Saltwater Sessions: Where Surfing Meets Mindfulness

Saltwater Sessions is a therapeutic surfing program that combines mindfulness, meditation, and surfing. Dr. Lena Dicken created Saltwater Sessions after writing her dissertation on mindfulness cognitive therapy and surfing, and has since created multiple surfing programs at in-treatment centers throughout Southern California.

I sat down with the surfer and entrepreneur to chat about how the sport dramatically changed her life and why there are so many lessons in the water that can be used in everyday life.

What got you interested in psychology? Did you always know you wanted to become a psychologist?

I was always the person my friends went to for any sort of issue, whether that was boy problems or family issues. I guess I have always been a good listener. My mom passed away when I was four and I think that had a big influence on my ability to tolerate pain (both mine and other’s) and not get scared away from it. I think sometimes people hear something awful going on in someone else’s life and they’re freaked out because they don’t know how to deal with it because they can’t fix it, so they change the subject because they are uncomfortable. Going through something so difficult at such a young age helped me understand other people’s loss and become okay with loss and sadness. It sounds sad, but I had a great family that allowed me to process my mom’s death in a healthy way so I could ultimately help others.

Had you always been a surfer? How did you get started surfing?

No! I actually grew up five hours inland! I started surfing in the middle of transferring universities during my undergrad degree. I went to a music festival with my friends and someone gave me a one way ticket to the island of Kauai. That’s when I started surfing. I had always been a water person but Hawaii was where I became obsessed with it! I ended up dedicating a year of my life to surfing. I deferred from the school I was supposed to transfer to and lived on Kauai for a year, got certified to teach yoga, taught in both Mexico and Costa Rica, did some traveling, and then found my way back to school.

When you came back from traveling, did surfing remain a part of your daily life?

Yea, there is this saying, “Once a surfer, always a surfer.” You don’t just stop surfing. It’s really something that gets in your bones. The idea of not surfing was not an option so I actually ended up going back to school in Hawaii and then moving to Los Angeles, where I am now. To this day (I am 35 now and learned to surf at 21), I have never considered moving inland for a second.

How did you make the connection between mindfulness and surfing?

Surfing changed my entire life. I did Saltwater Sessions on my own inadvertently. It was life changing for me. There is something so humbling about how difficult it is. I didn’t set out to start this program — it happened organically. I was interning at a treatment center the second year of my masters program and they had something called surf therapy. When I went on to my second treatment center they saw I had participated in that and they knew I was a surfer, so they asked if I could start a surf therapy program for them, and I agreed. Around that time I was choosing my dissertation topic through an applied dissertation (which is when you apply your research to a new type of therapy) and needed a type of therapy to choose. The act of surfing and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy was one I was learning a lot about at the time, and respected greatly. That’s when the two came together.

What inspired you to start Saltwater Sessions?

I was asked to do it as a part of an internship. I piloted at the treatment center in a group setting.

For addiction, the community aspect is really important for helping people maintain sobriety. It’s so helpful for people to not feel alone in their struggle and in their journey.

Once I piloted it at this treatment center, I got really great feedback. I had no business experience prior, so I felt like I was tripping over my own two feet most of the time… but here we are!

What does an average session look like?

It’s like a surfing sandwich, where surfing is the meat and bread is the group therapy and mindful discussion. Week one is focused on how to sit, breathe, calm down your mind, and observe what’s going on without being judgemental about it. We talk about what struggles we are going through and what we want to work through. It’s for people who are interested in a shared experience. Then we go surfing for about an hour and a half and afterwards, talk about how the experience was. What was challenging? What was awesome? What did you feel? Surfing is a really hard thing to do when people start so it brings a lot of feelings of frustration and failure up. We discuss if our expectations were met and how to take our experience in the water and apply it to our lives and whatever it is that we’re struggling with. We meet once a week.

What level of experience do participants have with surfing?

It’s mostly all beginners. We’re using it like the developing of a muscle to learn how to do skills for new and difficult things in your life. So, if someone is risk averse, this is a really good thing for them to break out of and challenge themselves.

Is there something about surfing that makes it unique for this mindfulness-based cognitive therapy? Is it compatible with other activities?

It’s a yes and a no. It can be adapted to a lot of things, but in my opinion it wouldn’t be quite as potent. What’s special about surfing is that you’re outdoors in nature. There are studies that show physical exercise in nature verse in the gym are better for your mental health.

Being in, or near water, has shown to be even more beneficial than just being outside. It has been scientifically proven to calm our minds and let the frontal lobe in our brain relax and chill for a moment.

It has the ability to be fun and super challenging, while simultaneously bringing up feelings of frustration, making it so we can face other, more difficult feelings. Every time someone gets out of the water they have a high that stays with them the entire day. I think that’s the reason why a lot of people can’t stop. It’s the perfect antidote to being addicted to a drug where your pleasure centers are hijacked — now you have this ability to increase your oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin levels naturally!

Any tips for coping with anxiety?

If you’re in a stressful situation, go for a walk and try to get out of your own head. Go through the five senses. What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you see? Additionally, a few minutes of meditation with a calm, even headspace can make a difference. Don’t think about it as something to check off on your list — meditation is something you want to bring into every moment of your life.

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