Hallowed Be Thy Waves: The Surprising Spirituality Known as Surfing

Yep, you read that right – one of the worst puns you’ve probably ever seen in your life.

Well, I like it. So I’m keeping it on there, and nobody is going to convince me otherwise.

Anyway, if you’ve ever visited Los Angeles or watched any high school-movie, you’ll be familiar with one of the most popular and enduring of American youth stereotypes – ”the surfer dude.” You’re probably imagining long, unruly, blonde hair – a heavy metal band t-shirt, and a lazy, passive attitude. Oh, and weed. Lots and lots of weed.

sean-penn-fast-times-ridgemont-high-1982-photo-GC (this is probably who you’re thinking of)

However, I argue that this stereotype (no matter how true it might be), does a disservice to one of the most ancient, and yes, important, forms of human-nature connection we have ever invented. Surfing.

Man’s relationship with the ocean has always been a respectful one, in which man was the perpetual apprentice learning the ocean’s ways. Like any sentient being, the ocean has a temperament, an attitude. If one was to toy with or disrespect this attitude, he paid the price. If man made a mistake, he paid the price. The ocean always has been, and always will be, more of a force on this Earth than we ever will.

The ancient societies of Hawaii were certainly cognisant of the ocean’s powers, and it was there that surfing was most likely developed many millennia ago. Here, the power in the societal hierarchy laid with the man who could surf the best – as he was the one whose relationship with the ocean was the greatest. To them, surfing (known as heʻe nalu in their language) was not a recreational sport or hobby, but rather a cornerstone of everyday life. To them, heʻe nalu was a form of art and self-expression – and the boards used to ride the waves needed to be created with great care and craftsmanship to make man’s journey on the waves as pleasant as possible

The modern-day version of surfing came about thanks to a man named James Matthias Jordan, Jr, who bought surfing to the United States in 1912. It remained a fringe activity for several decades, booming some 50 years later in the early 1960s – due to it being featured in movies, advertisements, and the music of Brian Wilson. Even today, the surfing boom from 60 years ago is still felt – with Southern California being considered the Mecca, and the Beach Boys being considered the patron saints of wave ridin’ (even though only one them ever really surfed).

Talk to enough people on the beaches of Australia, California, or South East Asia and chances are you’ll probably hear the ”it’s not a sport, it’s a way of life, maaan” cliche, before rolling your eyes at them. At least, that’s what I used to do – maybe I’m just a grumpy, sunburnt, miserable Englishman. Be that as it may, there is truth behind that overused statement. American surfer Kelly Slated summed his craft up perfectly by stating ””It’s like the mafia. Once you’re in – you’re in. There’s no getting out.”

I agree that surfing has some sort of addictive quality – it’s almost like a great humbling when one is completely decimated by a wave, only to get up and try it all again. A number of sports (particularly weightlifting and martial arts) involve practices that could be metaphorical to life – such as grinding it out when it gets tough, staying consistent, and prevailing in the face of adversity. However, surfing feels different – it feels so much more than a practical metaphor for life and at times feels like an extension of life itself.

Surfing is as much of a mental game as it is a physical one. It requires a surprising amount of spatial awareness and concentration to participate in it – and I believe the cognitive side of it is overlooked by people. Once you’re in the thick of it, you’ll know what I mean. A connection to the present moment is required, similar to yoga, where to have to listen to your mind and focus only on your next move – as one distraction could make the difference between a successful ride, and a brief trip to the seafloor.

You can be as in control as you want, however, but you can’t control how big or small the wave is. The ancient Hawaiians viewed the ocean as a deity – a deity who’d dish out whatever sizes waves he damn chooses to – so if you get caught in a 30ft wave, that’s your problem, not the oceans. In order to surf, you must let go of that which you cannot control. You must also make the most of what’s given to you.


                                                      “When you become united with a wave, you                                                 lose your identity on one level and make                                                               contact with it again on a higher plane.” –                                                                           Michael Hynson


I think surfing is much more than a lazy sport for lazy people. It’s more than a way to spend a few hours on Venice Beach whilst stoned – surfing reminds all of us that we are servants to the ocean, and our mental connection to it is, for a brief time, a matter of life or death. Surfing is simply harmony between man and nature – the oldest and, at times, most destructive of relationships, along with the most complicated. Surfing may not change your life or anything, but its followers as a spiritual practice are huge. Maybe you should join.

Or not – like I said, the ocean really doesn’t give a shit.



image courtesy of shutterstock.com

3 thoughts on “Hallowed Be Thy Waves: The Surprising Spirituality Known as Surfing

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