28 Dec I Surf, Therefore I Am
I love the sea and it seems like every surfer has some kind of special relationship to it. Who wouldn’t? The surfing experience is so simple, so essentially pure that riding a nature-made fun machine is truly one of the greatest joys of being alive.
Perhaps the most individualistic of all sports, alone on a board, charging across a wave at 24 to 32 kilometers an hour, the surfer experiences an ecstatic communication with natural forces, a delicious isolation, and total freedom from the anxieties and mundanities of the workaday world.
It is the easiest and most delightful way to attain what we most deeply long for. In my surfing experience, I have come to the realization that the transcendent experience of riding moving waves of saltwater embodies an accessible medium for my personal transformation – a spiritual path, if you will.
Let me share the silent lessons that came to me between the waves, and may the existential reasons I mention give enough justice to characterize both the sea herself and those who have fallen in love with her.
I surf because…
1.) It makes me happy.
Aristotle raises the most important question in the world, in his Ethics: what is the point, purpose, end, good, or goal of everything in human life? In other words, what is the greatest good? And he gives the obviously right answer: Happiness. Everybody does everything that they do for that reason, nobody does anything for any other reason than itself.
People are messed up because they did not listen to Aristotle. There are only three reasons why anybody should ever do anything: because it’s morally good, because it’s practically necessary, and because it delights you.
“Why do I surf?” is a legitimate question and my very best answer is because it makes me happy. It goes beyond the either-or of giving or taking. I can’t take anything away from the ocean except the joy that keeps multiplying and can’t be divided. And I can’t give the ocean anything except my joy, to be multiplied some more.
Other things make me happy before but not after it (like forbidden pleasures that are destructive), or else after it but not before it (like doing my duty and obeying my conscience and being courageous); but surfing makes me happy before, during, and after. So surfing is a trinity of happiness: I will surf, I surf, I surfed.
That’s not clever wordplay. It’s unclever realplay. It happens. It works. It does things to me. It cleans out my soul. I get higher on a wave than on weed. And there are no bad side-effects, only good ones. No scrambled brains, no scrambled lives. And it’s free. And it’s good for my soul because it makes me happy and patient and nice. But not dull and uncreative and conformist. And it’s good for my body because it is healthy outdoor exercise.
With each wipeout, I have learned that I am only but a happy fool. It has taught me humility, and wisdom, and the need to suffer a little to be happy a lot. And while I’m in the trough of the wave, there is nothing more beautiful. It has no inner limits. All its limits are outside it, in the hard, cruel world with edges; not inside it. For waves have no edges.
2.) It is mystical.
Surfing can easily be a truly mystical experience, far, far out beyond the most distant sandbars of language. It is ineffable. We have a word for this unique experience: Stoke. What other human activity has a unique word for the unique “high” it gives? Only two: Freud calls it “orgasm” and Buddha calls it “Nirvana.” But stoke doesn’t mean just “a high” but the unique, peculiar high that nothing but surfing can give.
It is very much like falling in love. I don’t just fall in love with a man. I fall in love with the person himself. What I see with the newly opened “third eye” of love is the absolute uniqueness of the beloved. Similarly, surfing is unique because stoke is unique – as unique as the sea herself.
Like love, stoke is both indefinable and irresistible. My first wave hooked me forever, like a fish. I’m sure everyone remembers how he caught his first wave. It wasn’t by calculation or technology or book knowledge or logic but by instinct. It’s like dancing. When I dance, I just fall into the music. I forget myself. Well, in surfing, the wave is my music and my attitude is my surfboard. Much like living.
Stoke is mystical because it transcends time. It makes time reverse itself – not in the outer world physically, but inside me, mentally. There, it’s a real time machine. Every time I surf is just as thrilling as it was on my first wave. I always get this silly smile on my face like the swell on the sea, when that great cosmic force, wearing a wave as its clothing, overtakes me and lifts me up into Heaven, into eternity, out of time, out of sight of land.
There’s a second way surfing transcends time. Not only does it make time turn back, it makes time stop entirely. It makes time stand still for that one timeless moment when I and the wave are one, there at the top, as I catch it exactly at the split second when it breaks.
