Is Stoke a Genuine Mystical Experience?
I teach the philosophy of religion at Boston College, including a course in Mysticism. I am also a surfer. The question in the above title thus seems to me a "natural."
But no scholar has ever seriously asked it in writing. Why? Perhaps because of a double danger in it.
For if stoke is a mystical experience, this answer will surprise and offend most serious scholars. For then the gap between mystics and non-mystics is not nearly as great as the "experts" think, and the door to mystical experience is open to more people than we usually think. For let's be honest here: surfers do not have the reputation of being very remarkable in any of the usually cited qualifications for being mystics: wisdom, self-discipline, detachment, or holiness.
If, on the other hand, stoke is not a mystical experience, this answer will surprise and offend most surfers, for stoke is almost always claimed to be a mystical experience by surfers who are literate enough to understand the term. (Yes, there are some surfers who are literate. Some even write articles for this journal.)
So my conclusion will inevitably challenge somebody's deeply held assumptions. That's what we philosophers love to do most.
Every religion produces mystics, and though mystical experience is interpreted and evaluated differently by different religions, it manifests a single common pattern wherever it is found. But the content of this pattern, or the truths that mystical experience claims to discover, cannot be defined, for one of the primary features of any mystical experience is that it transcends definition: that's why it's called "mystical" I. (So since my subject transcends linguistic effability, I'm trying to eff the ineffable and unscrew the inscrutable.) But we can describe the pattern of mystical experience well enough to distinguish it from other human experiences, and we can do that by finding at least the following 14 features. And we will find the very same 14 features in stoke.
- It is ineffable.
- It is irresistibly attractive.
- It is direct. It is "caught" rather than taught, like measles.
- It evokes a feeling of cosmic gratitude.
- It evokes awe and humility in the face of something great.
- It transcends fear, even the fear of death.
- It transcends time.
- It transcends boredom.
- It supplies constructively the ecstasy (ek-stasis, "standing-outside-yourself") that is sought destructively in drugs.
- It transcends ordinariness, earthiness, or "homeyness."
- It experiences a cosmic "Tao."
- It fulfills our frustrated longing to get inside Tao.
- It is generically "religious" but not specific to any one organized religion.
- It transcends duality into unity.
(This last feature is the most philosophically interesting, and the most distinctive to mystical experiences. We find three forms of this unity: unity with the cosmos, unity with all spirit or Self, and unity with God; or what F.C. Happold (in Mysticism) calls "nature-mysticism, soul-mysticism and God-mysticism." The terms are Western, and the very distinction is full of assumptions, but I use them only provisionally and pragmatically. "Nature-mysticism" is typical of Romantic poets and Taoists, "soul-mysticism" is typical of Buddhists and some Hindus, and "God-mysticism" is typical of Jewish, Christian and Muslim mystics and some other Hindus.)
"Stoke" is the unique word used in the unique culture of surfers for the unique "high" that surfers experience, either (a) during any surfing, or (b) at the moment of a perfect "catch" of a wave, (c) at the moment of entering "the Green Room," the barrel of a crashing wave, especially the first time in their life any of these three things happens. Stoke is not just any "high." Most surfers have experienced other "highs," e.g. from sex, drugs, or simply moments of natural perfection like sunsets; and they always say that surfing's stoke is unique and incomparable.
To say that stoke is simply one among many joys, or "highs," is like saying that earth is simply one among many planets, or that Beatrice is simply one among many women. (Say that to Dante and he would challenge you a duel.) I can think of only two other human activities that have unique words for the unique, incomparable and incommunicable experience it alone provides: "Nirvana" and "orgasm."
Back in the 20th century a popular magazine took a survey of 100 surfers asking them whether they would sooner give up surfing or sex. Eighty nine said "sex." When the result was published, a chorus of surfers wrote in claiming the survey was bogus, since no one could ever find 11 surfers who would give up surfing.
(I do not know of any surfer who has had a mystical experience that is recognized as authentic in his or her religion, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist, and who can thus compare stoke with mystical experience by personal experience. I would be fascinated with any feedback information on this.)
Of course the fact that we can find all 14 of these common features in both stoke and mystical experience is only a set of clues rather than proofs, since if they are taken as proofs, all 14 commit the logical fallacy of Undistributed Middle:
Stoke has trait X.
Mystical experience has trait X.
Therefore stoke is mystical experience.
As a proof, this is no more persuasive than arguing that
Dogs have fur.
