Sunday, May 24, 2009

steve darvall floats above n below

His feet sit pointing towards the incoming remnant of what was once a green, white, and brown blue tendril of the sea. Creeping up the sand the water touches toe after toe then immerses the feet completely, blending them into one writhing mass for a moment before attempting to drag them back and back. He relinquishes a part of himself into that sea, knowing soon he will join with it. Surfboard under an arm, eyes closed, every movement is felt around him, every moment as it plays across his senses. The smell of salt, seaweed, sunned bodies, rocks. The taste of the fine salty air bringing with it the taste of the Earth. The touch of sand and rock and water and wind. The sound of waves, of play, of birds. His sense of breath joins with it all in gratitude, in awe.
A slight move forward and he is in, every moment and movement tightening his focus to a pinpoint, the pinpoint the entirety surrounding him.

Words attempt to convey this silent ritual, the silent interaction between what is named nature and human. These words inevitably separate, but the experience itself seems to be anything but that. Riding a wave, surfing it, like everything, means different things to people and beings. For some it is 'the unequaled exhilaration of flying down the face of a moving, green force and becoming a part of nature (Severson, 188) and being 'chiefly conscious of ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave (London 52).' For others it is 'giving the waves a sporting chance to pound you beneath the surface if they can (Roselyn 50). '

Taking this subjectivity into account, the following will be a brief discussion on the experience of surfing and how altered states of consciousness are related.
The rituals and experiences I observed while surfing with others along the central coast of New South Wales will make up the majority of this essay. Descriptions of these experiences will be based upon discussion with surfers and drawn from my own experiences. Ultimately, my own experiences will colour these descriptive pieces with touches on others' observations and experiences. Its purpose is not to perform an in depth study, but instead attempt to give a sense of altered states and surfing, an overall feel through these words chosen.

For the purpose of this discussion, an altered state of consciousness is a state which is significantly different from a normal waking state. This gets somewhat tricky in defining 'normal'. Western science relates normality to brain wave frequency where the beta wave frequency is seen as 'normal'.

Comparisons between altered states reached surfing as well as altered states reached in any activity draw similar conclusions. An intense focus and sense of connectedness tends to be a common theme. Altered states in indigenous cultures are often used as an aspect of life to assist in life. Rituals are used to induce these states in order to divine, heal and connect to oneself and their surroundings.

On the wave, 'it is not a boisterous or frantic feeling, but a quiet one, a feeling of dignity and truth--a feeling that helps one to recognize the vast harmony and order that permeate the sea, the world, and mankind (Roselyn, 66).' This recognition of the harmony, the balance, and the interconnectedness of all things is a common theme the world over. The moment you are brought into whilst surfing unveils this, if it was ever veiled to begin with.
'This is the essence of surfing, the delicate balance between control and chaos, and it works on surfers as a drug (Roselyn,73).' Again,this can be interpreted as the altered state allowing a balance, a harmony to be perceived. This describes both the outer reality, the board and rider on the wave, as well as the inner reality.

'The the surfer life (Roselyn, 70).'

She emerged from beneath, white frothy foam settling and singing, nestling next to her body, clinging to her and itself, connecting atom to atom, spark to spark. A deep breath of air swam into her lungs and she looked around. Headland bursting patiently. Seabirds arrowing into the black surface. Scrub extending outwards, fanning the inland with its tales of the sea. Then there was the sun. Its sweet afternoon touch, tongue-like, licking at everything in sight. Her skin coloured as if sired from stars. Everything touched everything. She suddenly felt humbled in the immensity, immediacy and seemingly impossible nature or it all. Waves or no waves, it did not matter.

It is not only the act of riding the wave that induces an altered state, but also what comes before and after. It is the entire process which brings about the state, or perhaps the state brings about the entire process. Either way, there is no separation.

'I am immersed in the water, melding with the ocean which is melding with the shore, which is melding with the land, which is melding with the mountains, the sky, the clouds, the stars. This awareness seems to have no end point. It picks me up like the wave picks me up and all I can do is go along with the flow and hope not to get dashed on any rocks along the way (Crane, 2009).'

In the article by Andrew Francis, Creature of Water, Francis describes his ritual and relationship with the ocean and surfing and that it begins as soon as he arrives at the beach. The sensual awareness and the respect for where you are can bring you into an altered state, bring you into the moment which neither culminates nor ends with the catching of the wave but ebbs and flows like the sea itself.
Bron Taylor's article, Sea Spirituality, Surfing and Aquatic Nature Religion also discusses similar ideas. He sees that 'participants in nature religions understand nature to be sacred and believe that facilitating human connections to nature is the most important part of the practice (Taylor, 1).' In another article by Taylor, Surfing into Spirituality and a New, Aquatic Nature Religion, he contends that from some angles, surfing resembles a religion in its similarities towards its veneration of nature. Veneration can only come with awareness of the subject, direct experience, and it seems that surfing heightens awareness.

Although few, the above descriptive examples show the art of surfing as more than just the physical act of riding a wave. Its mental, emotional and especially sensual elements bring about an awareness and a connection to one's surroundings that tends to be a personal interaction, even though many share the same experiences.
Admittedly, this comes from a romantic viewpoint as not everyone who surfs or participates in aspects of surf culture feel the same way. This is simply one piece of understanding in what is inevitably limitless.


Finney B & Houston J. Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, Tokyo, Charles E Tuttle Company, 1966.

Francis A & Shaw S Eds. Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religon and Water, London. Equinox, 2008.

London, Jack. A Royal Sport, Surfs Up. Edited by H. Arthur Klien and M.C. Klien. New York. Bobbs-Merril Co, 1966.

Severson John, Modern Surfing Around the World, Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1964.

Stone R, Meanings Found in the Acts of Surfing and Skiing, California, University of Southern California,1970.

Interviews and discussions with Charity Crane & Pond Dempster. Conducted 5 May 2009.

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