Psychoanalysis 101:
'Hey Mac — Freud Don't Surf'

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD

Borg, Jr., M. B. (2001). Psychoanalysis 101: 'Hey Mac — Freud don't surf'.
East Coast Surf News, 3 (7): 18, 40.

IS SURFING DIAGNOSABLE? I wondered as I was lying on the couch in my own analysis for analysts-in-training looking at the snow flurries raging outside my analyst's Central Park West office window. I moved to New York after growing up in Southern California to undergo psychoanalytic training. As a psychoanalytic candidate, I must undergo my own "training analysis," three-times a week for (at least) four years.

New York is the Mecca of psychoanalysis. For a psychoanalyst, New York might be the equivalent of such world famous surf spots as Mavericks in Northern California, Kirra, in Australia, or the Hawaiian North Shore. Psychoanalysts paddle out through the day-to-day swells of the psychological defenses that our patients use to keep themselves afloat. Eventually, we hope to make it out into the deep raging waters of whatever neurotic, sometimes psychotic, processes that come rolling in like overhead set s throughout the sessions. This is where our patient's deepest dreams and desires, hopes and dreads (Mitchell, 1993) upsurge, like a wave hit by a harsh off-shore wind, and come shore-breaking into the analytic relationship. Quite often this occurs with all the fury and desperation of the drowning person as he or she pushes the lifeguard's head under for one last gasp of breath — even though to do so means certain death for both.

The standard instruction in psychoanalysis is simply, "Say whatever comes to mind." This is strikingly similar to what Barilotti (2000) reported in Surfer Magazine as a surf tip for the backside neophyte: "let your mind romp" (p. 110). As I lied on the couch free-associating, the psychoanalytic equivalent of 'romping', my mind wandered to what my buddies in California and I called "No Matter What Waves." These are waves that, when paddling out, seem so big and fierce that we find ourselves chanting either to ourselves or each other, "NO MATTER WHAT" just to get out there; then, more emphatically, to take off with the familiar shout: "COWABUNGA!" — Really!

I began telling my analyst this; I told him about how I am compelled by taking off on a right-breaking wave into the barrel of the left peak as it crashes toward me, essentially creating an impossible-to-escape situation. I described this to him with a kind of maniacal pressure in my speech, my fists clenched, my heartbeat rising.[ ] My mind was completely adrift as I combined my own historical memories about surfing with an old article that I read in Surfer Magazine when I was a kid about T.O.A.D.S. (Take Off and Die Situations). I wanted to pop up and start surfing his couch, and I am sure that my non-verbal communications insinuated such as I contorted my body and shot my legs and feet up as if I was doing some kind of inverted aerial on the couch. He perked up and I could hear the scribbling he was doing in his notebook had notably intensified.

"Hmmmmm…" he said in his thick German accent, "It sounds as if you are both thrilled and terrified by acting out the fantasy of re-entering the womb…!" Don't get me wrong, contemporary psychoanalysts are hesitant, these days, to interpret each and every patient's material in the direction of our old Freudian friend Oedipus Rex; that is, that we all want to kill our fathers and have sex with our mothers (or vice-versa should you be a woman). Yet he may have had a point.

Before moving too far afield from the classical notion of the Oedipus complex, let me explain it in relation to the topic at hand. The Oedipal complex refers to the most important relationships that the (in this case, male) infant has in early childhood; his relationship with his mother and father. It is also about power; the power of the boy's instinctual desire for his mother, the power of envy and anger over the father's actual and fantasized (sexual) relationship with mom. Equally important, it also relates to the overwhelming and anxiety-provoking power of the father to destroy (or castrate) the boy for both his desire for his mom and his envy and anger toward dad (because he has access to mom in a way forbidden to him).

The infant is often overwhelmed by the sense of threat that the father's power represents. "Castration anxiety," an essential Freudian concept, relates to the sense of terror that the little boy feels when he sees a little girl, who obviously has no penis, and says to himself: "My God, where did it go? This kid must have had similar feelings (desire, envy, anger) and, because of that, got it cut off." Therefore, rather than competing with the seemingly indestructible father for the mother's love, and facing the dire consequences, the child relinquishes his desire and, instead, models himself on his father. This results in the formation of the super-ego (conscience) and is considered to be the typical (i.e., "normal") resolution of the oedipal situation.

The infant, then, is often in a position very similar to the position that we are in when a surfer looks up at the face of a good-sized wave. Ever notice how, when you're lying on your board, waves invariably seem to be about three times as big as they seem when you're standing up on your board? As infants, we all have to negotiate our desires in the face of the huge ominous (not to mention "gnarly") presence of our father in a weak, ill-coordinated, and hardly functional baby's body. Oedipal resolutions are always in the form of a compromise between raw desire and so-called reality. Perhaps then, as we negotiate the face of the wave, we once again come into contact with the power and fantasized relentless mercilessness (castration?) of our fathers prior to whatever compromise we find with him (as the representative of the social realm — or in Lacan's (1978) terms, the "symbolic order").

