learn to notice what is here in the present that can be appreciated. When you find something, lean into it, soak your attention there. The more we do this, the more our minds want to rest in the present. A simple idea really, but it works.
Thank you Garrett for reminding us that when surfing the waves, we needn’t become entranced by them.
And thank you. Go well.
We’d love to hear your personal reflections from Garrett’s episode. How did you relate to his story? You can find us on all your social media platforms through our handle @MeditativeStory, or you can email us at: [email protected].