How paradoxical! – it’s a wave, after all, utterly temporal and always moving, that is the vehicle of timelessness. The experience is pure paradox: it is the experience of the most dynamic, dynamite-like movement and the most standstill shock at once. For it’s an experience of eternity, and eternity is not static but dynamic, like God.
Maybe that’s why it makes me happy: because it makes me realize that I am not meant to be in time forever, but in timelessness forever. Maybe surfing brings me back to the timelessness of Eden. Maybe Adam and Eve felt that way all the time: exactly the way I feel atop a wave.
Stoke is happiness, but it’s a mystical happiness. It’s the kind that never bores me. It is joy. It surprises me every time, like a sudden kiss. Stoke is happiness, but it’s the kind that isn’t fleeting. It’s like a lightning bolt that does not go away but stands there shining.
To be more specific about the thrill in stoke, I would say it is the power. Not mine but the sea’s. This is the one thing that always absolutely smacks me in the spirit when I ride a wave: the incredible power of the sea. I am riding tornadoes that are lying on their side. I’m just a flea on a sleeping, snoring dinosaur. I’m riding a god, or the horses of the gods. It feels supernatural. It is alive!
But of course I don’t really ride a wave as I would ride a horse. You have to tame a horse before you ride it, but you can never tame a wave. Maybe the thrill in stoke is not just in the power but also in the danger. Waves can kill you. Failure doesn’t mean death in volleyball, or basketball, or triathlon, but failure can mean death in surfing.
But death cannot dish out any thrills, only life can, especially life at the edge, at the beach, where land and sea, life and death, touch each other. As life is deepest and best where it touches death, land-based life is deepest and best where it touches the sea. What death does to life, sea does to land.
The landlubber looks at the surfer and says, “He’s gone from the land of the living.” But the surfer looks back at the land and says, “I was never really alive there, I am only alive here.”
3.) It makes me peaceful.
One philosophy of surfing, “soul-surfing,” is the perfect sacrament, or art, or icon, of the peace that both Confucius and Lao Tzu taught. Soul-surfing gives us the deep, peaceful “stoke” that both Confucians and Taoists seek and find in other more landlocked ways.
The other type is called “macho-surfing.” It is an ego-trip, it is competitive. Soul-surfing is a way to lose our ego, or at least our ego-consciousness. The macho-surfer surfs to show off; the soul-surfer surfs to show off the wave. The macho-surfer surfs to conquer; the soul-surfer surfs to be conquered. The macho-surfer thinks waves exist for surfers; the soul-surfer thinks surfers exist for waves. The macho-surfer wants to humanize the ocean; the soul-surfer wants to oceanize humanity.
Lao Tzu would have made a great surfer. His advice for life is advice for surfing because Tao is like the sea. Dance with it but let it lead. Ride it, don’t fight it. Be relaxed, not rigid. Paint with the grain, not against it. Don’t try to carry it, let it carry you. It’s neither your slave nor your slave-master. Don’t assert yourself and you will find yourself. Die to yourself and you will live. Disappear: that gives you the highest stoke of all, for that’s what Tao does. Yield, even to riptide. Especially to riptide; that’s the only way to survive it.
“Resist not the evil one.” Fight it, and you will lose. Don’t fight it, and you will win. “If you don’t contend, no one can contend against you.” “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Practice wei-wu-wei, “doing by not doing.” Practice islam, surrender.
If we surrender to this wave of Tao, we become it, and then we become as active and as powerful as the wave because we are now the wave, or a part of it, or in it. Surfing gives us the same supra-rational state of blissful consciousness we get from yoga and meditation. We become one with everything.
When we’re in a wave, our body becomes part of the wave. What our body does, our soul does too. We’re not two people but one. That’s why our soul feels liquid and mobile and light in a wave. It’s no longer a landlocked soul. It’s not made of solid earth anymore. It’s more like a wave than like a thing. And it sees its own reflection in the water. The sea is its mirror, in which it knows itself. So surfing teaches us to “know thyself.” Surfing, therefore, is Socratic.