Surfer-cum-philosopher Sam George (2001) notes a surfing truism: "Real surfing will always be wet" (p. 17). The psychoanalytic equivalent would run: Oedipal solutions will always be conflicted. The Oedipal resolution leaves a residue of bittersweet longing, a longing that Freud thought, even in the best of Oedipal solutions, could only be partially resolved. Perhaps in surfing, in our perpetual attempts to challenge — or even conquer — the sea, we are coming closer to the mark.

As surfers, our boards are a thinly fiber-glassed foam version of our once totally vulnerable selves. As adults, this vulnerability is usually ignored — allowing us to renegotiate for the power that we relinquished in the Oedipal surrender. Over and over again we confront, and perhaps subsequently disavow, the existential dilemma of our own powerlessness. The wave becomes the father we could not overcome, but neither have we completely come to terms with this insult to our omnipotence. Through surfing, we might have another shot at him; and, at least symbolically, we might also experience the epiphany of limitlessness. Of course, our own limitations are always gnawing at us and, in therapy, goals often relate to accepting them. But just for a moment, maybe even two, when we make that impossible (and "radical") drop, when we hit the lip of the wave just right and — POW! — find ourselves flying, or when we manage to slot ourselves into those brief perfect moments in the barrel, we may transcend them.

So how might all this show up, or even make sense, in regard to psychoanalysis? The pivotal technique that essentially defines psychoanalysis is transference analysis. Transference is, essentially, the process whereby a patient reacts to the analyst as if the analyst were some significant person, often a parent, from the past. Here's the way that psychoanalysis works: The patient (or "analysand") brings all of the personal history that exists in his or her head into the analytic relationship and, over time, that history begins to play itself out in the relationship that the patient has with the analyst. In other words, the patient begins to react to the analyst as if the analyst were a previously experienced person.

For instance, you come in and tell me, as your analyst, about a recent victory you experienced at a surf contest. I am silent at first, waiting for you to continue. Then, after a while, I give some vague response like "what was that like?" You become frustrated, you think that my response was unenthusiastic and non-supportive. You read into this that I am envious of your triumph and then react to me as if I am jealous and threatened by your success. I might, then, begin to assume that you felt that someone in your upbringing conveyed to you some sense of threat and jealousy by your developmental progress and that you are reacting to me now as if I am actually that person. You have "transferred" the emotions that you have, or have had, regarding that old situation into the current analytic situation with me. At some point, if the evidence holds up, I will interpret accordingly.

Transference is something like when a great white shark mistakes a surfer (and surfboard) for a seal and hence attacks. However, unlike the great white, who most likely will spit the surfer out when it realizes its mistake, you, as the patient are more likely, once you have tasted blood, to chomp even more voraciously. You may be quite unwilling to perceive the distinction between me, as the analyst, and whoever it is you think/feel/believe I am. After all, why would you want to give up a shot at taking a bite out of an old significant other who seems to have come around again? In psychoanalysis we consider the transference to be the place where there is a blurring of the boundaries between past and present as well as between reality and fantasy. By the way, we don't believe that transference is limited to the psychoanalytic setting, but that it generally occurs in all of our significant relationships. It's just a lot more likely to be interpreted and made useful in analysis.

Freud emphasized repeatedly that we cannot ignore or repress our primitive motivations (sex and aggression) without conjuring neurotic symptoms, for instance a phobia or counterphobia. In essence, psychological symptoms signal the return of the repressed. Quite often this happens unconsciously, without our awareness. In this process, instead of expressing our emotions directly, we act them out. Simply put: You are in perfect position and take off on a wave, but I snake you and your feelings are hurt. But being a cool surfer, you will instead feel angry (it's a lot cooler to feel anger than it is to feel hurt, right?). Hurt, and even the anger you feel in reaction to it, are fairly uncomfortable emotions, however, so they'll probably interfere with your take-off on the next set. You've got to expel those feelings somehow. When you paddle over and punch me, you have acted out your feelings. The problem with acting out, however, is that whatever underlying feelings the incident stirred up in you will not be resolved. Therefore, if it hurt when I snaked your wave because you actually perceive yourself to be a snake-able kook, it's not likely that punching me will help to resolve this problem. In fact, it will probably hurt (and hence piss you off) even more the next time.

In psychoanalysis, a lot of emotion gets acted out in session, or played out in the interaction between patient and analyst. We call this enactment and it can be a powerful form of communication between patient and analyst about the transference that is showing up in the patient-analyst interaction (Levenson, 1991). In the session with my analyst, I found myself enacting some strange sequence of maneuvers that put me in touch with feeling the kind of exhilaration that I experience when I am popping up and initiating my decent into the face of the monster (wave). My stomach tightened, my teeth were clenched and for a moment I had that strange sense of the surreal that blasts into me when the wave, almost anthropormorphized, simultaneously accepts both my presence and the ruthlessness of my actions — "carving" it up!

fThis being the case, it seemed that in the session with my analyst I was reacting to what was going on as if I were surfing. The analytic setting became the steep face of some huge crushing left, barreling toward me on the lip of a right-breaking-no-escape situation. There is, I will reiterate, something both terrifying and thrilling about that experience! So why would I be bringing in that situation unless it served to link me to some other equally compelling and perhaps emotionally-related experience? Perhaps, as my analyst had earlier insinuated (interpreted), at some deep level I dreamed of that ultimate back door tube ride back through my mother's birth canal (back inside where it's safe).[ ] Birth may be like paddling out into warm tropical waters, only to be shot out of the barrel of a perfect vaginal breaker with some prescient awareness that there will be years of cold lake-like waters ahead, and even when the waves do pick up…well… "There's no place like home."

