Surfing Balagan Beach, Living a Good Life, and 3 Guidelines to Facing Any Fear

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Last year something crazy happened that I didn’t prepare for.

I have been meaning to share with this story with you for the past six months, but it has taken me a while to figure out how I wanted to tell it to you.

Telling the truth isn’t always easy, especially when it involves confessing our weaknesses, failures, or things that scare us. We hesitate before putting our self under a dim light. Of course, nothing can be more beneficial to our growth than failure or learning from our mistakes.

Richard Bach said,

“There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.”

It’s important to make note that I haven’t surfed religiously in almost four years. The last time my feet touched the fiberglass top of a surf board was in 2011. All of this changed during my recent trip to Bali, an island that quickly puts life in new perspectives and challenges inexperienced surfers.

Since arriving in the Bukit Peninsula, a small neck of land situated in the south of Bali, I have been dying to get into the water and shred some waves. Surfing is a passionate hobby of mine that I can’t seem to get enough of and being that I had the next three weeks off from teaching, I was sure to have plenty of time. For our semester break, Sarah and I decided to leave Thailand for a change and visit Indonesia ; the trip started in Bali which is famous for its huge swells and long lines of waves, a surfer’s paradise.

After two days of trying to find the perfect surf spot, Sarah and I found it at a place called Balagan Beach.

Reaching the sands of Balagan Beach turned out to be harder than we initially thought. We had to motorbike off-road for fifteen minutes through the Indonesian wilderness, take a ten-minute walk down a stone staircase chiseled into the side of a cliff, and then cross a barrage of palm trees that looked like a miniature rain forest right before reaching the sandy beach. After all that trekking, Sarah found a spot to lay by the water and I found what I was looking for in a nearby hut: surfboard rentals.  I rented the best all-around board I could find and begged the shopkeeper for some surfboard wax. Luckily, she managed to find some tucked away in the back of her kitchen among some dirty pots and pans. Asia never fails to surprise me.

Each of these moments brought me to the epic arrival of my surf adventure. I stood by the edge of the water feeling the ocean ripple across my toes and started preparing myself mentally before jumping in and paddling out. I kept telling myself that my first surfing experience in Bali was going to be awesome.

Before entering the water, I studied the waves for at least thirty minutes trying to find a pattern in the chaos that was huge, bone crushing sets in front of me. I wanted to time my entrance into the water perfectly, so I didn’t run the risk of getting stuck mid-paddle out in a big set of oncoming waves. For surfers this can be devastating, resulting in a pre-mature thrashing of getting pounded by waves over and over again resulting in the wasting of additional energy that I was sure to need later.

When the opportunity presented itself, I dove into the ocean, placing the board underneath my belly and smacking the water with a splash, causing raindrops of seawater to sprinkle across my back and shoulders. I had entered the water like this a thousand times, but doing it Bali felt like my first time. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the surf movies that my buddies and I would stay up past midnight watching and talking about how we wanted to travel the world and surf our life away.

I began paddling out near the far, left side of the beach. While paddling, I found myself looking past the water’s surface at the dirty green-colored algae, bright reef fish swimming among the debris in the water, and noticed the hard, sharp coral rock that sat effortlessly on the ocean floor. The oyster beds dared me to dance with them underwater, hoping for the chance that I tripped mid-tango giving them a chance to scar my leg or face permanently. Wiping out in shallow water is dangerous business for inexperienced surfers.

On the left there was a sharp 25-35 meter cliff that hung over the edge of the water. It was elevated too high above the water for scared surfers to try and escape rough surf and below the cliff sat water that was too shallow for surfers to jump in, short-cutting the long paddle out against persistent rollers. To my right was an open sea that swelled and barreled from time to time with huge hollow tubes of glassy white water. My surroundings started to remind me that I was not at my local surf scene littered with cool college dudes, long blonde hair, and chest-high storm swell, all of which look like a romantic comedy compared to Bali.

 

For years, I had been used to a different surfing scenery. North Carolina’s hurricane season provides random weeks of some of the East Coast’s most intense surfing. Most of these periods of “great” surfing consist mainly of wind-tossed, choppy sets, a strong undertow that wants nothing more than to drown you with its underwater smirk, and a ripping current that drags you from pier to pier like an overexcited dog on a leash. All of these pleasures can be expected when surfing during the meeting of a low-pressure storm system and the eastern coast of the United States. The biggest comfort in my mind that Bali lacked, besides the aforementioned, was the white sandy bottom, shell-less, safe-soled ocean floor I had been used to surfing for years.

