Surfing the Wave of Desire

What is Urge Surfing? How can the technique help us overcome excessive tech use?

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

What is an Urge?

An urge is a “strong, restless desire.” Urges or cravings are words commonly associated with addiction; however, an urge can be related to any type of impulse or compulsion to act (i.e., I have an urge to check my phone, I have an urge to gamble, I have an urge to scream, I have an urge to punch someone in the nose, I have an urge to eat a second piece of cake, I have an urge to drink, I have an urge to watch one more episode). As humans, we all experience urges. Think about the last time you experienced a “strong, restless, desire”…

Urges are generally triggered by external (people, places, things) or internal stimuli (feelings, thoughts, body sensations). Urges can be very distressing, unpleasant and uncomfortable. Giving into urges quells the distress in that moment; however, urges are like stray cats, the more you feed them the more they keep coming around. In fact, every time we give into an urge, it reinforces a conditioned response (forming a habit).

Coping with Urges

Urge surfing is a technique most commonly used in the addiction field and aids in relapse prevention. Urge Surfing is a cognitive technique that teaches us how to manage urges we may have to engage in any unwanted behaviour. This mental technique was developed by the late Dr. Alan Marlatt. Marlatt is one of pioneers in the relapse field and his name is synonymous with relapse prevention. Dr. Marlatt’s contributions have significantly advanced our understanding of relapse as a very complex issue.

Urge Surfing can prevent us from engaging in any behaviour that we may want to change (technology, smartphone use, social media, binge watching, gaming, shopping, gambling, eating, substances, fight, flight etc.). It is a tool that can help us learn to respond to situations versus automatically reacting in a way that may cause harm to self or others.

The Impermanence of Desire

What most people don’t know is that urges only last for 20 – 30 minutes and then they actually subside on their own. They dissipate without any intervention. To better understand this concept, it is helpful to imagine an ocean wave. Imagining an ocean wave is easy for me as I have had many wonderful travel experiences. After a relationship break-up in my mid 20’s, I pursued a childhood dream to travel to Australia to cuddle koalas. I would often go to the beach and watch the majestic waves; it was so mesmerizing. What I noticed is the waves were big, intense and powerful when they were further out from the shore, but as they got closer to the shore, they dissipated. Urges—like waves—have a beginning (building up), a middle (peak) and an end (subside).

In essence, this is the concept of urge surfing. When an urge to engage in any unwanted behaviour knocks on the door, imagine yourself surfing the wave of desire. As you ride the surfboard tune into your breath, noticing the inhale and the exhale as you ride the wave safely to shore.

This imagery reminds us of the impermanence of our thoughts, feelings and body sensations. This ebb and flow of the waves also reminds us of the 12-step slogan, “this too shall pass.” This can be a very compassionate mantra to use when urge surfing.

The Curious George Approach

The challenge for most of us is just being with the urge. It is a natural reaction to want to suppress distressing thoughts, feelings and urges. Our instinct is to resist the urge, or fight the urge; however, as Carl Jung wisely stated “what we resist, persists.” It is akin to trying to push a beach ball underwater or playing one of my favourite carnival games, Whac-A-Mole – it just keeps popping back up. Bringing a lens of curiosity to the urge requires patience, trust and self-compassion. In the midst of the urge, it may be helpful to ask these rhetorical questions that pique our curiosity:

  • What does an urge feel like?
  • Where do you feel it?
  • What sensations do you notice?
  • If it was a colour, what would it be?
  • What shape is it?
  • What thoughts come to mind?
  • How do you feel?
  • What is the underlying need?

Being curious and interested in our internal experience allows us to turn towards the urge and embrace it. This concept reminds me of Rumi’s poem called The Guest House. It is far healthier to open the door, and invite the urge in. The energy required to suppress (bolt the windows and doors shut) becomes all consuming and increases our preoccupation.

Urge Surfing & Technology

Let’s explore how urge surfing can bring a mindful lens to our relationship with technology.

Scenario: You are busy in a work-related meeting or class, when your eyes and ears are drawn to a series of vibrating texts that light up your phone. You can see 4 bright red notifications on your texting app. FOMO (fear of missing out) sets in and your anxiety increases. Your attention has been drawn away from the task at hand. You have an intense desire to check your text.

Urge Surfing & Technology Script

Follow the script below to practice urge surfing. Alternatively, you can listen to our audio recording:

As we begin, allow yourself to sink into a comfortable, relaxed, but alert posture. Feel free to close your eyes or gaze softly on a focal point in the room.

Slowly bring attention to your breath. Notice the inhale and the exhale. See if you can even notice the slight pause between the inbreath and the outbreath.

Practice this for a few moments.

Now call to the mind the scenario described earlier.

Notice the urge to act on impulse and check your text. Notice your preoccupation increasing.

Observe your thoughts, emotions, or physical situation.

Just take a moment to notice the urge. Tune in to everything about it. Bring a lens of curiosity to this urge.

Remind yourself of the behaviour you are trying to change (Goal: reduce the number of times you check your phone).

Now notice the impermanence of your experience. Remind yourself, “this too shall pass.”

Imagine the urge is a wave: notice the trigger (notifications), the rise, the peak and now the fall. Stay with the experience and observe the waves. Notice how the waves subside all on their own. They may rise again, but they will also dissipate again. See yourself as a surfer riding the wave of desire. Feel the power, control and freedom as you ride the wave safely to shore.

Remind yourself that you can experience an urge, tune into the urge, but do not have to succumb to the urge.

Now, let go of the imagined scenario and return your attention to the breath. Notice the inhale and the exhale.

When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and return to your physical space.

The Joy of Missing Out

As you return to your physical space, notice that your FOMO has been replaced with JOMO – The Joy of Missing Out! Check out this amazing poem by Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig:

JOMO (The Joy of Missing Out.)

Oh, the joy of missing out.
When the world begins to shout
And rush towards that shining thing;
The latest bit of mental bling–
Trying to have it, see it, do it,
You simply know you won’t go through it;
The anxious clamouring and need
This restless hungry thing to feed.
Instead, you feel the loveliness;
The pleasure of your emptiness.
You spurn the treasure on the shelf
In favour of your peaceful self;
Without regret, without a doubt.
Oh, the joy of missing out.

By Michael Leunig

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like anything, the more you practice urge surfing the easier it will be to use in challenging and tempting situations. Repetition can be the rapidest road to learning. Now that you have experienced urge surfing, think about how you can use this mindful technique to manage the following tech urges: check your phone, play another video game, watch another YouTube or TikTok video, binge watch another episode of your favourite series or go down the internet browsing rabbit hole.

Personally, I use urge surfing everyday with my interaction with devices (phone, laptop, work computer). Before I engage with my devices, I ask myself questions to surf the tech craving. The website Taming Your Tech proposes a variety of questions for self-reflection. These questions can create that pause moment, which can foster intentional use of tech. My favourite go-to-question is How easy will it be to stop using this technology? What is your favourite question?

It is also important to remember – “When we scratch the wound and give into our addictions, we do not allow the wound to heal.” — Pema Chödrön

In conclusion, the next time an urge comes knocking at the door, invite it in for an afternoon cup of tea.

Photo of Michelle Nogueira
About the author Michelle Nogueira

Michelle is an Addiction Counsellor who specializes in treating behavioural addictions (gambling, gaming, shopping, tech overuse) through a mindful lens. She has a special interest in promoting digital wellness and intentional use of technology.

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