“It’s like the mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no getting out.” –Kelly Slater
Surfing is a lifestyle, full stop. It isn’t like bowling or ice skating, tennis or netball. If there are waves, we almost run out of the house, maybe getting into a wetsuit before we leave, leaving a trail of underwear, socks and chaos behind us. All plans for the day go out of the window.
We drive like we are possessed to the beach, mixed up in a state of pre-surf excitement and anxiety, straining for a glimpse of the ocean as we get nearer. We leave the car, hiding the keys and not really caring if anyone sees, wax the board in a frenzy and then run down to the beach, throwing ourselves into the water as if, for the umpteenth time, we are being baptized by the ocean.
Of course surfing isn’t “special” anymore than golf is “special” to one of its millions of followers or tennis is special to the legions of players and Wimbledon fans.
Yet surfing is special in a way that almost no other sports can compare with. It engages us in an activity where we are totally connected with the elements – the sea engulfs us and we are at once 99% water inside and 100% surrounded by water outside. We are in a physically neutral state of balance, and internally we are mentally buoyant.
We adapt the energy of the entire ocean to our pleasure, we sit in the sun or rain, indifferent to the weather, we return to the land afterwards, feeling both that we are back where we belong but also like we are somehow incomplete, having left a part of ourselves back out in the ocean.
There are very few hobbies or sports other than surfing where you spend a great deal of your time sitting and waiting – evidently doing nothing, but yet it is an integral part of our surf experience that we can learn to enjoy and, whether we realize it or not, repays us much in return.
There are no commentators nor onlookers, no prizes, certificates, belts to get nor races to win. It doesn’t matter if you are better or worse than the other people surfing around you – you could be having the most fun on any given day. The ocean is free and you might find yourself surfing next to a total beginner or the world champion. It is so totally different from every other aspect of our daily lives where we strive to be the best, strive for a pay rise, a new car, a bigger house, a better phone. It offers us a window through which we can glimpse a much better reality.
“What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” –Morpheus, The Matrix
Deep down inside, buried deeper for some than others. We all feel a bit like this, or depending on the individual and our circumstances in life, we may feel that this is very true.
We pay our bills, go to work, replay past incidents, worry about missing the surf, worry about death, worry about our health, worry about peoples’ opinions of us, get angry at the slightest irritation and so on through the whole day, every day for our entire lives.
Our life is something that we aren’t sure what to do with.
It’s an insane situation. The most precious thing that we will ever “possess” – a chance to exist – and most of us bumble through it, more concerned with making money and making our lives comfortable than with understanding why we are here and what we are here for.
We can compare our lives to someone living on a remote desert island who finds a surfboard washed up one day. They have never seen anyone surfing, never seen a surfboard nor heard of surfing. They appreciate that this object is a thing of beauty, and probably very special, even though they have no idea what it is used for. They spend their day polishing it, they make a special place to store it so that they can keep it safe, they often wonder what it is for, but for all of their time wasted on these associated activities, they never understand the surfboard, they never realize its purpose and so miss the absolute joy that it can give. Just like our lives.
As a surfer, you will, almost without doubt, be one of those few lucky people who have at least realized what a surfboard is for. At whatever level you surf, you will have experienced moments of freedom from the constant chattering of the mind.
When you plunge into the water and paddle out, or pull into a wave and slide down the glassy wall, or even during your first white water ride to the shore, the mind empties. There is no need to think about anything else. There is no need to polish the board or to put it in a case to be observed and pondered. We don’t want to waste our time on such trivial matters related to the board. We just want to surf on it.
When surfing, we briefly experience a type of pure existence, absorbed totally in the present moment. At the heart of it, I believe that this is why we are drawn back to the water again and again and again – to relive these fleeting glimpses of pure existence.
The thing is, once you have a taste of this feeling, there is no reason to believe that we can only experience it in the water, on a surfboard.
Imagine that you were born underground in a dark series of tunnels. You feel your way along for most of your life, not really seeing where you are going, just fumbling blindly, never knowing if you are going forwards or backwards, towards or away from your purpose or destination. Then all of a sudden, one day (when you catch your first wave) you see a bit of light in the distance that briefly illuminates our world.
Now, you would be pretty crazy to turn away from the light and go back into the dark tunnels, just content with the chance of seeing that crack of light every now and then (when you make another surf trip). Instead you would want to head for the brightness because it looks so much clearer out there and you think you will be able to understand the world so much better.
So how are we able to really exist in this clear present moment more often? How do we make our way towards the end of the tunnel?
Ironically, the key probably lies as much in actually surfing as it does in those periods that take up most of our water time – the often-long wait in between sets.