EASKEY BRITTON - SURFER, SCIENTIST, ARTIST AND EXPLORER
“Surfing is a partnership with nature. The sensation of interacting with the sea through surfing has confirmed psychological as well as physical benefits.”
Born into a pioneering Irish surf family, Easkey Britton’s life has always revolved around surfing and the ocean. A five-time Irish National Surfing Champion, Easkey has ridden some of the biggest waves in Ireland and is always chasing cold water mountains. However, there is more to Easkey than just surfing; she has a PhD in Environment and Society and passionate about helping people better understand each other and the environment through their connection with the sea. I spoke to Easkey about her belief that surfing can be a metaphor for life, the health benefits of surfing, her involvement in establishing Iran's first surf club, how surfing can empower vulnerable power, pollution levels in our oceans, the projects she has planned for 2017, and her ideal Sunday.
Does your passion for surfing, the ocean and nature stem from your childhood experiences?
The sea and surfing have been constant forces in my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up on the north-west coast of Ireland, born into a pioneering surfing family, named after a surf break that has its roots in the Gaelic (old Irish) for fish!
I heard you once say surfing is a metaphor for life. What do you mean by that?
For me, surfing is my active metaphor for life. A lot of what I do is exploring how to apply lessons learned from the surf into everyday life ashore. One way this happens is through mindfulness. Surfing, for me, is very much about mindfulness-in-movement. If I truly get why I surf, it’s because we enter this heightened sense of awareness - a flow state where, if even just for a moment there’s complete focus and immersion in the present. It’s an incredible antidote in a world of constant distraction. Water itself has been considered a powerful life-metaphor for millennia, with Taoist Lao Tzu writing in 6th century BC how, “Nothing in the world is softer than water. But for attacking the hard, the unyielding, it has no equal.” It’s this philosophy that underpins my work.
Do the health benefits of surfing go beyond just the physical?
Yes, as well as it being something surfers might intuitively know or feel there is a growing body of evidence that highlights just how profoundly we are impacted by water, especially the sea and surfing. This is something I look at in more depth through my research on the NEAR-Health project at the National University of Ireland, Galway, that explores the interconnections between nature, health and wellbeing.
Surfing is a partnership with nature. The sensation of interacting with the sea through surfing has confirmed psychological as well as physical benefits. Part of the health benefits are linked to the fact that it is challenging. It’s also dynamic and you’re always learning. Different coasts, winds, currents, seasons mean you are constantly adapting, which has considerable health benefits for both body and mind. While surfing, you have to think quickly in response to nature, learn to let go of the need to be in control and become aware of your environment.
And then there’s research on the effect of negative ions released by breaking waves that are believed to alter our biochemistry and light up our mood, relieving stress. Even living near the coast can make us healthier. That said, these positive health benefits make it all the more urgent and important that we address the risks posed by a lack of ocean literacy, and health risks associated with poor water quality.
How can surfing and creative expression empower vulnerable people?
At the core of what I do is helping people better understand each other and the environment through our connection with the sea. I think it can help all of us with the vulnerabilities or insecurities we face. The crisis of our time is the rise of mental health issues, with at least 1 in 5 young people in Ireland experiencing a mental disorder (it’s thought this figure is largely underestimated due to stigma). An outdoor, aquatic experience like surfing can take us out of our heads and into the sensory world of our bodies, helping us break free from negative thought patterns. We are immersed in an unpredictable environment that allows us to find our edge, our aliveness. Surfing itself is a creative process - I like to think of it as a form of water-dancing where we move in relationship to the wave, drawing lines like an artist would on a canvas.
What inspired you to found Iran's first surf club and what were the biggest challenges?
I can’t take credit for founding the first surf club but perhaps sparking a process. My only intention initially was naively go and see if we could find waves, along with fellow traveller and film-maker Marion Poizeau in 2010. It has since become this very unexpected and organic process where surfing has evolved in a place where it wasn’t practised before. The narrative of surfing has been shaped by Iranian women who have been active in developing it since. The local community, from a very traditional, isolated and conservative part of Iran (the only region exposed to ocean swells is Baluchistan), have since created their own community-run surf club. It is becoming it’s own thing and not without it’s challenges. While the shared experience can lead to a sense of connectedness and ocean awareness, it doesn’t mean it can so easily change the rules on land that have been protected for centuries if not millennia. And when introducing anything new into a system it can alter the power dynamics. That said, the act of surfing and being in the surf has a wonderful way of levelling the playing field!
Please can you tell me about some of the projects you have planned for 2017?
The priority is the research project I mentioned, which has a very strong practice-based and community engagement focus in order to better understand how we engage with nature, especially water environments, for health and wellbeing.
2017 will also see the rebirth of what started as Waves of Freedom and it’s evolution into Like Water, a more evolved social initiative that embraces business as a force for good. It will be the home for space-holding and facilitating of immersive programmes, gatherings and creative workshops that seek to bring Lao Tzu’s ‘be like water’ philosophy to life.
How concerned are you about the levels of pollution in our oceans?
It’s alarming, and it’s not just the pollution but the harm that is being done on every level which can feel overwhelming. That said, I feel there is too much emphasis on the problems. What we don’t hear enough is how are people rising to the challenge, what responses we can make, what solutions are already being implemented. What’s needed is a radical reconnection (through education and awareness, for one) and empathy. Why is there such a disconnect? A collective numbing? Science matters, but technical solutions and all the policy and regulations in the world are not going to fix that. We also need social, cultural and psychological expertise because environmental ‘problems’ are social problems. The environment would be just fine without us - so we really need to take a look at ourselves. How are we? Why are we self-harming? I was at a powerful workshop last week on conflict transformation and restorative circles and I feel that’s the kind of work we need more of - that provide us with the skills to connect with others, express ourselves authentically, and listen empathetically.
Is it fair to say you are an adventurous spirit? How has travelling benefited you as a person?
I’ve been called a ‘seabird’ because I’m so migratory, and always taking to flight. Or like a shark because I always have to keep moving forward, I never stop. I’ve benefitted for sure and there are many ways to ‘journey’, sometimes without having to go very far at all. It’s about shifting our perceptive. I’m conscious of the impact my travel can have that’s not so good too and I work with Hometree and their rewinding Ireland initiate to try to redress the balance…
Do you always enjoy returning home?
I think I travel so I can experience the ‘return’… it’s gifted me with a deep appreciation for ‘home’ and what that means for me - family, groundedness, solitude, constantly changing, raw wild nature of the Irish coastline.
Please describe your ideal Sunday.
My younger sister, Beckey-Finn, has had to remind me to actually take a ‘Sunday.’ I have such an unpredictable schedule and so many projects on the go that I don’t follow any kind of ‘normal’ (I guess 9-5, 5 days a week) schedule. Which sounds amazing but sometimes there’s no ‘off’ switch and people who pursue their passions I think are at fare higher risk of burn-out. So she said to me, ‘Easkey, for one day a week just stop, and do nothing at all.’ I remember the first time I did it I had to phone her and ask her, ‘what do I do, how do you do ‘nothing’?! It took me a while not to feel guilty just curling up and watching movies in front of the fire. I make a point to stay offline and away from devices. To simply be and do nourishing things just for myself. I find stopping way more challenging than leaping into the unknown. But to find that stillness feels like bliss.
Insta / Twitter: @easkeysurf