The Tao of Surfing

From: (James D. Meacham 3rd)
Subject: Sermon: The Tao of Surfing
Date: Mon, 11 Jul 1994 02:47:21 GMT

Here is a sermon I will be giving in Boston at First and Second Church in August. I thought it might be of some interest. Peace to all.


Very often the greatest truth and beauty are found in the midst of the greatest incongruity. In response to great suffering, we find people who rise to greatness in the alleviation of that suffering. In the desperate slums of urban india, Mother Theresa does her great work. It's often not in our triumphs where the greatest opportunities for self-knowledge and revelation come, but in our most crushing defeats. It was not the intellectual triumphs in my life that called me o my present vocation, but the despair of defeat and loneliness and homelessness.Similarly we sometimes find the greatest meaning in those things others would thinks us rather unlikely to do. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of our century, used to go to the movies nearly everyday after their introduction. As one writer put it, The philosopher loved the flicks. He found a joy in the movies that he rarely found in philosophy.

So it is with me. One might think that the things I learn the most from would be philosophy and religion, the subject which I study. Or perhaps I would find the most satisfaction experientially through teaching or the active ministry. Perhaps paradoxically, the part of my life in which I find the most raw beauty and the most pure meaning is a an activity which is done alone and which discourages intellectual activity. It is so unlikely that that there was a Diet Coke commercial out recently which illustrated this. The theme of the as was people doing things you wouldn't expect them to, because they live their lives to the fullest. First, a lawyer was shown driving his porcshe fast down the pacific coast highway, with the caption Lawyers Who Speed. Then came another few unlikely such combinations and finally, as if to illustrate the peak of incongruity, a man wearing a clerical collar is shown holding a surfboard and wearing surfing shorts, after which appears the caption Ministers Who Surf.

Now, when I first saw that ad, I had to think back on weather I'd been talking to any advertising people, since I was sure, given the incongruity of it, that I was the only surfing religious professional in the world. And while I'm not yet ordained, only a seminarian, it's only a matter of time, the coincidence was too strange to be missed. That an advertising agency would think of me and one of my greatest passions as the height of unlikelihood, the oddest thing they could come up with, gives me no end of pride and pleasure.

I said at the beginning that this thing I do, surfing, is one of the main sources of meaning in my life, and this morning I'd like to talk a little about some of the lessons that I've learned from some of my experiences in the water, in the waves, surfing.

I've entitled this sermon The Tao of Surfing for a number of different reasons. While this talk won't be particularly informative about Taoism (or surfing, for that matter) there is an attitude in the Tao which is very similar to the attitude I've learned from the ocean. Taoism is not so much of a prescriptive religion, telling us what we should or shouldn't do, as it is a way of responding to life. Given the hardships, difficulties, joys, and celebrations of life, the Tao, as expressed in the Tao Te Ching, suggests an active life of little resistance. From the Tao we hear:

The Tao is the way which leads to happiness, and, for me anyway, surfing, also, is a way that leads to happiness. To see how the Tao and surfing are related, I want to take you on an imaginary surf trip.

I can't hope to adequately capture the experience of surfing in words, just as it is impossible to describe religious experience in regular language, The two are often the same for me, religious experience and surfing. There no way, then, for me to tell you of the beauty of the dance with the wave. What I can talk about, however, is some of the lessons I've learned surfing, some of the ways of being that the ocean has shown me.

It's easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as invulnerable against nature. Our technology makes us feel superior to the world of wind, waves, rain, and snow. That this is an illusion is always shown me when I surf. There is a power in nature, and in the waves, that should inspire awe and fear and respect. A wave of sufficient size to ride is also of sufficient size to pin one under the water, in the sand, unsure of which way is up, until ones breath goes. We sometimes start to think that we somehow own this world, that we ride always on top of the waves, dominating them. But this is an illusion.

We live in the world at pleasure of nature, and there is no difference between the forces of nature which feed, cloth, and house us, and the ones which can destroy us with equal ease. As the Tao says:

The waves have taught me this, and keep teaching me this. The surfer who has never experienced a truly terrifying wipeout is not much of a surfer, and these wipeouts always remind me to respect the power of the earth on which I live.

Another lesson which the sea has taught me is the gratitude for what I have, and what I receive. We have come to think that we deserve this life, that we deserve happiness, and that we deserve all that is good. The fickle and mercurial nature nature of the waves suggests otherwise. I am never happier than when surfing a six-foot wave with an offshore breeze, that magic combination of swell and wind which produces the best waves. Unfortunately, in most places in the world, this combination happens rarely. At my home break, if these conditions obtain a day a month, there is rejoicing. My fellow sea-worshippers and I spend a lot of time praying and hoping for these conditions.

But when they do not come, at whom would be angry? The sea? The wind? Our gods and goddesses in their many forms? No, of course not. Surfing is, after all, however how spiritualized it can be, just a sport, an avocation. We can only be grateful for the waves, be grateful for the sun that warms our faces, the winds that create the waves, and the sea that holds us in her arms while we play and dance. Who would curse the sea for not sending more waves that would not curse a friend for not sending more gifts. Who would curse the world for not making us perfectly content, when it gives to us the gift of life.

