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Operation Surf

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I recently attended Blue Mind 3, a conference organized by peripatetic ocean advocate Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, where neuroscientists, artists, and ocean managers were invited to investigate our emotional response to the ocean. Through poetry, art, sound-scape, photographs, film, and research presentations on brain function, the intent was to explore the cognitive benefits of the ocean on human health and well-being.

It may be that we intuit this connection, through a kind of cumulative cultural agreement that being by the ocean, river, lake or pond instills a kind of peacefulness and calm, an alternative to the noisy, frenetic disorder of our lives from external circumstance, constant motion, accelerated expectation, the exigencies of time and occupation, and the resultant internal stress. Obviously, the increasing demographic of migration from inland to the coasts, as well as the desire to recreate or vacation by the ocean, are strong indicators of this phenomenon. While the classic literature of the sea documents such elements as fear, exhaustion, deprivation, and intense inter-personal relations aboard ship, the anthologies nonetheless often express a composite portrait of romance, revelation, and strength derived from constant, insistent experience with Nature.

The conference discussion focused on empathy -- the understanding of one's feelings and the attribution of such emotion to a thing or another. Empathy allows for a compelling link between a perception and a reality, between me and the ocean, between me and you as we experience the ocean together. If we can create empathy, the discussion went, we can extend understanding and awareness of the ocean's value beyond economic calculation, policy and governance -- even beyond science -- touching and reaching people in ways that will deepen their knowledge and commitment to the natural world around them. To do so, we must use every strategy available.

No matter what you think about this idea, let me give you an example of how it works. One presenter, Van Curaza, described the work of Operation Surf, a non-profit organization in San Luis Obispo, CA, with a program to expose wounded military to the healing power of the ocean through adaptive surfing taught by world-class instructors. According to Curaza, the participants "are being treated for various kinds of trauma including multiple amputations, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, burns, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." Curaza, the founder and director of the organization, understood the value and contribution of the surfing experience to his own recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. He realized the rehabilitative effect, increased confidence, and realization that he could surpass perceived personal limitations from the surfing experience, and resolved to extend that benefit to men and women whose bodies and lives have been dramatically and painfully altered by war. The ocean becomes for them more than a place for exuberance. Rather, it becomes a place to advance physical recovery, to demonstrate prowess, to build relationships and bonds with others, and to regain the psychological strength with which to transcend trauma, to return to their families, to reengage in positive and remunerative work, in the military and elsewhere, and to regain the wholeness of mind and spirit that will enable their survival and success.

The video showed astonishing examples, not just of individual joy and dramatic accomplishment, but also of attitudinal transformation -- if I can do this, then I can do anything. It was poetry, art, sound, and personal achievement all as one, an expanded presence of mind and mindfulness that transcended a wounded body to become a viable foundation for a life for individuals who at that point of violent accident, and thereafter, must have thought they did not have a future.

What a gift. This is empathy for real -- a physical and emotional connection between victim and therapeutic environment. between wound and cure, between despair and possibility -- all in the redemptive context of the sea. The literature and the science are affirmed: the ocean provides both tangible and intangible qualities for our lives -- indeed it is an immersion that we cannot live without.