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Climb Down From That High Horse

Debunking surfing's faux-spirituality

Imagine yourself as a golfer heading out for a round. You toss your gear, most of which is way more advanced than your skills can make use of, into an unnecessarily expensive bag. Hoping for good weather and no crowds, you drive to your favorite course and park in your usual spot. When play begins, you hit a ball, you move to the next hole, you repeat. Over and over again. Hit ball, repeat. Your clubs are stock, off the shelf, or custom fit to you. You have a particular stylistic approach to the game: You could be a risk-taker or rely on a careful course-management strategy. Either way, when you're finished playing, you're tired, sweaty, hungry, and have a little post-golf glow. You've had fun. Maybe you even eat a burrito and catch a broadcast of a pro tour round somewhere. If you're a serious golfer, you will do this a few times a week, every week, well into old age. Sound familiar? It's your life as a surfer too.

But what you probably wouldn't do, as a golfer, is philosophically elevate your hobby to a unique position of cultural and spiritual significance. As surfers, we really shouldn't do that either, but we do, all the time.

For decades now, we've had our heads so far up our own asses that we've largely forgotten that surfing is just leisurely, pointless fun. Of course, there's a distinct sensation in there somewhere, something that for most of us, only surfing provides. But we don't really know what to ascribe that feeling to, so we grasp around metaphysically and settle on a vaguely spiritual association. This really started in the late '60s and early '70s, as the blossoming hippie movement found a cozy ally in an already on-the-fringes surf world. Surf magazines did their part to shove the sport into the counterculture with freewheeling and questionably facial-haired editorial staffs tripping their balls off while banging out articles about finding God and connecting with ethereal cosmic consciousness in the tube. The biggest surf movies of the period—Morning of the Earth, Evolution, and Pacific Vibrations, all released in the early '70s—were influenced by and definitely made while on a host of psychedelic drugs, which made those movies spaced-out and weird, and also loaded them with ham-fisted spirituality narratives.

Throw the Shortboard Revolution into that drug-addled mix and you had an experimental surf culture that was exploring all kinds of new ways to ride waves and be surfers, all while absorbing the Age of Aquarius vibe like a sponge. As the psychedelic tide receded at the close of the '70s, it nevertheless left behind an inflated sense of spiritual self-importance for the sport, based mostly on surfing's connection to the natural environment. This was new for us. No way in hell would Dora and Carson connect with their inner consciousness while hanging five; they'd have been too busy getting fightin' drunk and "connecting" with the hippie chicks on the beach.

The next couple of decades even further screwed up how surfers thought of themselves. In the U.S., a kind of pop surf culture boomed in the '80s and '90s that dwarfed anything we saw in the '50s. Wave pools opened in the Midwest, the Southwest, at DisneyWorld, even in freezing Canada. Terrible shows like Big Wave Dave's and The New Gidget debuted on primetime TV. Surf companies hawked their merch in malls and department stores. Boardshorts, tank tops, and flip flops rained down upon the non-surfing heartland. Everybody wanted to surf, or at least look like they did. We had a massive identity crisis on our hands. The whole world was in on the surfing secret, forcing panicky surf culture guardians like Sam George to write essays asking, "Is Surfing [still] Hip?" "Oh yeah. Hipper than hip," was his answer. George was wrong, of course. The right answer was "Who the fuck cares?" But George, and anybody else worried about whether or not surfing still resided at or near the hipness pinnacle, could at least take solace in the fact that surfing's tether to spirituality remained as strong as ever. There was always the retreat into the mystic tribe of the soul surfer. No matter if the uninitiated mainstream invaded the beau monde of surf culture; we had Mother Ocean on our side, granting us extra-special access to the spiritual VIP lounge. Just look at us surfers—we are riding energy pulses in the ocean out here!

But we've been in the saddle of our spiritual and cultural high horses for long enough. Surfing is not the only vehicle for experiencing joy. Nor is it a forum for sorting out political differences. It can't address race or gender discrimination, and it can't solve income inequality. Far too many books have been sold that gush about the Zen of surfing, or the Tao of surfing, or whatever eastern religious tie-in you want to make with surfing. Nonsense.

Riding waves, in and of itself, isn't bringing anybody into a direct connection with God, or whatever quasi-mystical force you prefer. We surf because it is addictive, and at times it's unbelievably fun, but it's just that: completely useless, aimless fun. We wait for good waves, we paddle out and catch one, surf it to the beach, and turn around to paddle back out again. All riding waves can do is goose up your serotonin, adrenaline, and endorphin levels, while keeping you tan and fit. It also allows entry to the small—relatively speaking—club of people in this world who know how to surf.

Sure, those things are all pretty cool. Yet that doesn't mean that surfers are privy to anything more spiritual than your average landlocked skateboarder. We don't hold the key to a special door to the universe that couldn't be unlocked by a dedicated fly-fisherman. Maybe we're better at divining the weather and avoiding 9-to-5 jobs than tennis players, but that's only because we're victims of fickle combinations of swell, tides, and winds. Surfing sure as hell feels great, but it doesn't make us great, or connect us to greatness. And that's just fine. Surfing's already taken over our entire lives. Let's not weigh it down with any more significance than it already has.