Family: The author’s father was also a surfer who loved the ocean. Courtesy image

A great surfer, the late Andy Irons, once shared a mantra that resonates with me: “No matter what, when I’m in the water, even if I don’t catch a wave and just swim in the ocean, I always come out a better person.” 

That holy, healing water surely helped my father, who suffered from PTSD after serving as a medic in World War II. He served in Patton’s Army and watched comrades’ bodies being torn apart at the Battle of the Bulge and other horrific firefights. He never talked once about the trauma with me, but clearly the ocean became a balm for his troubled soul. 

A career lifeguard, my father would even spend his days off from work at the beach. I have a photograph of him surfing a small wave in Malibu in the early 1950s, his hands dangling at his side, knees slightly bent in a totally cool, relaxed pose. You get the sense that he’d finally found some peace after all he’d been through. 

I used to find similar solace in the surf, but today’s increasingly crowded lineups are bumming me out. Paddle-battling for mediocre waves and overhearing Type-A private-school admission woes ain’t my idea of relaxing. Instead, you might find me clearing my head by swimming at a nearby public pool (not SMC — but that’s a subject of another column.) Or pretzling myself into the lotus position on the sand (oh, those tight hamstrings and aging hips!). 

In these strange and unsettling times, I visit the beach several times a week to meditate. But quiet reflection on the sand isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Sitting ramrod straight, I face the ocean and try to clear my mind. I focus on my breath and “being where I am.” I close my eyes and visualize a giant ice cube melting in an all-white room. (I know that sounds goofy, but it works.)

Meditation provides a natural high that long-distance runners might experience. On a good day, I still my hummingbird brain for a half-hour or so. I imagine the stiff ocean breeze blowing out negative forces in my life while the warming sun bakes in positive energy. (Again, I know how New Age-y that sounds, but it’s true.)

But meditating can be maddening. My mind wanders. I ponder what to make for dinner. I open my eyes and find myself distracted by surfers catching a good wave. Other times the smell of skunky marijuana tugs at me. I find myself grumbling about a pair of toddlers shrieking gleefully as they dash madly up the sand to avoid an incoming wave. Can’t these yapping rugrats shut up? I check myself, realizing that I’m verging on old-man-standing-on-his-lawn-and-yelling-at-the-clouds territory. 

These competing activities remind me why our shoreline matters so much. It provides enormous environmental, economic, recreational and therapeutic value to millions. More than half the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean. The beach economy generates nearly $2 billion in annual tax revenue in L.A. County. But I often fail to account for how much the Bay improves our spiritual health.

The beach is my church, temple, mosque and synagogue – as it is for many non-religious people. I can find comfort in solitude, or fellowship with my fellow believers. I gain a sense of serenity, clarity and humility. I like to believe I’m my best self at the beach.

I will never know the horrors my father went through. But I do feel bound to him – and some greater force – when I meditate on the sand. I feel love and gratitude. I’m thankful for the beach. My father courted my mother on the sand while lifeguarding at Castle Rock. As a boy, I gained strength and confidence learning to navigate pounding surf with him. As a father, I hold close the memories of lazy summer days at Tower 26 with my sons and other young families from Santa Monica Alternative School House. As a communications professional, the ocean has given me purpose in my advocacy work. 

So next time you come to the shore, try sitting down, closing your eyes and emptying your mind. Be grateful for the sea. You might be surprised about what you think when you think about nothing. 

Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.