Rabbits have fur.
Therefore dogs are rabbits.
But as clues, common traits are significant. When seeking a culprit, a detective seeks a large number of traits common to A, the person known to have been the perpetrator of a crime and B, a certain suspect. If both A and B are male, fat, red-haired, and tall B is a very likely suspect. If they are also both hunchbacked, the fit is even more probable. And if their fingerprints match, the fit is certain, since two people never have the same fingerprint. The "match" between stoke and mystical experience is significant, but not as certain as fingerprinting.
(1) The first common trait is ineffability. Stoke is an experience that is far out beyond the most distant sandbars of language, according to those who experience it. This ineffability is probably the most clearly and universally present feature of all forms of mystical experience, Eastern and Western, including near-death and out-of-body experiences. The ineffability is not due to any unusual linguistic inadequacy on the part of the experiencer, for the most articulate confess their linguistic helplessness as much as the least articulate, though they confess it more articulately.
(2) A second common trait is irresistibility. Not everyone finds surfing irresistible, and not all surfers experience stoke, and some experience it in milder forms that are less than irresistible. However, full stoke is as irresistible as Beatrice to Dante, or Juliet to Romeo.
The classic example in surfing literature is Jack London's description of his initiation into the art in Hawaii a century ago. Every surfer has a similar story; every surfer remembers catching his first wave:
One after another they came, a mile long, with smoking crests ... these bull-mouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge into shore faster than a man can run .... I watched the little Kanaka boys. When a likely looking breaker came along, they flopped upon their stomachs on their boards, kicked like mad with their feet, and rode the breaker onto the beach. I tried to emulate them. I watched them, tried to do everything they did, and failed utterly. The breaker swept past and I was not on it ... away the little rascals would scoot while I remained in disgust behind. I tried for a solid hour, and not one wave could I persuade to boost me shoreward.
But then, at the end of the day, Jack caught his first wave, and, in his own words,
From that moment I was lost.
Every surfer in the world can identify with that sentence. From the moment of your first wave, you are hopelessly in love. Once you go to Heaven, you don't live on earth any more.
(3) A third common feature to both stoke and mystical experience is that they are "caught" (like measles) rather than taught (like math). That is, they are not attained by any technology or "know-how" or calculation or method. No authentic mystic ever said: "to attain mystical experience, simply perform acts X, Y, and Z." For mystical experience transcends X, Y and Z, and the effect cannot transcend the cause. And the same is true of stoke. Surfing can be taught, but not stoke.
Mystical experience is like dancing: you have to just forget yourself and fall into the music. Until you do that, you're not really dancing. In mystical experience, God (or the cosmos or some sort of super-self) is the music. Until you forget yourself and fall into God, you're not a mystic. In surfing—that is, soul-surfing as distinct from competitive, egocentric, performance surfing-the wave is the music. Until you forget yourself and fall into the wave you're not soul-surfing. (The falling is spiritual and metaphorical, not physical and literal, of course; literally falling into the wave is simply a wipeout.)
There is a technology or technique only for things less than yourself. There is no technique for loving, only for making love (of one kind) or expressing love (of another kind). There is no technique for seeing; you just remove the obstacles, by opening your eyes. Technique is a cause-effect relationship: you bring about the effect (e.g. light in the room) by a series of causes (e.g. electrical generators, wiring, and light bulbs). But the effect cannot transcend its cause, and both stoke and mystical experience are effects that vastly transcend any cause that we can control. (That's what technology is: a series of controlled causes). If this were not so, we could invent something like stoke machines or mystical experience machines; we could guarantee mystical experiences to everyone who performed certain exercises, physical or mental. But all the mystics of the world agree that this cannot be done. Mystical experience "just happens," like falling in love, or (at the opposite end of the spectrum) s***.
(4) A fourth common feature is that both stoke and mystical experience evoke the feeling of cosmic gratitude, perhaps the most pervasive psychological subsoil of all religion. This happens on every good wave you catch, but especially your first. You know that you have not chosen it, it has chosen you. You have simply placed yourself in the time and place where the ineffable gift was given. "Pretty woman" has turned and smiled at you.
(5) A fifth common feature is the feeling of awe and humility in the face of greatness. The mystic feels gripped by God and the surfer feels gripped by the sea, lifted up like a tiger cub in Mother's jaws, or riding a giant, foamy torpedo that the sea has shot to shore. But the most common image is riding horses, riding the stallions of the gods. And when the offshore winds whip the crest of the approaching swells and leave haloes of white spray behind each wave just before it plunges over, and when they are backlit by the sun, you are not able not to see the waves as heavenly horses with wild white manes, ghost riders from the sky, who disappear as quickly as they come.