Just as we cannot curse the sea for not sending more waves, surfing has also taught me that the world works on it's own time, not mine. In the water, waiting for the waves, one has to be content with the waiting. Even on the great days, there is waiting and watching, and the waves will not be hurried and they will not get bigger in response to all the frustration and wanting of all the surfers in the water. The waves come when they want to come, and they build to as big as they please. I could make myself miserable, wanting the waves to be bigger, faster, more frequent. But then, they will never be just right.

Neither will the world ever be just right, sending to me the blessing of life when I want them. And as much as I might fret and fuss and obsess, the blessings come when they are ready, as do the tragedies. So I have a choice, as we all do, to rage against the world and all that's untimely, without effect, or I can accept the timetable of the universe, and be at peace. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu writes: The forgiving water is more powerful than the stone, for in time in it's meandering, the water goes on, while the stone is made smooth. The Tao teaches the same manner of responding to the world that the sea does: accept what is given, do not hurry the world, and in acceptance comes strength.

A full accounting of the spiritual gifts of surfing would take me until this time next week, so I'll mention only one more, which I believe is perhaps the most important lesson not only in surfing, but in life, and that is being there. Being in the moment. When I am in the water, waiting for the next wave, or on the wave, trying to perfect the dance of surfing, or fighting my way out past the breaking waves, there is no way to be thinking of anything else. To stay alive surfing, one must be totally aware, totally in the moment.

It's an odd experience sometimes. I've heard other soul surfers talk in mystical terms about being one with the wave and feeling as if they were their but not their, as if they were no longer spectators in the ocean but part of it. This comes, I believe, from the total focus of energy and attention on the one task of surfing. It's absolutely meditative. And just as the task of meditation is to strip away the extraneous stuff of life and put one into immediate experience of the moment, so too does surfing make all the noise of life melt away until it is just a surfer, her or his board, and the wave in a perfect synchronous dance of life, perfectly situated in the moment. Here in Boston, where being intellectual is rewarded, and being cerebral is prized, it is easy for me to forget sometimes that the thing which I do which is of the most value is merely being present. Surfing reminds me, as does the Tao, that the life we are given is where we need to spend our time.

If my response to surfing was the only response that was possible, than you might expect all surfers to be happy, spiritual people. This, as we know, is not the case. Where some people, known as soul surfers, find beauty and peace and contentment in surfing, others find reasons to be jealous, reasons to hate, and reasons to be bigoted. I want to talk just briefly about this different attitude that many surfers have, and I want to draw a conclusion about how we all respond to the world, and how we have choices.

One of the highpoints of my surfing life came this last february while I was visiting California for a friend's wedding. I had never been surfing in the west before, and I had been looking forward to it for six months. I waited through a few days of really rotten weather, and finally, on my last day in Los Angeles, the weather broke, and perfect five foot waves were rolling in from the deep pacific. When I got to the beach, however, I noticed that the other surfers were being truly unfriendly to me, unlike the experiences I had had in the east. On the wall of one of the buildings in the parking lot was spray painted if you don't live here, don't surf here. As I swam out, I realized that many of the other surfers were talking and gesturing in my direction. Every time I tried to take a wave, someone would drop in on me after I already had it. Finally, one of the other surfers paddled his board right over mine, the fins of his board leaving a big scratch. And although I caught a couple of the best waves of my life, I will forever remember the treatment I received at Topanga Beach.

Now, this hardly sounds like the behavior of people who should be, by my accounting, grateful, patient, respectful, and in the moment. Where some surfers find peace and contentment, these surfers has found reasons to hate me just because I didn't live there. They were jealous of their waves, not grateful for them. They hated an outsider, rather than acknowledging a brother in the same pursuit. They found less joy in the waves than they found reasons to hate.

The reason I'm telling you about this, what might seem like a silly division between groups of surfers, is because I think we all make decisions on how to respond to events and things in our lives. The same waves that teach one person to be grateful and serene teach another to be jealous and hateful. So it is with life. We can respond to life with love, respect, and caring, taking what we have and making a joyous dance of it, or we can respond with bitterness, hate, and suspicion, begrudging life it's withheld blessings and fighting with our fellow travelers on the road of life. We all know of people who, in spite of terrible hardship, still find the beautiful, the sacred, and the joyous in life, while others, in spite of all the apparent blessings, see only the evil, the petty, and the mean. Most of us, I suspect, fall somewhere in between these two extremes. If I have a message this morning, it's to encourage and remind us to belong to the former group, those who respond to life with love rather than hate, with patience rather than bitterness, with generosity rather than jealousy, with acceptance rather than rejection. We have to make hard decisions every day which bring us closer to one or the other of these ways of responding, and it's worth a moment, I think, to reflect on the nature of the way we respond to the world.


James David Meacham, 3rd

M.Div. Candidate
Andover Newton Theological School
7 Flint Road Phone: 617-926-6024
Watertown, MA 02172 NeXTMAIL accepted
Intern Minister 64-66 Marlborough Street
First and Second Church in Boston Boston, MA 02116
(Unitarian Universalist) 617-267-6730

Formatted by: Daniel Hinojosa