I understood, the moment I caught my first wave. Surfing as spiritual experience.
Floating in tranquility, I glance over my shoulder and see it coming, rising and irresistible. I start paddling. I am lifted from below. Catapulted forward inexorably, now a passenger on a ride to the shoreline, my steering is my only saviour from oblivion on the seabed. Surrounded by the roar of the ocean, the present moment is everything.
How can it not feel mystical? Back in the ocean, the birthplace of all life. The tide’s dance, rising and falling according to the whims of celestial bodies. I feel insignificant, at the mercy an awesome power – yet simultaneously at the axis of nature’s chaotic order.
I am alone out there, at the mercy of those waves whipped up by distant winds. But it is beautiful. Friends shout and wave from the beach but their yelps are extinguished by the vastness. All I can hear now is the sea’s exhalation.
Surfing is a meditation. A metaphor for the terminal ride of life, the navigation of a supreme energy beyond our control. Vanity and ego are eroded as you are forced to face up to your ultimate irrelevance. It’s hard to feel conceited as you rise from the seabed, spitting out saltwater that stings your eyes, nose and throat.
All this from riding a plastic board in the sea, a reductionist might say. Isn’t this just trite philosophizing about the ebb and flow of life, that we’ve all heard before. Perhaps. But it must be experienced to be felt.
Surfing is relatively new to me. I can hardly stand up after catching a wave before I am thrown headfirst into the briny. But so what? The Zen of surfing has taken hold.
Hurtling forward on breaking wave does tend to focus your attention on ‘the now’. The rest of world is forgotten while you hitch a ride and commune with Mother Nature’s pure energy.
Of course, surfing could be seen ultimately pointless. Outside competitions there is no aim besides the surfer’s personal experience – but therein lies the freedom. I would urge anyone with the inclination, to try it. You may leave the water sunburnt, ears full of water and body aching. But there is a fierce joy in the moment you catch your first wave and a residual appreciation of our place in nature, at the same time free but ultimately under nature’s dominion.