(6) You also feel wild abandon, and fearlessness; and this is a sixth common feature. You feel immortal. You want to whoop. Not many things in this world make you want to whoop.
Once, in the sixties on the Jersey shore, I was foolishly body-surfing in such exhilaratingly powerful waves and cross-currents generated by a passing hurricane that I lost all fear. For though I am not a very strong swimmer, I am a strong logician, and the following syllogism appeared to me as infallibly correct:
I have become one with the ocean;
the one thing that cannot possibly drown in the ocean is the ocean;
Therefore I cannot possibly drown in the ocean.
I am still alive only because practical survival sanity overrode both mysticism and logic.
The danger is of course part of the thrill in both surfing and mystical experience. Both the sea and God are dangerous; if you don't know that, you don't know either one. For millions of years, not a single human being even dared to think of riding those monsters. Waves can kill you, even if you are a good swimmer. Mark Foo, was no beginner. Failure doesn't mean death in golf, or baseball, or basketball, but it can mean instant death in surfing. And all mystics describe mystical experience as a death: of the ego, or at least of egotism. And they don't fear it, they accept it.
(7) One of the most philosophically interesting features of mystical experience is its transcendence of time. And although stoke shows this less radically, it does show it. Sometimes stoke makes time not disappear but reverse itself. Surfing can be a time machine, and actually do what the poet can only long for:
Backward, turn backward, 0 time in thy flight:
Make me a child again just for one night.
Surfing actually does that, and not just for one night. Seventy year old surfers like myself testify to this. Watch us old fogies feeling and acting like children again—only at one place on earth: in the waves. Watch the magic light rise in our eyes like the sun on the water. Watch the innocent, childlike joy squeeze up from between the wrinkles on our faces, as swells arise on the face of the sea. If you watch us carefully, you can catch the waves of stoke on our faces as we catch the waves of water on the ocean.
This turning back the clock to youth is not merely psychological magic; it is even physical magic. Once, after a hot, humid, exhausting, and irritating 8-hour car trip to the Jersey shore, I was literally too exhausted and hungry to be able to lift the suitcases out of the car and into the beach house we rented. My board was my salvation and my magic wand. Five hours later, I noticed that the sun had set and that I had forgotten supper. I had been in the water for five hours, totally unaware of the passing of time, cavorting like a toddler.
Stoke also resembles the transformed time-consciousness of mystical experience in a second, stronger way: not only does it make time turn back, but it makes time stop, or stand still, for that timeless moment when you and the wave are one, there at the top, when you catch it at the exact split second when it breaks. That "split second," that "timeless moment," is so big that it contains all time, it contains the whole history of the universe, from the Big Bang right up to and including the breath you drew one instant before. This instant is the only time, and it is also the last moment of time, the apocalypse, and it is also the very first moment of time, the moment of creation. ("Morning has broken like the first morning/ blackbird has spoken like the first bird.") Nothing more is needed now. There is no reason for time to continue.
This is paradoxical, for it's a wave that evokes this time-transcendence, and yet a wave is utterly temporal—in fact it is the shape of everything that moves in time. The wave is the form that unites matter and energy.
Stoke is the experience of dynamic, dynamite-like movement and of standstill shock, at one and the same time. Mystics would say this is an experience of eternity—eternity merely unending time, nor the mere absence of time, but the presence of all time at one present moment.
I think this explains the deep happiness that both experiences always produce. It is a clue that we were not meant to be in time forever, but in timelessness, and in these two experiences we have a taste of our "home," our destiny. Both bring us back to the timeless mode of consciousness we see in the very young and which some say was our lot in Eden. (The consciousness of time, of death, of the ego, and of "the knowledge of good-and-evil" all seem to stand or fall together.) I wonder: did Adam and Eve feel all the time the way a surfer feels for that split second atop a wave?
Steven Wright, the dour Boston comedian, understands that moment. He says: "You know that feeling you get when you lean back in your chair and lift your feet up and balance on the two back legs for that one tiny instant before you fall either backwards or forwards? Well, that's how I feel all the time." He's not at home in this world either; he must be a surfer.