I started surfing when I was 13 years old. My first surfboard was a West Coast designed Kinetic, 6’10” funboard, from a used surf shop in Ocean Isle Beach, NC. My dad decided to buy it for me after the surf shop owner, Scooter (imagine this guy from one of my favorite movies, FastTimes at Ridgemont High), mentioned he would throw in free leash. It was a used surfboard that had been all dinged up, split in the middle, repaired with glue, and the whole length of the board was discolored from sitting out in the sun too long. But, my dad paid for it and no thirteen year old could be happier than I was at the time.

After getting that board on my birthday, I surfed as much as possible for a kid my age. My family spent our summers at the beach until we decided to move to the coast a few years later. I learned what I could, when I could, from all the surfers around me. Summer days allotted plenty of time to practice the art of surfing. I fell in love with learning how to read the waves, ride the line, and merge my body with the hunk of the Styrofoam and fiberglass that kept me above the water.

In those days, I always felt surfing could teach people a lot about how to live their life. Sitting on my board floating on top of the ocean, the stillness of the water always connected with me deeper than the waves could themselves. All of that time sitting out in open water, waiting for the next set of waves to roll in, gave me a lot of time to think about how I wanted to live my life. In between episodes of deep thought and contemplation, I learned to ride the wave, moving with the flow of it, instead of fighting against it. The oscillating motion of the wave cannot be ignored, resisted, or controlled; the only option was to move in unison with it, accepting the highs and rising above the lows of a wave always bringing me closer to shore. Some waves were stronger than others; other times, I would wait for two hours to catch one good line. I learned to carve up and down, spray the lip, and hang 10. But, somehow, I ended up forgetting about all those long days contemplating the way I would live my life and I started to live it. As you know, life never goes as planned and eventually, working time replaced surfing time. After turning eighteen I learned an important life lesson: kids don’t have bills to pay, adults do.

Over the next few years, worrying about paying my bills on time, building my resume, and saving up for retirement dominated the majority of my time and thoughts. My wetsuit turned into a suit and tie and my weekly stents of surfing dissolved into management experience. Years later, I found myself caring more about gaining speed up the corporate ladder and less about climbing my own ladder. Life has a hard way of teaching us lessons it wants us to remember.

In recent years, I have noticed how easy it is to forget about making one’s life a priority, you know, making the way you live your life something valuable. If we don’t take charge of how we live our lives, others will gladly tell us how. The harsh world welcomes those who don’t understand their greatest gift: the ability to create their own path in life. It has taken me years to learn this lesson and my time away from water finally circled back around to being in the water in Bali. Knowing how to live a meaningful life and knowing how to surf like a pro share a special relationship; doing anything well or with hopes of mastery require three essential principles: patience, preparation, and courage.

 

 

Paddling towards the tip of peninsula, where the edge of the jagged cliff ended and met with the water, sat three men. Two European surfers and an Indonesian local sat furthest out in the surfing rotation, their bodies parallel to the cliff hanging above the water in front of them. Each of the three men had the right of wave, the right of way to ride the next wave of their choice in the oncoming set; everyone else was expected to wait their turn and surf their leftovers. Immediately, I could tell by the way they each of them surfed that all three of these guys lived in Bali. They were in killer shape, hosting the kind of surf bodies you see in cheesy surf movies from the 90’s or the kind your daughter, or maybe even your ex-girlfriend might fall in love with.

My paddle ended as I arrived at the back of the line-up. I was exhausted and sat on my board trying to recover my fatigued arms. I was relieved to have made it out safely. After catching my breath, I started thinking, “This is my chance to prove to myself, and maybe these other guys that I can hang with them, that I can handle big Indonesian surf.”

As I sat on my rented surfboard, I began reading the pattern of the waves. Each set consisted of 3-5 bigger waves that rolled in as a collective every ten minutes with about 10 seconds between each wave.  Before I knew it, doubt crept in on my conscious. I began to question whether I really possessed the skills to surf here. I soon found myself questioning the integrity of the voice in my head that kept saying, “You can do it. You’re as good as these guys.” The voice wanted to prove its worth and started making me lose my mind.

