Last Updated on March 30, 2021 by Paul Farrell, MRP, JD, PhD
“The path of surfing, presents similarities with the paths of all people who have sought meaning and found their essence, whether through surfing, practicing za-zen, or studying the Tao.”
– Jean-Etienne Poirier, Dancing The Wave
“Surfing is the simple act of walking on water. There are many other ways to ride an ocean wave… but when we say ‘surfing,’ we really mean walking on water, or at least standing on it. This is what makes surfing unique, we walk on water.”
– Drew Kampion, The Way of The Surfer
An awareness that water sports are a natural way of meditating hit me while sitting in a Soho loft in New York City back in the mid-seventies, far, far from the great sunny beaches and breaking waves off the coasts of California, Hawaii and Australia. An advertising executive friend insisted I go with him to a workshop in Soho.
We were both in a dance meditation workshop run by Calvin Holt of Manhattan’s famous Serendipity Restaurant. At the time I was with Morgan Stanley in investment banking, going through a midlife crisis. I actually knew nothing about Joseph Campbell, but with a title like “Mythical Meditation,” the workshop sparked my imagination.
At first Campbell’s ideas about meditation seemed all over the map, chaotic, in fact… ranging far and wide throughout history and around the world. Campbell literally saw meditation in everything … from Jungian psychology, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Christian mysticism, to Hopi shamanism, the Tarot, astrology, and the paranormal.
And yet … by the end of the workshop I saw what Campbell saw. He not only changed the meaning of meditation for me, he literally changed my life. Only later did I hear George Lucas say on a Bill Moyer’s special that Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces was the inspiration for StarWars!
Mythologist Swimming Laps While Meditating On Tarot Cards!
At one point near the end of Campbell’s Mythical Meditation, someone finally asked him how he meditated. Campbell, a competition swimmer in his younger days, told us his way, combining the mundane and the mystical by explaining that he meditated on the tarot cards, while swimming laps in his backyard pool, combining his morning physical exercise with this meditation.
Yes, it makes total sense, swimming and all water sports offer a perfectly natural way to meditate, thanks to the essential need to control the breathing. Compare Campbell’s meditation, the stroke, the breathing and the mind filled with the spirit of the tarot… with all those poor young monks sitting in a cold Zen temple somewhere in Japan, struggling endlessly to focus on their breath in their early morning meditation exercises.
Breath-Control, The Natural Meditation Guiding All Swimmers
The average swimmer, however, has no choice about whether to learn the disciple of breathing. None! “Breath control is an essential ingredient in all swimming,” says David Thomas in Swimming: Steps to Success, “recreational swimmers, speed swimmers, synchronized swimmers all need to learn correct breathing habits.”
And All Surfers…
Of all the water sports, however, surfing goes beyond pure meditation. For the million men and women surfers worldwide, surfing is a spiritual path, their way of searching for the meaning of life, of their essence, of nature, of the divine in the mysterious grandeur of the great waves.
Watch them: Surfers are indeed “walking on water” in fact and in spirit. The surfer at once embraces and transcends everything Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist master and meditation teacher, wrote in Living Buddha, Living Christ: “Our true home is the present moment. The miracle is not to walk on water, the miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.”
“Walking On Water” Searching For The Perfect Wave
Surfers are both the miracle and the “not-miracle:” Balancing on the board they are very much in the present moment, they are walking on water and they walk on the green earth too, at least the green earth inland beyond the sandy beaches. Here’s how surfer Gerry Lopez, nicknamed “Mr. Pipeline” and the ‘Buddha in the Barrel’ put it:
“Surfing requires you to deal with the Here and Now more intimately than any other thing I know. Life in general tends to lead people away from the present, making them deal with the past and future (recollection and anticipation) much more than is healthy. Surfing is a spiritually uplifting endeavor, but it takes a long time before you discover that … I think you just keep getting reborn until you figure out that enlightenment is an attainable experience.”
Lopez has that rare impish grin of a high-priest, a native kahuna or a Zen master who, if he hasn’t actually ascended into nirvana yet, he sure is having a whole lot of fun along the way. Lopez is a surfer’s surfer, one of the early adventurers who rode the unrideable waves beyond the outer reefs of Maui.
Riding The Wave—To Nirvana
Today the “Buddha of the Barrel” is in the business of building boards and inspiring the new generation:
“Life is just like surf. It comes up, it goes down, but there’s always something happening. Perhaps the greatest lesson of surfing is the gift of spontaneous reaction—flowing with it on a wave is much easier than flowing with it back up on the beach. It certainly helps you to move around things that seem to stop a lot of people.”
There are over a million surfers in the world today, most live and work in the everyday world, waiting for the right moment to escape into their special watery nirvana. The surfers I know, including a pro football quarterback and a house painter, are like all surfers, very independent people who are quite secretive and protective of their private inner world.
“Surfing Is Not Something I Do, It Is Who I Am!”
In The Way of the Surfer, Drew Kampion eloquently captures the surfer’s…
“Zen mind. Everything is waves. This was the vision of Albert Einstein. It is the lesson and the truth that emerges, over time, out of the surfing experience. Surfing is a natural act, but complex natural act. To ride the wave is to explore the universe of balance—balance within balance within balance. Without balance, a ride cannot be sustained. Without balance, a wave cannot be sustained. Without balance, nothing can be sustained. It sounds like the ancient wisdom of Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.”
Enter their world for even a brief moment and you sense that surfers have some secret that belongs to them alone, a secret that can only be passed on in private by a Zen-surfing monk who has been there, done that, and then only to dedicated disciples who will guard it and not reveal the secret to just anyone.
Their secret is that surfing is the miracle of “walking on water” and surfers are living the miracle. Ask them, they will tell you:
“Surfing is not just some-thing I do, it is who I am.”
And in being totally who they are, they live every day in one of the world’s most natural meditations, at one with the universe, and on a path to enlightenment and nirvana here on earth – every time they “walk on water!”
About the Author
Dr. Farrell is a Behavioral Economist. His books include The Millionaire Code; The Millionaire Meditation: Stress Management for Wall Street, Corporate America & Entrepreneurs; The Zen Millionaire; The Winning Portfolio; Expert Investing on The Net; Mutual Funds on The Net; and The Lazy Person’s Guide to Investing.
He also published 1,643 columns on DowJones-MarketWatch and for years was their #1 traffic-generating columnist. Before the Internet, he edited & published FNX: Future News Index, a financial newsletter for stock market traders. Earlier he was a Wall Street investment banker with Morgan Stanley, Executive Vice President of the Financial News Network; and Associate Editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
He has a Doctorate in Psychology, Juris Doctor, Masters in Regional Planning and Bachelor of Architecture. He worked on the Esalen organic farm and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as Staff Sergeant in aviation computer technology.