This timeless experience is available every time you catch a wave. For if time does not stop for you, you do not catch the wave. If you remain in time for a quarter of a second too long, the wave is past; "pretty woman" has not turned to smile at you. If you run ahead too fast and enter the wave a quarter of a second too early, you get creamed. You must find the split second. It is like a split coconut. But into that split, eternity can fit.
There are many parallels in great drama and cinema to that timeless moment. It's like the magic moment in "Our Town" when the dead Emily sees her life in time with the eyes of eternity and can't endure the beauty of it. Or like the magic moment in "The Miracle Worker" when Helen Keller wakes to the meaning of meaning when Annie Sullivan spells out "water into her hand, down by the well". Or like the magic moment experienced by the lonely, abused, and dying sister on the white swing in the yellow sun and the green grass of the Swedish spring in Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers," when her voice-over mind says that even though her hypocritical sisters are only pretending to love her and even though she will very soon have to go back into the house to die of cancer, everything is perfect now, and everything is now; this moment is the only moment and the meaning of all moments.
To the mystic, these experiences of eternity seem to take no time at all, though to the observer they do. Which is truer, the inside vision or the outside vision? Who knows stoke best, the surfer in "the Green Room" or the one outside who only watches or photographs?
Mystical experience is an escape into the mystical reality of the present from the ordinary unreality of the past and future. It is not a flight from reality, it is a flight to reality. And so is stoke.
(8) Since stoke and mystical experience both transcend time, they also transcend boredom. No surfer has ever been heard to utter the sentence: "Too many good waves; I'm bored." No mystic ever said, "Too much God; I'm bored."
I don't claim to know what God, or Ultimate Reality, is, but I do claim to know one thing it isn't: it isn't boring. Remember, in The Chronicles of Narnia, "Aslan is not a tame lion." Neither is the sea.
Happiness eventually gets boring, but stoke and mystical experience give us not just happiness but joy. It's new every time, like a sudden kiss. It feels like a lightning bolt that does not go away but stands there shining.
Other things make you happy either (1) before but not afterwards, like dangerous pleasures that are destructive, or (2) afterwards but not before, like doing your duty and being courageous and making sacrifices, or (3) only while you do them, like eating candy. But mystical experience and stoke both make you happy before, during, and afterwards. When I know I'm going to surf in the afternoon, I'm happy all morning; and when I remember the afternoon's joy, I'm happy all evening. A day of surfing is like a wave: it has a long, grand swell before it breaks, and a glorious splash when it breaks, and a great whitewater wash after it breaks. When you run across the beach with a spring in your step and a song in your heart, your heart is already in the wave. Then you throw yourself into the miraculously-healing waters, like the cripple at the pool of Siloam, as soon as you see the angel troubling the water with waves. (That's some powerful angel!) And when you come out, you're still stoked, with post-stoke stoke. For the sea keeps loving you, washing you, and sweeping through your soul even after it leaves your body, like a mother loving her baby even after the baby comes out of her womb. Mother Sea's rhythms and music are inscribed in our hard-wired memory circuits, and in our blood, and in our very genes. Your body rocks all night as you keep feeling the waves of the waves. You are "out of the cradle, endlessly rocking."
(9) Both stoke and mystical experience transcend self-consciousness. They are not only out-of-body experiences but out-of-mind experiences. The word for that is "ecstasy" (ek-stasis), which means, literally, "standing-outside-yourself." This seems to fulfill something we were designed for, and unconsciously demand, and are deep down restless and unhappy until we get it.
This is why true mystical experience overcomes the temptation to the fake mysticism of drugs. For drugs also deliver a kind of ecstasy by bringing us out of self-consciousness, but destructively. We are programmed to be mystics, and if we have no mystical experience and no hope of it, we are liable to sell our souls for cheap and easy imitations.
Stoke may be cheap and easy compared with the disciplines of religious mysticism, but it is not an imitation. Stoke is a truer high than any drug can give. A wave carries you higher into the heavens than a weed. And with no bad side effects: no scrambled brains, no scrambled lives. And it's free. (The best things in life are.) And it makes you happy and nice and even patient, without making you dull and uncreative and conformist. And it's good for your body as well as your soul because it's healthy outdoor exercise. I can tell the President how to win the war on drugs: get all the druggies to surf. That will lower the crime rate by half. America's streets won't be safe until we have a surfer President.