Life is like an unstoppable wave that comes to us with irresistible force. We should not sit on it like a rodeo cowboy and try to tame it. That’s the very last thing we want to do: tame it! We should not try to be immovable objects either. The irresistible force defeats the immovable object. Typhoon and hurricanes blow down oak trees, but not bamboos, which bend in the wind.
“Surrender” to the sea is not just loss of control. It’s that, but it’s also gaining control at the same time. For we have become water, and now we know how to flow serenely and powerfully at the same time. We are both strong and gentle.
The macho man’s mistake is not his love of strength and power. His mistake is his assumption that he has to choose either strength or gentleness, and his assumption that surrender to Tao is weakness instead of strength. But it takes strength to surrender. Not many people have the strength to do that.
4.) It makes me good.
Surfing is not an organized religion; it’s more like a disorganized religion. But it’s not so disorganized that it has no commandments. In fact, it has ten, and they are very similar to the ten we already know from Moses (or rather from God through Moses):
I. Have no gods before Me.
Surrender to the Creator of the sea. Know our weakness by knowing the sea’s power. Know our ignorance by knowing the sea’s mystery. Know our smallness by knowing the sea’s greatness. The sea is the biggest thing we can see on earth. It is thus a natural icon for God’s greatness, and, correlatively, for our smallness and for the wisdom of humility.
II. Make no graven images.
Do not worship even the biggest, most beautiful thing on earth, the sea. Only God is God. Do not confuse the finite with the Infinite. And do not look to the sea instead of God for morality. The sea has no morality. It kills. It steals. It deceives. It dishonors. It will wash away our sorrows, and it will wash away our shallowness, but it will not wash away our sins.
III. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.
Listen to the sea. It will teach us to listen more and to speak less. It will teach us not to take names in vain. Listen to the sea so that we can learn to listen better. Learn to listen better so that we can listen to God. Listen to God so that we can listen to other people. Listen to other people so that we can know ourselves. “Know thyself” by listening to the sea.
IV. Remember the Sabbath.
Let the sea teach us to forget time and to just be. Let it teach us that there is never any good reason to rush until there is really an emergency. Until then let the sea teach us to celebrate Sabbaths. “Near the sea, we forget to count the days.”
V. Honor your father and mother.
Honor our ancestors’ honor of the sea, and their honor of all nature. They saw nature as the cathedral given to us by our Creator, loaded with icons like the sea to remind us to surrender to Him. They honored nature, they didn’t try to conquer her. Don’t try to conquer our mother.
VI. Do not kill.
Do not kill nature. Do not kill the sea. She is our mother. Take care of our mother. Use our power to save our mother from ugliness – pollution. Do not kill beauty. Beauty is our soul’s life, our soul’s water. We need beauty more than we need power or wealth or even knowledge. Use power and wealth and knowledge to preserve beauty.
VII. Do not steal.
Be grateful for what we have. God has given us the world’s best and biggest toy: the sea. Play in it. Let it teach us cosmic gratitude for the whole ocean of being, which contains so many fish. Gratitude is the clearest hallmark of wisdom.
VIII. Do not commit adultery.
Do not adulterate the sea. Preserve her purity and ours. Do not sell her, or use her. Love her, and all God’s gifts. Use and sell our creations; love and appreciate God’s. Adulterate nothing; treat everything as what it is.
IX. Do not lie.
Be what we are. Be as sincere as sea water. Rehearse for eternity: be simple. Be.
X. Do not covet.
Do not believe the lies of covetousness, or greed, or lust. Do not believe our culture’s pervasive superstition that we can solve every problem by doing something about it. The sea is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be enjoyed. The sea is like life that way. It is also like life in that it possesses nothing but gives all things, gives all life-forms. Be like the sea: be a giver, not a grabber.
5.) Because it is Christ-like.
No, my reason is not meant to be an exaggeration. Nor am I being religious (which I’m not). But really, Jesus was the world’s greatest surfer.
First, he walked on water. Then, for three years he duck-dived through the waves that were trying to wipe him out. Finally, he got out his longboard in the shape of an old rugged cross. He waxed his board with nails.
