It is impossible to fight a wave. You can either stand there and let it knock you down, or dive right into it and let it carry you, becoming one with its force. You can ride out its power.

The challenging habits in our lives are like waves. Sometimes when we face them head on, they’re just too overpowering to manage. But if we use “urge surfing,” a term coined by Alan Marlatt as part of a program of relapse prevention for substance abuse, we can ride out all kinds of cravings.

How does this work? An addiction specialist was once sitting next to an obese man at a dinner party who kept refilling his plate throughout the evening. When the overweight man overheard the specialist speaking about his profession, he told the doctor that he had tried every single diet – South Beach, Atkins, Mediterranean, Weight Watchers… Nothing had worked for him.

The addiction specialist thought for a moment and then asked, with complete sincerity, “Have you tried suffering?”

Many of us are afraid to let a craving pass. We’re afraid of the pain it entails, the suffering. We get stuck in harmful habits because of the comfort they bring. They make life bearable. Manageable until we have to face the adverse consequences of our bad habits.

But studies have found that a craving, regardless of its intensity, never lasts more than a half hour1 and usually it subsides after a few minutes. Urge surfing involves a person to first just allow the urge to be. No fighting it or arguing with it, just like we wouldn’t try to fight an actual wave. Observe the intensity of the urge and how long it takes to pass, recognizing that cravings are like waves; they begin small, grow in size and then break up and disappear. We try “suffering” by not instinctively fighting against or giving into the force of our cravings. Instead we wait. We count. We observe. We ride the wave out.

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, did this when he was in the Russian army and found himself without a coat on guard duty one night. At first he thought he couldn’t possibly survive the bitterly cold temperatures. But he told himself that he could at least get through five more minutes. After five minutes he told himself that he could get through another five. By counting in five-minute increments, the Steipler survived the night. If he would have tried to fight the cold or even think about the next hour, he would have felt defeated almost from the start. But he “rode out” five minutes and saw that he could keep going.

Four Strategies

We can use this strategy for any goal that we are struggling with. Here are four basic strategies to use for urge surfing:

  1. Mindfulness. Observe the present moment. This may require being still and quiet for a short period of time just to observe your own feelings and cravings. Take inventory without judging. Allow the urge just to be. Watch it like a wave. Notice its intensity, its speed, its contour, where it is in your body and mind.

  2. Patience. Time how long it takes for a craving to begin, to peak and then to subside. Don’t argue with it or wonder how you’ll get through it. Just break up your struggle into manageable increments. Two minutes. Five minutes. Or even ten minutes. Have the patience to see the full wave through.

  3. Grit. This is what the addiction specialist means by “try suffering.” Grit is the ability to persevere despite obstacles, tTo tolerate discomfort. To look at a table full of shortcuts in front of us and remember that they brought us nowhere yesterday. Urge surfing requires grit because habits and cravings return after they subside. We rarely contend with just one wave. We need to be ready to ride out many waves. We need to believe that we can get back up and face the ocean each day. Embracing the present pain will lead you to greater, more satisfying pleasure.

  4. Hope. The more waves a person learns to “ride out” the smaller and easier each subsequent wave becomes. And eventually that craving will come less often and with less intensity. Strengthening our ability to ride out waves and withstand discomfort increases our confidence in confronting the next wave that will eventually arise.

We are now in the period of counting the Omer, moving each day closer to Shavuot, when we hope we will have reached sufficient levels of growth to be ready to receive the Torah. We are counting towards greatness, embracing each day as it comes, getting through another five minutes, working on changing our habits.

Notice each day. Count it. Don’t fight it or ignore it. Ride its current. Use its force. It’s an opportunity to grow. Day by day, wave by wave – we can change.

  1. Dr. G. Alan Marlatt, Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors