Everything we encounter presents some sort of obstruction to the flow of consciousness, which responds by drawing on past experience to confirm whatever is happening. The invisible mapping of memories onto present experience is exposed by the Perky Effect; according to which, people are unaware that they are looking at a faint image of an object, when they have been asked to picture the same object in their mind’s eye, while staring at a supposedly blank screen. This overlapping of mental and visual sources of information can be visualised as a wave that owes its shape to two forms of obstruction; one being the contours of the reef, the other a current of water flowing through the wave. Waves can actually break in deep water if their wavelengths are sufficiently compressed by an opposing current. The obstruction doesn’t need to be solid, like a reef. Indeed, waves are often shaped by a combination of reef shape and water movement. So, using this distinction, we can equate the physically sensed world with solid reef, and any associated memories with flowing water. Percepts are thus shaped by both of these factors, with the relative proportions of each reflecting the familiarity of the object.

Concepts differ to percepts, in that they are formed through language, which is like riding a surfboard. Since language also involves physically sensed input combined with associated memories, these attributes can be represented by the wake of the surfboard; which is also a wave formed by a solid obstruction and flowing water. But, in this case, the wave is taking place within the context of another wave: the wave being ridden. Of course, this other wave need not represent a percept, since utterances provide the context for subsequent utterances: each utterance riding within the context of the previous utterance.

The suitability of a surfboard design for the surfing conditions would thus represent our ability to communicate and, hence, to function in the social world. The resulting ease of surfing would correspond to familiar circumstances, when the characteristics of a situation can be inferred without having to interpret every detail.[i] By contrast, when circumstances are unpredictable, the mind relies more on observation than expectation. The unfamiliarity of the situation demands more effort, because the individual is not suitably equipped to deal with the circumstances, which is like a surfer who struggles to ride an unsuitable surfboard. Ideally, the surfer adjusts his approach to the wave by reducing penetration, which reduces the influence of the surfboard upon direction. This is like trusting one’s intuition—the surfer choosing to go with the wave instead of against it. No matter how successfully we reason our way through life, we cannot expect that ‘our design’ will meet every contingency.[ii] There will be occasions when we require a deeper sense of direction, so that we can let go of reason and feel at ease with how ever things unfold.

As habitual animals, we tend to identify with familiar circumstances, because their relational structure provides stability; like the connection we sense through the surfboard in its relation to the contours of the reef. But, the essence of being is not confined by spatial relations; so it is like a wave in the open ocean, travelling free of obstruction. If you sometimes find yourself in a bad place, it is comforting to know that the swell—like God—is always ‘out there’, somewhere. The only problem is you won’t be able to ‘locate’ it through rational means. It seems counter-intuitive, but the rational mind is actually preventing you from finding your true self.

If you see yourself primarily as a spatial object, then you inadvertently deny the essential fluidity of your being. Meditation helps you to become reacquainted with the fluid foundation of your own mind by disengaging the mental tools that navigate spatial relations. As with surfing, it takes discipline to get all the variables working together. So, it is not surprising that we struggle. But, the more you surf, the better you get at figuring out how to approach challenging situations.

Faith could even be characterised by free-falling down the face of a wave on take-off, when one’s attention is momentarily suspended between interpreting the situation and anticipating what’s about to happen. The body knows what to do and responds accordingly. It has an innate relationship with the wave, which is like a relationship with God. The mind becomes disengaged from the task of making sense,[iii] just like the surfboard becomes disengaged from the wave during a late take-off.

By contrast, the spatial frame of reference can be rendered as the surfer’s visual perspective in tension with how the surfboard feels under his feet. Both play a role. But, the ego tends to place more value in the visual mode, and subsequently neglects the more relevant source of information streaming through the legs. What the ego can’t see, and obviously takes for granted, is the deep relationship between the surfboard and the wave; which speaks to the primal relationship between body and mind.

Return to introduction: Surfism.


[i] Grush, R. (2004). The emulation theory of representation: Motor control, imagery and perception. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, p.381.

“To the extent that the process noise is small compared to the sensor noise, the a priori estimate will be more reliable than the observed signal, and so a smaller portion of the residual correction is applied to the a priori estimate. To the extent that the sensor noise is small compared to the process noise, the observed signal is more reliable than the a priori estimate, and so a greater portion of the residual correction is applied.”

[ii] Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. MIT Press, p.228.

“…[T]he very rationality of our theoretical reason is a representation of a hoped-for-world, better than the one we live in. Reason is not just facilitated by hope; it is itself a way of hoping. We are vulnerable in the perceptual world we find ourselves in. The possibilities of disappearance, dissatisfaction, destruction and disillusion can never be entirely driven away; we can never do more than hold them at bay, for the time being. Our knowledge is that of a precariously balanced judgement, which has to shift with shifting circumstances.”

[iii] Inzlicht, M., et al. (2011). The need to believe: a neuroscience account of religion as a motivated process, Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1 (3), p.205.

“So primes of order resulted in reduced states of distress. Importantly, order was all that mattered; whether this order was personally scrutable or not did not affect subsequent states of error-related distress. In other words, our two order conditions capture two kinds of epistemologies, one where order is personally known, and one where it is exclusively known to some external force (or agent). The fact that incomprehensible order also relieved states of distress suggests that what is important is the existence of a “master-plan,” and that personal knowledge of this plan is almost superfluous. This is consistent with research indicating that people seek to increase feelings of control, even if that means it is someone (or something) else that is doing the controlling.”