Two men went surfing with him. One, from Cyrene, helped him carry his cross-board out. The other, from Galilee, deserted him and returned to shore when Satan raised some big waves. His last wave was enormous. He caught it with perfect timing, right on the curl. He rode the tube, the Red Room, while bleeding in five places and surrounded by sharks.
Then he crouched to prone and came out the other end of the tube standing upright. Then he beckoned us aboard his board: “Will you come surfing with me?”
6.) It is heavenly.
According to Plato, every dog is a shadow or copy of The Perfect Dog, or Perfect Dogginess. Every human being we know is partly human and partly inhuman; only in Heaven will we be perfect, that is, perfectly human, perfectly ourselves.
Where are these Ideas? Nowhere in this world, but in Heaven. When we get there, after death, we will know them, contemplate them, conform to them, become one with them eternally. Then we will reach our perfection. Everything on earth is a pale shadow of something in Heaven. Everything here is a foretaste, a rehearsal, an appetizer of something There.
This idea is also found in the New Testament. According to Christianity, life on earth and in time is a preparation for life in Heaven and in eternity. Now if we combine this Platonic idea with the Biblical idea, inherited from Judaism and taken over by Christianity, that there is a single God who alone is all-perfect, and that our ultimate eternal destiny is some kind of union, or communion, or spiritual marriage, with God, what do we get?
We get the conclusion below, which is an original poem that is a commentary on a quotation from the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, about what will and will not be in Heaven. The point of the poem is that it is surfing that best explains the quotation. We can also make the same point by saying that the quotation is the best explanation of surfing.
(The quotation:) “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea… And one of the angels…showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… I did not see any temple in the city, for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple… The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God gives it light.” (Revelation 21: 1, 9-10, 22-23)
7.) It is sexy.
Everybody knows one thing about Freud, the founder of modern psychology: that he discovered that just about everything was about sex. Whatever else he may have said that was true or false, and whether or not his “discoveries” were original as he and his followers thought, this is sure to be his lasting legacy.
But Freud never surfed. Suppose he had? He would probably say:
a.) Most people can’t remember their best orgasm. But every surfer can remember his best wave.
b.) Surfing is better than sex because it’s a continuous orgasm in every cell of our body. It’s a thousand little orgasms in a row, a million if you want, all day long, endless orgasms without ever having to stop to refuel – until we starve.
c.) The sea is a woman to a man and a man to a woman. You’re lying out there on your board. A swell approaches, like a man. You start to paddle toward the shore, pretending to flee, like a woman or a cat. It’s teasing. It’s foreplay. The wave comes right up to you singing “Pretty Woman.” You tickle the wave’s lip, then caress his face. He kisses you, says, “It’s time” – and you know it is. Time for climax. Time for you and him alone. You glide down his body. He thrusts himself at you. He thrusts his whole heavy body onto you. One part of it touches you. He thrusts his wetness at you: so white, so flowing, so foamy, so fast and turbulent. Then, suddenly, it’s over and you’re left gurgling with delight. I hope you don’t think this is pornographic, because it’s exactly what innocent little pre-pubescent kids do in waves.
d.) Surfing gives us what each gender looks for in the other: strength and gentleness together. That’s the supremely sexy combination that makes up the gentleman and the medieval knight, or the lady and Mother Nature. Whether you are a man or a woman, both you and the wave have to be both strong and gentle. It’s a tricky combination, and it takes time and practice to learn it. If you’re a man, you obviously have to be strong, but you also have to be gentle, for the trick is to go with the wave, not against it. It’s dancing, not wrestling. And the wave is both strong and gentle too. You feel it lifting you up effortlessly. And if you’re a woman, it must be even more obvious to you that you have to be strong and gentle at the same time.
e.) Surfing is also like sex in this way: the primary thrill is not just physical but mental: it’s the intimacy, the incredible knowledge that the Great Other is letting you into his/her inner sanctum. It feels like God personally inviting you into His Holy of Holies.
