West London Buddhist Centre

Saltwater Dharma

Published on Feb 27th 2019, in Blog

Ahead of the upcoming retreat: The Taste of Freedom from March 22 – 24 at Othona which is on the coast of Essex, Sophie reflects on the connection between Dharma practice and her love of the ocean. 



Just as the mighty ocean has one taste, the taste of salt,

so the Buddha’s teaching and way of life has one taste, the taste of freedom.


Last weekend, the coasts of the UK were visited by an enormous swell. I took the train down to the beach at East Wittering on the South Coast to check out the surfing potential for the weekend. What I found was that the usually calm ocean was frothing with energy, power, beauty and a fearsome grace. I had never seen it so big down there before, with waves over six foot rolling into view through a thick salt fog. I rented a board, pulled on layers of neoprene and got in. In addition to buckets of ice-cream headaches from the frigid water, here is what I noticed.


Paddling. There’s a lot of paddling. 

In surf films, you tend to only see the surfers once they are up and riding. In my experience, this part of surfing accounts for roughly 2% of a session, and that’s on a good day. The other 98% is paddling. Paddling against the waves, paddling for waves, paddling for waves and missing them, getting knocked off the board and climbing back on in order to paddle some more. It’s hard work and you have to be willing to do the grunt work and see it as just as much a part of the sport as the fun bits. It’s a bit like meditation. Washing around in feelings, thoughts and emotions 98% of the time is the practice. I might have some awareness here and there but mostly it’s just paddling.


Where I am is often not where I want to be.


Put another way, the waves always look like they’re breaking better somewhere else and often that place is somewhere I can’t even get to. To make things worse, it always looks like someone else is catching them all. I also always want to be better than I actually am. I can’t seem to accept the tyranny of being a perpetual intermediate level surfer. “If only I was better, that’d make everything a lot easier.” Unfortunately, I must’ve left some of that carefully cultivated compassionate acceptance on the shore. It’s extremely hard to just be where I find myself without wishing for things to be different.

The impermanence of joy. 


I made the trip down for another two days and the waves were smaller than the first and ideal for my level: small, clean and the sun was out. Paddling out was a breeze. Rainbows formed on the offshore spray. An unobstructed view of the horizon from the ‘line-up’. I got to connect to the wave’s brief green life – balanced on the point where the wave simultaneously comes into and crashes out of being. Oh the joy of 2%! But it is not long after the delight of catching a wave that the mind craves another one. A better one – longer, bigger, faster, cleaner. Somehow in the midst of all that beauty and change, it still seems reasonable to want to be permanently tapped into brevity’s unfolding. Monday was hard. My body ached. I felt fairly irritable cleaning the toilets first thing in the morning. But you know what they say, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”


I keep coming back and I don’t understand why.


There is something about water, especially the sea, that I find so compelling but I don’t know what it is exactly. I could say the same for the Dharma. The writer Nan Shepherd describes water as an elemental mystery and says that “like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me.” So perhaps that is the connection between Dharma practice and my love of water. It is the allure of something so simple and yet so powerful that I find irresistible. Inviting yet unfathomable. Easy in theory, difficult in practice.

There is no ocean in London but I could remind myself that wherever I am there are always plenty of opportunities to practice this saltwater Dharma. It’s not always glamorous and sometimes I’m left with nothing but the sting of saltwater up my nose. But all I know is that something in me longs to keep coming back. Back to the sea. Back to the board. Back to the body. Back to the breath. Back to the moment. Only in being prepared to be fully immersed lies the answer to the great mystery. 


If this has whetted your appetite for a trip to the coast (pun intended!), then please join us on The Taste of Freedom retreat at Othona from Friday March 22 to Sunday March 24. Othona is a comfortable but simple, ecologically sensitive retreat centre in Essex – beautiful, peaceful and just a few meters from the beach, amid salt marshes, woods and wildflower meadows. Book in person at reception or online at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-taste-of-freedom-weekend-retreat-at-othona-essex-tickets-54193145156

The Centre will be CLOSED on Sunday 25 and Monday 26 August for the Bank Holiday and Notting Hill Carnival. There will be no classes and events on these days. We will re-open on Tuesday 27 August.