Surfing = Nature = God?
The Inertia is proud to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Steven Kotler’s award-winning book West of Jesus by kicking off an exclusive blog tour hosted by the author. For a full week, Kotler will be accepting as many questions as possible regarding the book, surfing, or anything, really. Below is an excerpt from West of Jesus that will hopefully encourage ideas to germinate. You can either post a question in the comments section below the article or email a question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for participating, and check back next Thursday, January 27, 2011, to read Kotler’s responses to your questions.
Rabbi Nachum Shifren, the author of Surfing Rabbi: A Kabbalistic Quest for Soul, is a tall man with a long beard and a longboard who once told me, “I don’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t surf,” before telling me his wife doesn’t surf. At the tail end of the summer of 2000, I spent an afternoon with the Surfing Rabbi riding the machine-perfect waves at Malibu. It was on that day that I saw him catch a wave and walk right up to the front of the board and arch his back and let that long beard brave the wind as he dangled ten toes over the nose, an act which he believes a form of prayer, though he also believes his whole life is a form of prayer. When he rides at Malibu, he leaves his yarmulke and Torah in a cloth bag under the second lifeguard station, right behind the volleyball court. He’s got to have the Torah with him. Sometimes he surfs all day and on into the night, and then he has to paddle in to say his evening prayers on the beach. He reads his parashah right beside the volleyball court, where the beach curves slightly, where he can see both the ocean and the land. He does so with fifty other surfers watching him from the water, famous surfers and beginners, anyone at all. He doesn’t care. He says that anyone who wants to can come here and surf, says the ocean’s free, says that it’s God’s gift to the world, says that surfers understand prayer—whatever the form.
For this reason the Surfing Rabbi doesn’t proselytize in the water, doesn’t deliver sermons. He doesn’t worry too much about surfers. He says that if you want to know God, learn to surf. He says that if you want to know God, come to Malibu. In 2005, SURFER Magazine included an interview with the Surfing Rabbi in an article titled “Is God a Goofyfoot? If So, Surfing May Be the Next World Religion.” This article begins: “We could continue to fill editorial pages for two years solely with letters written by surfers to tell us of their spiritual quests in the waves. It’s a phenomenon, really. And it’s one I believe that is unique to surfing. I mean, do you think tennis players feel like they’re getting spiritual fulfillment out of their daily matches? Does the mail department at Gun World have a hard time handling the letters from readers about the spirituality of firing a .357?”
There have been many theories about the spiritual nature of this sport, and most involve some form of watery communion. At the far end of this spectrum are the surfers who believe that 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. In Jungian terms, surfing gives the surfer access to the collective unconscious of the planet. Perhaps it was for this reason that Timothy Leary called surfing our highest evolutionary activity.
“I was really puzzled by that Leary quote the first time I heard it,” Jim White once said. “At the time, I was a professional surfer, I knew all these other professional surfers—they didn’t strike me as very heavily evolved. But every time we’d go surfing, there’d be a moment when we weren’t a bunch of pros in the water worrying about our standings, or what version of wiggle-wiggle-shimmy- shake we were going to try on our next wave. Every now and again all that would just disappear. We would disappear. We have all this Cartesian baggage. Life is our struggle between the desire for separation and our desire for union. But to ride a wave you have to completely forget yourself; you have to be absorbed in the moment, or you’ll fall off. So every wave is about union, it’s a momentary connection with something far beyond yourself, and that doesn’t happen very often. Surfing may be the easiest way to access this union; surfing is like a heroin injection of union.”
That notion of union has been with the sport since the days of its earliest pioneers. The entry for Tom Blake in Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing begins: “While Tom Blake can’t be placed ahead of Duke Kahanamoku as the world’s most influential surfer, his contributions to the sport—in terms of board design, wave- riding technique, competition, surf photography, and literature— are in many ways more tangible. ‘Blake altered everything,’ surf journalist Drew Kampion wrote in 2001. ‘He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle.’ ” In 1969, in Surfing magazine, Blake published an early draft of “The Voice of the Atom,” his wave-riding-inspired religious philosophy, the core equation of which — Nature = God—the author later carved into a rock in Wisconsin.