Every surfer knows that the big waves, the really big ones, have the ability to strip us down to the bone of our being, a fear that leaves nothing left but truth. In surfing, it’s easy to separate the passionate surfers from the pretenders out in open water, the phonies never stand up and ride a wave, preferring to sit like pretty boys on their surfboards glamorizing themselves and getting in everyone else’s way. As I waited for my turn in the line-up, a chance to prove myself, I continued batting the voice inside my head that was trying to psyche me up for an awesome ride. Before I knew it and for the first time in my life, I started feeling like one of the phonies I despised. The guys who were always in my surf path at home were starting to remind me of myself.

As a big set of waves approached, a realization of fear and doubt exploded in my head. When the first mammoth-sized wave moved underneath me, one I barely escaped the wrath of, I realized the stupidity of the situation I had put myself in. It had been too long since my last surfing session and these waves were becoming an infernal confrontation. Big-wave surfers who have barely made it over the lip of a cresting wave can contest to the severity of this moment, a point when one realizes that it is much better to paddle through the pain of tired biceps and sore shoulders than run the risk of getting pounded by the sea.

The waves were bigger than I had estimated from the shore; they always are. In Bali, they’re even bigger. In the past, I always jumped right in the water and charged full force, but this time was different. Even though I kept telling myself, “I have surfed big waves before, I know I can handle these waves,” my body spoke in a different language. As the moving walls of water approached, I wanted no part in surfing these Goliaths. Now, my only choice was paddling over the oncoming waves and avoiding the possibility of getting sucked into the wave’s underbelly, somersaulting into the coral rock below me.

The thought of catching a wave, dropping in, and riding the line shook me unstable. The feeling in my gut magnified when I watched the Balinese surfer catch the second wave of the set. His board control and body movements clarified he lived on the island of the Gods (the meaning of Bali); watching him spray the other surfers in the line-up, his line-up, looked like he was anointing them with holy water, an gesture that said, “Welcome to my island. Try and keep up.”

After watching this demigod surf, my cocky confidence that told me before, “I can hang with these guys; I can surf like them,” was lost at sea and replaced with a feeling of petrifaction. My shaky gut solidified with fear and my nerves ran wildly in place. The entirety of my inner body felt like a treadmill running rampantly at full-speed, but never actually going anywhere like the people like run them. I was stuck in place.  My skin had grown goose-bumps from the cool breeze whipping around the cliff mixing with the warmth of the sun’s rays that peeked out from time to time behind the clouds.

As the waves continued to increase in size with every set, my spot in the line-up neared the head. The moment to test my skills had finally arrived. By this point, I was glued to my board, perfectly content in being a spectator. I was an amateur among these men and I knew it. I had lost my desire to surf. And yet, as I sat there in the middle of the ocean, I was forced to paddle further and further away from the shore to escape a brutal beating from the waves. The sets kept swelling bigger and bigger, breaking sooner and further out than previously before, demolishing the surfers too close to shore, unable to escape the danger zone of the waves crashing. I watched as they got chewed up, spit out, and dragged back towards the shore only to have the same thrashing happen again.

I barely escaped the trouble myself. Out of the thirty surfers in the water, only two of us managed to survive the latest apocalypse brought on by the last set of 15 foot waves crashing and drowning bodies of men into the shallow reef below. The only other survivor to my knowledge was the local Balinese superstar who managed to catch, stand up, drop-in, and ride the wave of death over the others getting punished for being too close to shore.

And even after all of this, some eager part of me kept hoping a small, perfect wave would come my way, something manageable, a childish wish, safe & sound, a wave that wouldn’t kill me, drown me, or injure me long enough to risk ruining the three weeks of travel ahead of me. I had psyched myself up to the point of almost believing that I would find a wave like this, but in the back of my head the fear of getting hurt multiplied as I noticed the waves were not getting any smaller. This internal battle of do or die was eating me alive and the last thing I wanted to do was end up in a hospital bed with a gashed leg, face, or both of which could lead to serious infection from the reef. Surfers call this injury reef rash. I had a responsibility to Sarah and a long trip ahead of me to think about as well. What in the world was I doing out here?