Surfing makes all your senses come alive in a different way than drugs because it plunges you into reality, not away from it. Surfing makes you turn outward, not inward. It's the exact opposite of hallucinogens. It's total sensory and mental immersion in a wet work of art invented by Someone or Something a lot bigger than us. And the ecstasy spills over onto all your senses: the feel of the hot caressing sun on your skin and the cold slap of the wave on your muscles; the taste and smell of brine; the sound of booming and roaring water; and the sight of a falling blue mountain with a gaping maw ready to swallow your electrically-trembling body and suck you out of the body and into a moment of Heaven—this is not hallucination, this is truth, this is verity, this is what-really-is. And that is exactly what all the mystics say of their experience.
(10) Though both stoke and mystical experience are true, and real, and not fantasy, they are also not earthly, or ordinary, but Heavenly, or transcendent experiences. They are not "homely" but "unhomely," unheimlich, unearthly. Like love, they "lift us up where we belong": out of our ordinary world, self, and time.
Yet though it is "unearthly," mystical experience is also utterly realistic, for the simple reason that the "Heaven" it plunges us into is real. (Earth is real too, but the dull feeling that "this is all there is" is not. Earth is real, but earthiness is not.)
Significantly, one of the commonest answers surfers give to "why do you surf?" is "to go to Heaven." Other answers are:
(11) The next feature common to stoke and mystical experience is the experience of Tao, or "Orenda," as the Iroquois call it. "Tao" means "the way," and it is one thing in three places. (1) It is "the way" of ultimate reality, the timeless Pattern of all things. (2) It is also "the way" of nature, which reflects this pattern in matter; the "way" natural energy works, the way things happen. It is shaped like a wave. (3) It is also "the way" of the sage who knows this pattern and conforms to it, who steps into this river and becomes a part of it, who "follows the wave" and soul-surfs on Tao.
Tao attracts us in a mysterious, impractical way. We cannot live in the sea—we are not fish—yet we love it; just as we cannot live in trees—we are not birds—yet we love them. Why? What do we seek and find in air, sky, trees, mountains, sea and stars? The answer is not clear, but there is a word for the answer: it is Tao. It is like a mysterious ingredient, a mystical sugar that the Creator put into nature to make it taste sweet to us. It is especially detected in moving water.
Tao has a character, a distinct and detectable personality, even though it is everywhere. (It's like God that way.) It is not an abstraction. We can sense it—in waves, and in the sun, and in birth and death. It is incredibly strong and incredibly gentle. It is subtle and invisible, but it is alive. It is the ultimate source and ongoing energy of all life. It is the blood of the universe, the pulse of the cosmic Mother. The wise work with it rather than against it, painting with the grain of the wood, following the curl of the wave. This is the philosophical basis of many Oriental arts: judo, tea ceremony, archery, painting, gardening, architecture—and above all the art of living well, the highest of the arts.
The power of Tao is irresistible. The hard rock finds the power of the soft, gentle water so irresistible that it eventually crumbles to sand. Surfers sense this power. When pressed to be more specific about the thrill in stoke, every surfer mentions the incredible power of the sea. Surfing even moderately sized waves is described as riding a giant's breath; or riding tornadoes lying down on their side; or being a flea on a sleeping, snoring dinosaur; or riding in a steam locomotive, with its great, grinding driving wheels beneath you. It's locomotion on the ocean. Is it mere coincidence that the word that means "to heat up the boiler of a steam engine" is also the word "stoke"? But this locomotive is not a machine, it's alive. So it's more like a giant horse. But of course you don't really ride a wave as you ride a horse, for you have to tame a horse before you ride it, but you can never tame a wave. You can only catch a wave as a catcher catches a curve ball from the pitcher.
Dylan Thomas described Tao this way: "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ drives my red blood." The force that drives all life is also the force that drives my life. I discover my oneness with nature by tracing back both my blood and nature's to the same cosmic heart pump, the same invisible force, the force that makes flowers grow and waves swell. The force that drives the green flower, and the red blood, also drives the blue wave, and my yellow surfboard, and pink-fleshy me, when we all become one in our cosmic embrace.
(12) When this happens, we get inside Tao. I think we all secretly long to get inside Tao. But if we are only ordinary believers rather than mystics, we can only stand outside the sacred door, seeing and admiring and even worshipping it from a distance. Sometimes we seem to smell it: the olfactory image is more intimate than the ocular one. But surfers can get inside.
