Waves carry energy like memories. The kinetic energy is stored in a chain of orbits, which taper into the depths. The orbiting particles are generated by the wind rippling the ocean surface. The more wind, the larger the wave, the deeper they reach. When the deepest orbits are compressed against the seabed, the whole chain is squeezed upward, causing the wave to break, which can be likened to memories being released in response to a stimulus. The entire reef could represent the memory bank of experience needed to interact in society—the cultural values within which the psyche develops. The integrity of the reef could represent the satisfying sense that things fit together in the world. The breadth of the surf zone could signify psychological development, with larger swells breaking further out to sea. Of course, life is hard and sometimes self-esteem subsides like a dying swell, with problems erupting into consciousness like rocky outcrops that distort the wave, making it harder to ride.

Extending the analogy further, total disconnection from the wave could be characterised by two scenarios, each representing a disconnected state of mind. One is a wipeout followed by the threat of being dragged onto exposed reef. The other is the decision to abandon one surf break in search of another. In this scenario, paddling across the ominous depths would be equivalent to unfamiliar circumstances that cause you to feel disoriented because your awareness continues to be directed at the world, but without the familiar values that give it meaning. Since making sense necessarily involves values, this is as futile as trying to catch a swell in the open ocean. Meaning depends on culture, just as a breaking wave depends on the seabed. By contrast, getting dragged across the reef would represent a situation in which the individual is forced to confront unfamiliar circumstances.

The ability to deal with a situation is represented in the surfing analogy by the suitability of a surfboard design for the surfing conditions. The resulting ease of surfing corresponds 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 helps to stabilise an otherwise chaotic world; 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, which can then be invoked as a divinity. The character of a divinity is probably derived from innumerable examples set by leaders throughout human evolution.[iii] Leadership was probably granted to whoever managed to integrate the fluid and spatial modes of being, which had to then be denied to followers, so they would fall into line. This makes perfect sense when prosperity depends on social organisation. But, the benefits of tribalism are debatable in the modern world, especially as it applies to religion, but also politics more generally. One feels protected by the group in the same way that a child feels protected by its family, which is like a bay protected from the open ocean. But, who knows what potential lies beyond the headland. The quest for perfect waves is a great metaphor for spiritual growth.

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,[iv] just like the surfboard becomes disengaged from the wave during a late take-off.

Surfing could even be likened to the Holy Trinity: the reef representing the Father, the surfboard Jesus, and the wave the Holy Spirit. After all, religious scholars understand that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are just metaphors, depicting a set of relationships, which are supposedly beyond our comprehension. The surfing metaphor offers an alternative representation based on a phenomenon that has existed since time began. So, it has the quality of an eternal presence, worthy of respect. But, the role of worship is prone to idolatry, which literally contradicts the spirit of the message, by placing it within a spatial frame.

Clearly, we struggle to balance the spatial and temporal aspects of being. It is therefore useful to promote the fluid realm over the spatial. However, the spatial frame of reference is insidious. This 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 swirling activity beneath the surface—the chain of orbiting particles, symbolic of the subconscious 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] Peterson, J.P. (1999). Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. Routledge.

“Over the course of centuries, the actions of ancestral heroes, imitated directly and then represented in myth, become transformed, simplified, streamlined and quickened – reduced as it were ever more precisely to their “Platonic” forms.” p.155.

“This embodied and represented “cultural character” is transmitted through the generations, transmuting in form, but not in essence – transmitted by direct instruction, through imitation, and as a consequence of the human ability to incorporate personality features temporarily disembodied in narrative.” p.155.

“The social structure that emerges, over time, as a consequence of the “battle of the gods,” might be most accurately likened to a personality (to the personality adopted by all who share the same culture). It is in fact the personality of “the dead heroes of the past” (the “hero as previously realized,”) and is most frequently symbolized by the figure of the Great Father, simultaneous “personification” of order and tyranny.” p.161.

“It is the conservative aspect of society that ensures that the past, as presently re-incarnated and remembered, continues to serve as ultimate source of moral virtue and emotional protection. This remembered past is the mythical Father, echoed more abstractly in one “person” of the Christian Trinity.” p.159.

[iv] 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.”