And as all things in life reach their end, my surfing journey concluded markedly different than I had imagined earlier that day. I never did surf a wave at Balagan Beach; my fear got the best of me. By the end of my rental period, I mustered up the courage to paddle into shore, slowly and carefully managing to avoid injury. I kept imagining that the other surfers must have been laughing to themselves as they watched me paddle in to shore instead of riding a wave in, but at that point, my pride had dissolved entirely and I could care less what they thought. I had already admitted to myself that I wasn’t ready to surf the biggest waves I had ever encountered in my life. Being out there was enough. I knew I had tried my best and the only thing that would make me happy now was dry land. I felt like I was in the movie Waterworld where everyone is forced to live on a landmass of rigged boats and damaged docks. In the movie, global warming floods the planet and dry land becomes a legend. Dirt and sand become valuable commodities of trade and fresh water is a rare commodity. The only problem with my current situation, beside wanting to reach the shore, was that I wasn’t anything like the hero that Kevin Costner played. His superpower, a unique mutation behind his ears gave him the ability to breathe underwater like a fish, an obvious advantage in a world without land. My role was similar to the  little girl who couldn’t swim.

By some gift of ocean grace, I reached the shore unharmed after riding an eight-foot wall of white water from the remnants of a crashed wave. I stepped carefully out of the water making sure not to cut my foot open on the oyster sharp bottom, grabbed my rental, and walked to where Sarah was sunbathing on the beach. I collapsed onto the chair beside her and listened to my erratic heartbeat slow to a peaceful pace and whisper, “You’re alive.” I couldn’t believe it.

Without ever surfing a single wave at Balagan, I survived the wildest surf experience of my life. The fear during this accomplishment gave me the most intense endorphin rush I had ever encountered. Even though I never stood up, simply being in the water at Balagan was a unique challenge in and of itself.

The Fear of Uncertainty in The Open Waters of Life

To accomplish our goals, we must prepare ourselves to face the challenges ahead; our worst devils are encountered in the face of uncertainty. Fear is always present; sometimes, we feel the effects of fear stronger than others, especially when trying to do things we have never done.

Doubt is a certainty in the event of change. Most of time we can accomplish our goals and push our minor and irrational fears aside, however, when we reach for goals higher than we have prepared ourselves for, fear acts as a guide that tries to save us from additional harm. In these special cases, we should be grateful for fear because it validates that we are testing our limits and the extent of our preparation.

Put simply, fear protects us from achieving our desires too early.

Fear shows us where we need to grow.

The path to success is littered with fears: our fears and the fears of others that we allow influence over us.

To accomplish our goals, we must develop courage, specifically, the courage to live a life that’s worth living.

Fear is always there, always present, always testing us.

Fear is an expression of our personal limitations.

Fear tells us if we are truly ready to achieve what we want.

Surfing at Balagan has taught me that life isn’t about conquering our fears, it’s about facing them.

It’s not about trying to control fear or pretend it doesn’t existent.

Fear does exist. We create it in our minds.

Developing the courage to face your fears will lead you to understand the importance of your goals.

If you really desire to achieve a goal in life, you will prepare yourself and confront fear when the time comes.

All you have to do is muster the strength to face your fears.

Can you sit still and accept what scares you most?

Can you learn to live with fear instead of pitting yourself against it?

There is always a fear of getting hurt, especially in relationships. Some people are scared to show their true personalities to others. We are scared they will judge us, or worse, they might not accept us for who we are. Sometimes, the best way to handle this is not to dive into the deep end and see if we can swim, but to start in shallow water, moving patiently towards the waves ahead. Timing must be right if we are to prevent a thrashing.  When the waves come, let courage, patience, and preparation be your guide.

Try and face your fears one at a time, slowly, and don’t bite off more than you can chew; one fear at a time prevents choking.

Talk yourself through the internal battle of fear, be honest with yourself, and stay true.

Whatever you do, at least try.

Don’t avoid the water.

Don’t be afraid to get wet.

You can always get out, dry off, and try again later.

 

 

 

About Stephan Stansfield

Stephan is the owner, creator, and editor of Peregrine Poise.
He is currently traveling and teaching around the world. When he is not helping others discover their true potential, he finds time to surf, read, and reflect on the important issues of living a good life.

Comments

  1. A truly amazing article brother, I think my favorite yet.

    • Stephan Stansfield says

      Thanks dude! Knowing you enjoyed reading this article puts a smile on my face. Oh and your email address is still cracking me up.

  2. I read this piece of writing completely about the resemblance of latest and previous
    technologies, it’s amazing article.

  3. Absolutely beautiful article. Thank you for explaining so much about facing the chaos of life with grace and honesty.

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  1. […] the creative process to become an outlet for our unique self-expression, creativity will help us to overcome these irrational fears and mature. Putting our nervous energy into our creative work, we can begin to open up and show […]