We all love to see water crystals, in the form of snow or ice, but surfers can slide inside their crystals: the hollow tube of a collapsing wave is a crystal cathedral made of moving water. You can actually enter it, ride through, and exit this inner sanctum, this holy of holies.
It's the intimacy of being inside that's the deepest thrill of the stoke (S), as the deepest thrill in sex is not merely the physical orgasm that we share with other mammals, but the intimacy, the excitement of realizing that this beautiful woman, like the wave, has invited you into her most intimate inner bodily being. Think of the difference between being in the audience listening to a great choir perform, and hearing the same music from inside, as a member of the choir itself. Surfing is like going inside nature's music.
The analogy is very close, for a musical note is the wave-form of all natural energy in the medium of sound, as a wave is the same thing in the medium water. Music and water are made of different kinds of matter, but they share the common form of the wave. Old Pythagoras taught that the universe was one enormous musical instrument, and that the heavenly spheres in their orbits made music, "the music of the spheres." He said we did not hear this music because we were a part of it, since the earth is one of the heavenly spheres. That's how it is with the sound of the surf: after you live on the shoreline for years, you don't notice it because you have internalized it so much that it has become part of your ear: no longer your object, your other, but part of your very self.
(13) Like mystical experience, stoke can be called a religious experience, though it is independent of any "organized religions." (But, then, no religion in the world is really "organized." At least I've never seen any. All I've ever found were disorganized religions. When you get closer to them, they all look less like anthills and more like Noah's ark. Can you imagine "organizing" all those animals?)
What I mean by distinguishing both stoke and mystical experience from "organized religion" is simply that they contain no creed, moral code, or public cult of worship. (These are the three dimensions sociologists observe in every religion.) Creed, code and cult are like the shell of the nut: the visible surface. They exist only because there is a living nut inside, an experienced or hoped—for fulfillment that is mystical. Mystical experience in some sense is at the heart of every religion, whether that experience is one of Eastern "cosmic consciousness" or "enlightenment," or simply one of Western faith, hope, and charity. Both forms are "'mystical" because they transcend ordinary experience and reason's ability to define, discover, or demonstrate (the "three acts of the mind" of traditional logic).
The religious character of surfing is clearer the farther back we go to its origins, and, therefore, to its essence. In ancient Hawaii, the priest, the "big kahuna," uttered religious incantations over the making of the sacred surfboard. Then as now, Hawaiians saw surfing as a sacred sign signifying something somehow supernatural. (Look at all those S's: is it purely accidental that S is the shape of a wave?) A sacred sign is like a delicate handkerchief dropped by a goddess, or like a beam of starlight from another world; it points to transcendence.
The tube of a breaking wave is not called a "green cathedral" because it looks like a cathedral but because it feels like one. When you step into it, you spontaneously hush. You stop breathing. Time stops. You have become total attention. You are in a magic doorway, where the fundamental force of nature—wave energy—is now breaking through into your little world from some larger world. Where does it come from? What's on the other side of the door? I don't know the answer, but I know those are religious questions. Surfing doesn't give you religious answers—it doesn't tell you whether to be a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an agnostic—but it does give you religious questions.
Also, like religion, surfing is gloriously impractical. It doesn't make you rich or famous, unless you become a professional surfer. ("Soul-surfers" say that since surfing is love, professional surfers are professional lovers—and the name for a professional lover is "prostitute".)This also makes surfing like religion, for God doesn't give a damn about being rich or famous or powerful, and that's why He says we shouldn't either. He preaches what He practices. He doesn't need us any more than the sea does; what we do to Him mainly is to pollute Him, as we do to the sea. All He does to us is give Himself, give us waves of His joy and beauty and power—just as the sea does. It's His icon.
When King David the psalm writer needed a natural image for God, he turned to the sea. "The floods have lifted up, 0 Lord) The floods have lifted up their voice. / The floods lift up their waves. / The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters. Yea, than the mighty waves of the sea." (Psalm 93) And other prophets did the same. Habakkuk wrote: "Thou didst walk through the sea with Thy horses, / Through the heap of great waters." (3:15) But how often did David or Habakkuk see great waves? How often did they even see the sea? The only sea they ever saw was the Mediterranean. How often does the Mediterranean have great waves? Did they ever hold an international surfing championship in Israel? David probably had a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing great storm waves, and the image haunted his dreams and stuck in his spirit so deeply that he repeatedly returned to that image in his psalms as a natural symbol for God. That really makes me want to meet God.
