Thursday, June 2, 2011

'Soul Surfing': An Unrealised Religion

'Soul Surfing’: An unrealised religion
Sophia Andes

The ocean has forever existed as a fundamental entity of life regardless of religion, cultural context or continent.  Surfing and the culture that pertains to the oceanic sport are deeply embedded in this vast life form.  This essay is an analysis of the forms, processes and rituals that transform a sporting venture into a religion.  The analysis is drawn from observations and personal integration into the surfing communities of South-East Queensland, Australia.  This report explores the forms of ritual and practice within the surfing community that attain to producing altered states of consciousness.  It is to be noted that the notion of surfing as a religious phenomenon is not a recent concept.  Instead, this essay seeks to address the emphasis on spirituality apparent in surfing; a seemingly secular sporting activity.  Finally this essay aims to explore the notion that while spirituality within surfing cultures is apparent, surfing remains unrecognised by its followers as an ‘unrealised’ religion.

The spiritual importance of the ocean traces back to the origins of surfing.  Glen Henning, who in 1984 founded the environmentalist Surfrider Foundation, discovered evidence that the ancient Peruvians were the first surfers recorded (2005: 1610-1611).  However, the initial emergence of religious connection to surfing is apparent in the early cultures of Hawai’i.  The Hawaiian surfing cultures practiced and performed religious rituals and offerings over their hand-carved, wooden surfboards to ensure prosperous waves and safe riding (Kampion 2003).  When the European missionaries arrived on the shores of Hawai’i, they perceived these surfing rituals as pagan dimensions of the Hawaiian culture and sort to destroy the practices of this ‘religious’ culture.  The notion of paganism values in the surfing culture is predominantly due to the worship of “Mother Nature, and especially in its manifestation of Mother Ocean” (Taylor 2007).  The diminished surfing culture was revitalised in the early twentieth century due to the emergence of surfers in the United States and Australia who sought the pristine waves of Hawai’i (Warshaw 2003:48).  The religious notion connected to surfing has declined dramatically.  However, contemporary surfing culture has transformed into a highly popular pursuit in the sports arena and tourist industry while retaining a sense of spirituality.
Surf culture has a rich history and a unique system of rituals, distinctive language elements, symbolic elements, a loose tribal hierarchy, and unique lifestyle characteristics that have been broadly imitated and emulated around the world.  Even today, aspects of surf culture express fundamental and persisting Polynesian cultural values, which regarded surfing as noble, positive, and deeply imbued with spiritual meaning (Kampion 2003: 46).

The positivity and connectedness with nature are the origins of the spiritual meaning associated with surfing culture.  The concept of surfing as a religion is derived from the spiritual and oceanic formation of ‘Mother Nature’ believed to be the equivalent of God.  The surfing religion has developed rituals, practices, even texts and also encounters streams of altered states of consciousness and ‘spiritual awaking’ with Mother Ocean.
Forms of altered states of consciousness are highly prominent in surfing, stemming from the psychedelic era of the 1960’s.  Surfing served as a physical and spiritual outlet of the sporting community and as a peaceful rebellion to consumerist lifestyles of the American community (Warshaw 2003:56).  The following statement exemplifies how the religious past of surfing didn’t fade away; instead the surfing spirituality transformed and adapted in accordance to societal change.

It was during the 1960s that surfing’s spiritual revival intensified as it fused with new religious and political currents, blending anti-establishment and anti-hierarchal attitudes with holistic metaphysics that were connected to psychedelics, religions origination in Asia or found in indigenous societies, [...] metaphysical traditions, and neo-paganism.  The impact was that surfing, for some, became a part of a wider American turn towards nature religion (Taylor 2007:931). 

The nature religion movement correlates with the Australian surfing culture.  Based on research conducted in the prominent surfing community of Noosa, the profoundly unified concept that surfers express is the fundamental experience of surfing is inner joy and to be immersed in the glory of nature.  Nature is the key aspect of surfing.  Analysing those that surf and as a surfer myself, you witness and experience the alternate world where you are at one with the ocean.  Broadly, the experience of surfing is viewed in terms of balance and harmony with the wave and one’s board.  This sense of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990: 1) being the process of all living things in balance, is confirmed by Warshaw as the foundations of surfing.  Warshaw states that optimal transcendence “will be the order of the universe at equilibrium with all natural forces in balance.  And that’s what riding a wave is” (2003:312).  The commonly defined spiritual components of surfing are widely disregarded by surfers as a formalised religion and instead recognised as an unrealised religious practice.

The term ‘practice’ is employed because surfing does not draw upon rigid doctrines yet instead appeals as a transcendent and intimate journey that relates to trance states.  Surfing can be viewed as a ritualised religion and “surfing’s most important ritual dimension is early rising to greet the sum, waves, and sea creatures” (Taylor 2007:939).  The transcendent values of surfing are usually derived from the exhilaration and ultimate involvement of the sport with the oceanic surroundings.  Typically expressed by surfers who have experienced large surf barrelling above them, is the notion of experiencing time in an altered state.  Csikszentmihalyi argues that these forms of altered states of consciousness “usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (1990:3).  Interviewing surfing fanatics in-between sets at Noosa’s National Park surf break led to some interesting conclusions about the importance of surfing in their lives and happiness of mind.  These surfers expressed notions of an overwhelming connectedness to nature when surfing.  The board acts as their apparatus to achieve the connection to the waves.  The pressures that they may be experiencing on land are removed by the connection to the ocean.  As a religion, the experience of surfing is perceived as the “central centre of the practice; and this practice does what many religions purport to do: transform consciousness and facilitate the development of an authentic, awakened self” (Taylor 2007:940).

In conclusion, surfing is a culture that originated from religious foundations and has transformed into a spiritual venture sought and practised by sporting fanatics to curious beginners.  Surfing has been inducted in the extremist sporting category while forms of trance and altered states of consciousness continually play an apparent role in contemporary surfing.  As asserted by the research conducted, forms of altered states of consciousness in surfing tend to arise from the immersion of self, mind and body and perhaps ‘soul’ with the ocean.  Such conclusions lead straight back to surfing’s religious connection, as the Gods of contemporary religions portray their immersion in ‘Mother Nature’: “I am the ocean” (Krish[n]a in the Bhagavad Gita 10:24).

Works Cited
Csikszentmihalyi, M 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper and Row, San Francisco.
Henning, G & Taylor, B 2005, ‘Surfing’, in Henning, G & Taylor, B (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature, 1st edition, Continuum International, London & New York, pp. 1607-1612.
Kampion, D 2003, Stoked!: A History of Surf Culture, Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, UT.
(Krish[n]a in the Bhagavad Gita 10:24).
Taylor, B 2007, ‘Surfing into Spirituality and a New, Aquatic Nature Religion’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 75, no. 4, pp. 923-951, viewed 6 April 2011,
Warshaw, M 2003, The Encyclopaedia of Surfing, Harcourt, New York.


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