When I was a preteen in the late 80’s I felt strongly attracted to surfing, so I asked my parents to drive me to the first international surf contest organized by local brand Pukas in Zarautz, a town nearby my city…
I was already bodyboarding in a local beach and had a plastic skate, so when in that same event I saw some people skateboarding a halfpipe I fell in love with the four wheeled wooden toy and left my interest for water sports aside, But I always said that when turning 40 I would quit smoking and start surfing, so here I am 3 decades later trying to learn to ride the waves of our beautiful Cantabrian Sea and living a nicotine free life. While I must admit that during the 90’s I hated the surfing lifestyle, the relationship of this 2 sports feels so tight to me now that I regret not having started to enjoy riding waves before. The energetic movements of our bodies and the commitment needed in both these activities are a source of inspiration, sometimes in the cement landscape while some other times in the sea.
Sophie Friedel founder of Rollbrett Workshops in Germany writes that skateboarding practitiones pursue the experience of what she calls “stoke”, a term analogous to the feeling of “flow”, in which people according to sociology researcher Paul O’Connor enact in a form of anarchy, rejecting the conventions of everyday life while transcending in mind, body and politics. Therefore flow, a popular term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoying the process.
According to Terry Ray Clark -profesor of religion at Georgetown College- popular cultural practices and products, especially those considered as forms of entertainment, are loaded with ideas, themes, and values similar to the ones find in religion. Without a doubt skateboarding or surfing can be conceived as communal belief systems that give meaning to the lives of their practitioners, taking form of some kind of secular religions where common experiences and specialized vocabulary replace mystical rituals and sacred scriptures.
For example the so-called “soul surfers” studied by religion scholar and conservationist Bron Taylor consider surfing to be a profoundly meaningful practice that brings physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits. According to this researcher this subset of the global surfing community should be understood as a new religious movement: a globalizing, hybridized, and increasingly influential example of what he calls “aquatic nature religion”.
According to surfer and author Steven Kotler, as he writes in his award-winning book “West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief”, there have been many theories about the spiritual nature of surfing. In his opinion since the ocean was the place where life began on this planet the act of riding on a wave allows the surfer to momentarily connect with this living memory. The author points to research conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg who pinpoints a section of the brain called the Orientation Association Area which humans involved in meditation or religious concentration will block and stop processing of sensory information from this area. The same focus and concentration needed in different religious rituals is required by action and adventure sports which helps explain why surfers often feel themselves become one with the ocean. Kotler believes the connection between surfing and spirituality is founded in nature and that the concept of God –and religion– is an alchemy of experience with brain chemistry.
From this point of view “spirituality” is a broad concept which includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and typically involves a search for meaning in life. While some may find that their spiritual life is intricately linked to their association with a church or a personal relationship with God, some other people seek meaning through meditation or connecting with nature and art.
In an interview with Surfer Magazine in 1978, Timothy Leary -the LSD guru and scientist- established several parallels between his thoughts on life, psychedelics, and the act of riding a wave. For him “surfing is the spiritual, aesthetic style of the liberated self” since surfers know hot to relate to the basic energies of nature and develop their individual sense of freedom, self-definition, style, beauty, and control.
But if we want to find an early referent mixing surfing and spirituality we should look at Tom Blake an athlete, inventor, and philosopher which is widely considered to be one of the most influential surfers in history. He is considered a key figure in transforming surfing from a regional Hawaiian speciality to a nationally popular sport and his seminal article “Voice of the Wave” published in 1968 is considered a cult like text, which teaches us that “surfriding is constructive (…). To the mind it teaches one the wisdom of patience, the art of waiting for the right moment to act, for you cannot ride a wave until it comes along”.
This deep relationship with nature through playing in the ocean may be considered a religion or a deep opportunity to link with what some people like to call God. But one thing for sure is that every wave is an opportunity to connect with something far beyond ourselves, an experience I can’t live without anymore…
*(Picture: Zurriola beach at my hometown of San Sebastian - photo Jonxa, Tom Blake surfing in 1939 & pioneer skater and surfer Natas Kaupas wallriding in the 80's - photo Mofo).