It is ironic to think that the words of the seemingly immortal, anorexic, drug-addicted Dorothy who was tornadoed away from her home in Kansas would so adequately describe Freud's underlying assumption. After all, psychoanalysis is based on this somewhat proverbial statement and assumes that we carry "home," and all our relationships from our childhood home, around with us in our heads. We then reenact or seek it in our relationships with significant others (and recreate it in the transference).

In the course of an analysis, the analyst seeks to raise awareness about the unhappy, often traumatic, early experiences or fantasies that the patient has repressed. Of course, it is often more agreeable to forget certain things than to remember them. Yet, in analysis we see that many people return over and over again to things that could have never been pleasurable. Freud (1910) called this the "repetition compulsion," a compulsion to repeat painful experience. The way that unconscious conflict often manifests itself is through the actions or rituals of our everyday life that represent the repetition of repressed emotions and allude to our own forgotten history. Inhibitions are the consequences of repressed desires, yet we enact these desires in our repetitive, sometimes symptomatic behavior.

So, what might our repetitive or ritualistic behaviors in regards to surfing be telling us about what we want? Are we a community of masochists, who wake for dawn patrols before work, strap our boards to surf racks, don our cumbersome regalia (wetsuits, etc.), and plunge into ice-cold water in the hope of navigating our way into waves that could potentially kill us, then head dutifully to work? Or, perhaps in the transference that develops between us and the waves we carve we experience a re-vitalization, a re-linking of past and present, fantasy and reality. Of course, the potentially overwhelming anxiety that this creates might call for a powerful defense mechanism — counterphobia may be just that.

The concept of counterphobia might also help us to understand surfing. In utilizing counterphobia as a means of interpreting surfing behavior, we are going further back in history than we initially went when we explored the Oedipus-surf connection.

To address counterphobia, we must first turn to its counterpart, the phobia.[ ] Phobias are classified as anxiety disorders. Phobias are seen as a means of coping via total avoidance, and are used to prevent a person from coming into contact with the kind of situation that he or she fears will lead to a loss of control. The person experiencing a phobia would do absolutely anything to avoid the situation or thing that they are afraid of.

Counterphobia, by contrast, is a way of describing a compulsion to run headfirst into the very thing or situation that we are terrified of. Perhaps then in the counterphobia of surfing, and in the underlying anxiety that it engenders, we merge somehow with the feared situation. We become symbiotically engulfed in a reenacted, previously feared, yet ultimately stimulating and hoped for, trauma. Is it possible that, as my analyst interpreted, this trauma could be birth? From this perspective, birth can be seen as being both the first and the most ultimate over-the-falls experience. Is it possible that we could be compelled by such an experience? To answer that, let me ask: How many times have you anxiously awaited (or re-wound) the wipe-out portion of your favorite surf flick?

A major part of general psychological functioning is devoted to minimizing anxiety (Sullivan, 1953). With this in mind, it is striking to think that a worldwide community (of surfers) has developed behavioral patterns that run absolutely counter to this assumption. As phobias are anxiety disorders, counterphobia is an anti-anxiety technique. Yet, anxiety, in the psychic world, may at time prove a valuable asset. When tolerated, anxiety can be seen as an internal signal that something beyond awareness is pressing to emerge. Thus anxiety can lead to expansion of awareness. If it is experienced and examined, rather than blurred, avoided, ignored, or repressed, there is the possibility of acquiring new understanding. So, in our own counterphobic displays in the ritual of surfing, we are brought into contact with both real and fantasized connections we have with our personal past and made increasingly able to tolerate the anxiety generated at the intersection of what we most dread and what we most desire.

Back to my initial question: Is surfing diagnosable? Like many other psychoanalytic questions, perhaps this must remain unanswerable. Yet, "the psychoanalytic question," when it all boils down is: What do you want? Coming to terms with the answer to that question is a process fraught with anxiety, and psychoanalysis tries to understand how we protect ourselves from that anxiety by hiding our deepest desires from ourselves. Maybe by being able to experience and tolerate the anxiety that works to hide our desires from ourselves we can become more aware of what it is that we want.

Or maybe not, maybe we surfers just act-out all this stuff, enacting our neuroses, psychoses, symptoms, etc. all over the freakin' place. So what? There's probably not a surfer on this planet who has any question about what he or she ultimately wants! Certainly Bruce Brown's Endless Summer film(s) tap into the collective unconscious (Jung, 1933) of the surfer community: What does the surfer really want? — Of course, the "endless summer!" (Is that really even a question?) Therefore, diagnosable or not, psychoanalytic treatment for whatever impulsive, compulsive, neurotic, or psychotic state that surfing represents might not be indicated.


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