The aim of love is intimacy, union, in fact the total union which is impossible yet irresistibly desirable. But though totally perfect union is impossible in this world, total unimpeded union is not, if you insert no obstacle, mental or physical, to the total self-giving.
The same is true of surfing as of sex.
The totally natural experience of direct and complete sensory immersion we get when the hot sun caresses our skin and the cool water refreshes it and every pore feels every drop of water; when total body awareness brings about total soul awareness. We feel naked, defenseless, totally natural, and simple. It’s totally sensual and totally spiritual at once. And totally innocent (until we pervert it).
It overcomes the common but unnatural dualism between the spiritual and the sensual. We simply feel the simple fact of sheer existence and its bliss. And we feel it with our whole self, soul and body. This is life reduced to its essence. If this is not mystical, what is?
But the analogy is limited. For the sea is not a person, though it seems to be the icon of a Person (a divine person), And because the sea is not a person, surfing is not really better than sex. But it is an icon of something that is even better than sex, something that we will have in Heaven, something of which sex is also an icon.
8.) It can make me rich.
The principles of financial success can be learned from surfing.
a.) Practice with little waves first. Keep moving up to bigger ones.
b.) Learn to sense when the wave of opportunity is going to break, and catch it at the exact first moment it breaks. Timing is the key to everything. If we catch the opportunity wave too far out, it’s too soon. If we rush it, we’ll miss it. But if we wait and catch it too far in, we’re late, and it’s broken already and all we can do is catch the dinky foam, the little profits anybody can catch.
c.) Go out to meet the wave. Be proactive. Anticipate it. Feel it. Predict it. It takes practice, but calculation isn’t enough, it takes feel. But to get that feel we have to be patient, we have to try over and over again, we have to watch long and hard. Waiting and watching is more than half the work.
d.) Be fearless. Usually, the riskiest place to catch the wave is also the best place. We have to overcome our natural inclination to play it safe. We’ll wipeout sometimes, but we’ll also catch really good ones that we’d never catch if we played it safe.
e.) Surf with a buddy for backup when the waves are big. We can save each other better than we can save ourselves. And we can afford to take more chances if we know we have backup.
9.) It makes me wise.
Not only is surfing not “hey, dude” brainless, it’s philosophical. It has taught me about life. More appropriately, it has shown me the meaning of life. It’s very logical. Everything is like surfing because surfing is like everything. Everything in the universe. It is the capstone of creation.
All great books are about human life, and everything in life is like surfing, so all books are about surfing. For instance, take The Man in the Iron Mask. That shows us what it feels like to enter the ocean: to take off our iron mask, the one we wear on land. Or take Dracula. The surfer’s soul sleeps in a coffin most of the time. Only when we come out to surf are we alive. Or take Moby Dick. The Pequod is really only a very big surfboard.
There are two kinds of philosophy. Some philosophy is simply bullshit. Philosophers are smart, and therefore they can fool people pretty well. They are very clever at distinguishing bullshit as wisdom. The other kind of philosophy is really wise and wonderful and helpful. Socrates is my favorite example of it.
We can take philosophy in three ways. First, we can think of it as bullshit. If we take it this way, we are not serious. We are cynical. The second way is to think that all philosophy is wisdom. Then we become too serious. We become naive. The third way is to think of philosophy as bullshit and wisdom. Then we become judgmental and discriminating – which are two things our culture tells us not to be, so they are countercultural.
Surfing, to me, is my best teacher. It helps me see both the wisdom and the bullshit. When I am cynical it makes me more serious. When I’m over-serious it makes me more cynical, or at least more able to laugh at life. It has shown me wisdom when I was cynical and the bullshit when I was over-serious. I think I am wiser and better because of that.
10.) Because I can.
In fact everybody can. Thanks to George Morey. For one of the greatest inventions of all time: the boogie board. (“Bodyboard” is the correct term, but “boogie board” is the affectionate pet name.)
Why is that one of the greatest inventions of all time?
Because bodyboard is surfing, and everybody can bodyboard, therefore everybody can surf – all because of George Morey.
My conclusion? There is no conclusion to Paradise.