Photo: Ellis
Photo: Ellis

The Surfer As Philosopher King

Philosophy professor and tubehound Aaron James explains why surfers enjoy ultimate freedom

When not actually surfing, we typically occupy our thoughts with its immediate ancillaries: wax and wetsuits, swells and surf reports. Concerning ourselves with the philosophical underpinnings of surfing, however, is not as common. Enter Aaron James, UC Irvine philosophy professor, Nias barrel rider, and author of the book Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. In his book, James explores how we might find true purpose in life through surfing and why the requirements of finely "attuned" surfing just might improve social, economic, and ecological conditions on our planet. James uses Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas about radical self-determinism and mixes it with high-energy descriptions of riding waves to give us a rich description of why we're so compelled to keep paddling out. We called him to ask about his new book.

What prompted you to write Surfing with Sartre? Was the publication of the book really just a way to finance your trips to Sumatra?

Ha, no, I've been going to Indo for a number of years, and I try to make a point of going no matter what. I wrote the book in order to figure out for myself what surfing has to do with philosophy. I've devoted most of my life to both surfing and philosophy, but I couldn't have said anything very systematic about how the two relate before I started working on the book. My sense was that surfers really get the human condition, which becomes really vivid in Indo. So being there in Sumatra, getting amply barreled, and working with the local communities helped me get clearer about what surfers really do know about life and its meaning.

I think it's safe to say that most surfers don't ponder metaphysics often, if ever. Tell us a bit about the ideas expressed in your new book.

Surfers definitely know something about flow, right? That's an interesting topic in itself. Psychology and self-help books give you a Stoic picture, where flow is a state of "optimal experience" that you get into by controlling your mind from within, by sheer self-discipline. Yet any surfer will tell you that flow isn't mainly about the experiential states inside your head, or about being very controlling of anything. It's more about letting go of control.

What do you mean by flow?

Flow is the real relationship between surfer and wave that emerges when skill and circumstances coalesce. You skillfully do the right thing at each right time as the wave's sections come to you, moment by moment, and then you find yourself carried along by its propulsive forces, going fast, free to do turns, fluidly linking the wave's sections together. As obvious as that sounds to a surfer, it's a cool point in "metaphysics" about our relation to reality. We get into that dynamic kind of self-transcendence. It's crucial for human existence, but not something that philosophies like Stoicism or Buddhism or existentialism explain very well.

Philosophy professor Aaron James, deep into the research barrel. Photo courtesy of James

Some would consider surfing to be a purely aesthetic, sensual experience. But you suggest there's more to it. How so?

Surfers for the most part aren't "hedonistic," in the sense of seeking just whatever brings pleasure, whether by drugs or sex or riding a roller coaster. They're really into surfing, in particular. I mean, surfing is fun, and brings a rush, but it's a source of stoke because it's ultimately about something else, beyond pleasurable mental states. You know, it's about waves, and surfing them, or a heavy tube, soulful turn, or gliding along the high line — all of which is sublime and beautiful in itself. Riding along on a wave is a way of being right with the world, in harmony with it, at least for the moment. It's worth doing just for its own sake, because it's eminently worthy of one's limited time in life, if only for an afternoon. For the moment, nothing else has to happen to feel completely at peace in one's being. And that's not anything like getting pleasure from eating a cheeseburger, which doesn't feel like reason enough to be glad to be alive rather than not. But surfing does feel like that. It's worthy of an afternoon, a season, and a whole life's devotion, in a way that having any amount of pleasure isn't.

A big part of your book deals with the idea that the ultimate joy we get from riding waves is when we are in a state of attunement. What exactly does this mean?

I say that what surfers really know is how to be "adaptively attuned" to a changing natural phenomenon. That involves a kind of perception, like seeing a cup over there, sitting on a table. But surfing uses the whole body, and not just the eyeballs. You sense the coming moment of the wave only because your whole body is ready to go, responding as the wave is asking. But then your next movement, a shift of weight, or turn, or moment of waiting, immediately shapes how you see the wave's next coming moment, and how you should then move next. This has to be spontaneous. There's no time for planning, except on the fly. And yet, often enough, things come together. You get in the wave's flow, in a sustained state of attunement. That's when we become extremely stoked. What is that feeling? I think it's really about celebrating the coalescence between skill and circumstance, which easily might not have been. Things are going our way, in a kind of efficacy or success. We're succeeding in a harmonious relationship with what lies beyond the self, and feeling grateful or fortunate to be alive, just to be part of it.

Sartre depicted skiing as an example of an activity in line with "radical freedom." What would he think about surfing?

J.P. Sartre is the great philosopher of freedom, and there are these long passages in his famous masterwork Being and Nothingness – which he wrote in part as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II – where he goes on about skiing as an example of freedom. The free human slides above material reality (the snow), while still being free to determine his destiny (by carving). But skiing is just one kind of "sliding upon water," and he mentions that waterskiing is even better, calling it "the ideal limit of aquatic sports." To which a surfer wants to say: waterskiing? I'm sure Sartre would have been impressed with surfing had it come to France in time for him to see it. But I argue that, when you think through why surfing is freedom, it's a problem for Sartre. Surfing freedom is embodied and embedded in changing circumstance. It's a kind of success or achievement that emerges when you attunedly go along with whatever the wave happens to be doing, by adapting your will to it, in part by firmly accepting that you can't control it. So it turns out to be really different from Sartre's "radical freedom," which is all about imposing your will upon events and controlling or determining the self, "ex nihilo," or from nothing.

That sounds reasonable. But in Surfing with Sartre, you write, "Surfers never put much trust in words, including the words of theories, worldviews, or texts." If so, why should a surfer take the time to consider the meaning of life as it sits with Sartre or anyone else?

If I'm right, I'm paying the surfer a huge compliment. Surfing gets you on to deep features of the human condition. So for my surfer brethren, I'm hoping they hear my account and say, "Yeah, brother, stoked you put words on it" – because I've clarified what would otherwise be obscure or ineffable. And as we surfers better understand ourselves, maybe we live more consistently by our own values. Writing the book helped me do that for myself.