I think God surfs the universe. What boards does He use? Us. He shapes His boards through all the events that happen to us. The whole universe is a set of shaping tools. And each board is unique, not mass-produced.
I think we surf in God too. That's why surfing is good preparation for Heaven.
We live in three oceans. The watery one below us, we surf in with our bodies. The airy one above us, we surf in with our lungs. And the Heavenly one above us, above the sky, above the whole universe, is an ocean we surf in with our spirits. It is an ocean of joy, and God is that ocean. We learn here to surf on His waves upside down. And that's the meaning of religion: riding the swells of Divine Providence (also called Destiny or Fate), ecstatically surrendering to the foaming love of God.
(14) Especially in Eastern religions, but also in the Western mystics, mystical experience is the experience of absolute unity, the transcending of the essential form of all other modes of consciousness, the subject-object duality. Is stoke that mystical?
Three or four millennia ago, India discovered that this supra-rational state of blissful unitary consciousness could be attained by one or more lifetimes of arduous yoga. A few centuries ago, Polynesia and Hawaii discovered that something like it could be attained by good athletes after a few months' practice on a surfboard. Then, 30 years ago, America discovered that it could be attained instantly by anyone on George Morey's great invention of the boogie board: instant Nirvana for the masses. But is it the same thing?
Here is my demonstration that it is. (Remember, "demonstrate" can mean merely "show" rather than "prove." Though my demonstration is a polysyllogism, it is not a proof, for all its premises are deniable if you are not a surfer.)
- Premise #1: S makes you one with the wave.
- Premise #2: the wave is one with the sea, for a wave is simply the whole sea waving at you, as the Queen's hand waving at you is the whole Queen waving at you.
- Premise #3: the sea is the most perfect natural symbol for everything, for "the ocean of being."
- Conclusion: S makes you one with everything.
(I know this is also the formula for ordering a hot dog—"make me one with everything"—but I refuse to stoop to such low attempts at humor.)
Here is an alternative demonstration of the mystical unity of S:
- Premise #1: when you're in a wave, your body becomes part of the wave.
- Premise #2: what your body does, your soul does too. You're not two people, a ghost in a machine, but one. That's why your soul feels liquid and mobile and light when you are in a wave: because it has traveled; it is no longer a landlocked soul. It's not solid earth any more but water, and it sees its own reflection in the mirror of the sea. Thus surfing also teaches you to "know thyself'. Surfing is Socratic.
- The conclusion follows when you put the two premises together: if your body is one with the wave and your soul is one with your body, then your soul is one with the wave.
In S, you are "in" a wave not as a sardine is "in" a can but as your soul is "in" your body. You are your body. You can't take your body off, as you can take your clothes off. And you can't take the sea off your soul either because even after you come out of the water, the water never comes out of you.
There is a scientific basis for this feeling of becoming one with everything when you become one with the wave. For everything in the universe is in this wave. Everything conspired to make this wave, everything from the Big Bang through the death of the dinosaurs through last night's storm. Its parentage, its genetic heritage, is as wide as the universe.
Surfing is always global: the sea horses we ride have run through every field of water on earth. The water we touch in Hawaii has flowed under Arctic and Antarctic icebergs, around Manhattan Island and uninhabited atolls, through California kelp fields and Cape Horn storms. The home address of the water we ride is "Everywhere."
And you sink into this. Perhaps the best word for the experience is "melt." You melt into the sea as a butter patty melts into a pile of hot mashed potatoes. When the butter melts into the potatoes, it disappears. Yet it does not die. It simply becomes potato butter. But it seems to die, and that death is supremely good because it's the death of the caterpillar to release the butterfly. We live only when we die to ourselves, when we die to the I. The self is a phoenix: it rises only from its own ashes. Every religion in the world knows this incredible secret: that the only way to ultimately find your self is to lose it.
Surfing is one of the easiest and happiest ways to do this. To surf is not just something you do but something you are. I surf, therefore I am.
Have I proved my conclusion? No. For stoke isn't, as well as is, the same as mystical experience. But as far as I can see, the differences are all in degree, not in kind. All the features of mystical experience are present in stoke, but not as fully, not as life-changingly, as in most religious mystical experience. George Morey isn't quite Moses, and kids on their boogie boards aren't quite Buddhas or Christs.
But there is at least a family resemblance between stoke and full mystical experience as found in the world's great religions. So if you are in the market for mysticism, I recommend surfing as the easiest and happiest preliminary.