Meditation skill: Surfing the Urge

Sur­fing the Urge: A dis­tress tol­er­ance skill

I learned this med­i­ta­tion tech­nique from my free­d­iv­ing coach. It’s a tech­nique we em­ploy dur­ing a breath-hold to help us deal with an in­creas­ingly strong urge to breath.

Un­der­stand that the urge to breath is driven by the body’s de­sire to rid it­self of car­bon diox­ide (CO2)--not (as some as­sume) your body’s de­sire to take in oxy­gen (O2). The urge to breath is a warn­ing, how­ever. It can be safely ig­nore up to a cer­tain limit. That limit, for our pur­poses, is the loss of con­scious­ness (cere­bral hy­poxia); how­ever, the urge to breath be­comes quite strong well be­fore your blood oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tion low enough to cause a black­out.

Un­der nor­mal con­di­tions, the hu­man body has a blood-oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tion of around 98 to 100 per­cent (the higher num­ber be­ing the most oxy­gen that the blood could pos­si­bly con­tain). Phys­i­cal stress or sick­ness can de­crease oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tion to about 95 per­cent. Few healthy peo­ple will ever go be­low this, but dur­ing dives, ex­pert di­vers have reg­istered oxy­gen-sat­u­ra­tion lev­els as low as 50 per­cent, an ex­traor­di­nar­ily low num­ber. Oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tions be­low 85 per­cent gen­er­ally cause an in­creased heart rate and im­paired vi­sion; 65 per­cent and be­low greatly im­pairs ba­sic
brain func­tions; 55 per­cent re­sults in un­con­scious­ness. But well-trained di­vers have not only re­mained con­scious with oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tions of 50 per­cent but main­tained mus­cle con­trol and ex­tremely low heart rates, re­port­edly as low as seven beats per­
minute.

Hold your breath too long, and you start to feel malaise. The urge to breath ap­pears and it seems as if the malaise will only in­crease in in­ten­sity un­til you sub­mit to re­leas­ing you breath and start­ing to breath again. But what hap­pens if you don’t give in and keep hold­ing your breath? Ul­ti­mately static ap­nea (breath hold) is a mat­ter of pure, mind-over-mat­ter willpower.

After a while, along with the dis­com­fort, you’re start to ex­pe­rience in­vol­un­tary con­trac­tions in your di­a­gram. Th­ese is where the med­i­ta­tion tech­nique comes in. When you feel a con­trac­tion, just ob­serve it. As they in­crease in fre­quency, sim­ple wit­ness them as if you were a third-party.

At first, you may feel like these urges will rise up, strong and strong and be­come more and more un­bear­able, but if you sim­ple ob­serve and re­main de­tached, you’ll no­tice a pat­tern. The urges come in waves. They build up to a peak, and then they re­cede. As the in­ten­sity of an urge builds, it may feel alarm­ing, but if you stay calm and oc­cupy your mind by fol­low­ing the urge as it ebbs and flows. In the be­gin­ning, there are long pauses be­tween each wave, and the wave is of­ten lit­tle more than a twitch. Over time they come more fre­quently and with more in­ten­sity. But all the while you sim­ple fol­low the urge as it rises, neu­trally ob­serv­ing, in non-at­tached and non-judge­men­tal man­ner, how it differed from the one be­fore it. As the con­trac­tions in­crease in fre­quency and strength, you can try and soften them with by gen­tly con­tract­ing your di­aphragm to smooth them out. And know­ing that it too shall pass.

When you ex­pe­rience an urge and then act on that im­pulse, your brain makes the con­nec­tion that you can only make the urge go away by en­gag­ing in the be­hav­ior. This con­nec­tion can cre­ate a habit or au­to­matic be­hav­ior.

“Sur­fing the urge” is a mind­ful­ness tech­nique that can be used not only to help free­d­i­vers, by also to deal with pain man­age­ment, anger man­age­ment, and im­pulse con­trol is­sues such as sex and eat­ing ad­dic­tions. In­stead of au­to­mat­i­cally act­ing on de­struc­tive im­pulses, it can help peo­ple re­gain some con­trol over their urges re­sist­ing un­til they pass. When you no­tice an urge, rather than fight­ing against it, imag­ine you are on a sur­fboard rid­ing with it. No­tice the shift­ing sen­sa­tions, in a non-at­tached and non-judg­men­tal man­ner, how they rise and fall, come and go.