In the “Is God a Goofyfoot?” article, SURFER mentions that “the Blake mode of inquiry persisted, even if the man himself went reclusive, and in the late-’60s and early-’70s, curious surfers began to espouse various Eastern philosophies, steeping themselves in yoga and meditative practices.” One of those surfers was a man named Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, who won eight world tour contests including the 1978 world championship, thought himself a descendant of ancient mystics in the style of J. R. Tolkien, referred to Pipeline as Mordor and wrote in his autobiography: “I am the legacy of ancient warriors and kings. I’ve passed through the dark caverns of fear, I’ve overcome the pain barrier and now fully acknowledge my ability to fly through cliffs and shoulder the mountains themselves.”
In the 1977 film Free Ride, Rabbit caught one of the longest, deepest tubes on record. He caught that tube at Uluwatu, in Indonesia, and it was because of his tube that I first went to Bali, and it was in Bali where I first heard the Conductor’s tale. I once asked Rabbit if he had ever heard anything like the Conductor’s tale. He hadn’t, but did point out: “That does not mean to say he doesn’t exist. I just don’t know of the story. Back in the seventies, the few surfers who could read a weather map had a definite edge; they would magically appear on the perfect days at every classic point- break along the coast, then disappear into the shadows. I felt I was in the zone for a while. Kirra, my home break, is a bit mythological in that it is a rare catch. When construction of a boat harbor was planned, I organized a surfing competition to block it. Every year, for four years in a row, conditions were absolutely perfect, six to eight feet. It was wild; the day before [the contest] was flat every year; I would sit on top of Kirra hill the days, and nights, leading up to the weekend, and Kirra delivered. Two years in a row I was at a press conference fielding questions as to how I was going to perform a miracle [the surf was flat] when a call came through from the bureau of meteorology that a cyclone had just formed. It was like Kirra was saving itself from destruction, appearing in all its majesty for the world to see, then disappearing.”
It is also worth noting that Rabbit managed the same wave-conjuring feat for the six years he ran a similar contest at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, and that the day after each of these J-Bay contests the surf would go flat, and that in the five years since Rabbit stopped running the Kirra contest, there has never been surf for the event. “I often wonder if today’s event directors prepare with the same intensity that I used to. I believe in willpower. It is quite feasible that there was a Conductor, a mythical wave magnet. I experienced it for a few seasons, and it was a deeply satisfying experience. But I maintain that Kirra was saving itself; I was just the conduit.”
Rabbit is not alone in feeling like a conduit. In July of 2003, an Associated Press writer named Matt Sedensky began an article about an amateur Christian surf contest: “As the white-tipped wave melts into the ocean and the rush of adrenaline gives way to feelings of rebirth, some well-tanned surfers are making a startling discovery: They are finding God.” In a recent interview Izzy and Coco Tihlanyi, the twin sisters who founded the Surf Diva Surf School, the original all-girls surf school, were quoted as calling surfing “spirituality on a stick.” The author Thomas Mitchell writes in his essay “The Seven Levels of Surfers” about the Soul Surfer: “This is the highest level, the pinnacle of surfing spirituality equivalent to Nirvana, Satori, Total Enlightenment, etc. and is rarely attained. The Soul Surfer expresses himself through his unity with the breaking wave. He borrows the wave’s spirit for a short while and uses his body and equipment to translate the essence of the wave’s spirit into Art.”
And these examples go on and on. It was apparent to me that many people thought surfing was a spiritual activity, and—if Rabbit Bartholomew’s experience was anything to go by—a good number of them had encountered things far stranger than time stopping and panoramic vision along the way. It seemed to me that the answer to the question why was there all this mysticism in the Conductor’s tale had everything to do with the fact that essentially the tale was nothing beyond a good surf story. But what I could do with this information was an entirely different question.
Thanks for reading. Please submit questions either in the comments section below or by emailing email@example.com. Also, if you’d like to read another excerpt from Kotler’s West of Jesus, you can do so here. It’s called The Saga of Stink Butt, and, quite frankly, it’s very entertaining.