Spirituality and Surfing


Twelve years after he left Walden Pond in the spring of 1859 Henry David Thoreau wrote, "launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment."

Last week giant, long-period Pacific Ocean swells and wave riders from around the world converged on Northern California for the Mavericks Invitational big wave surf contest. South African Grant "Twiggy" Baker mastered his fears of these dangerously large waves and won the contest for a second time. Eternity is not too far from any of the competitors' minds. Two of the world's best surfers lost their lives at this surf break.

Thoreau's words recur to me often when we visit my wife's family on Maui. Many days at dawn I'm alone in rough water surfing the north shore of Maui. As the sun rises, Big Island fog drifts around the side of Haleakala Mountain and the smoke rises up from the last sugarcane refinery on the islands. I feel the power of the ocean under me. Paddling into beautiful green waves, racing over a shallow reef, all my senses come alive.

Sometimes fear holds us back. A popular bumper sticker around the islands says simply "Eddie Would Go." It refers to the Hawaiian lifeguard and big wave surfer Eddie Aikau who was born not far away from this Maui break. He saved lives at Waimea Beach on Oahu even as 30-foot winter waves exploded on the coast. When the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule'a was sinking he went for help on his surfboard and was lost at sea. There have been times in the water when I have felt very afraid but more deeply human also.

In the ocean and life, we more often fail to launch ourselves because of our ideas about perfection than anything else. You think maybe the next wave will be better and let the current one pass you by. We spend so much of our lives constantly looking for something better than what we already have.

Teaching my son and daughter to surf includes helping them to be grateful for what God is giving us right now. Adults who learn to surf get so impatient to stand right up and make solid progress that they have difficulty appreciating the uniqueness of the current moment. Most of life is not an accomplishment but a gift.

It still surprises me how easily people find fault in these warm green waters even on a perfect day. I hear too many people in the line-up wishing that the waves were larger, the tide a little lower, the crowds smaller, the winds gentle and offshore. If it is a little windy, there will be fewer people in the water and you'll learn more about surfing in the wind. If heavy onshore winds make it hard to paddle out you will learn more about how to go through waves. Every day, every moment is a gift. Sharing it only multiplies its value.

Fear, pride, our internal critical monologues keep us from experiencing God's grace. Eternity is not an infinite succession of moments. You don't have to die in order to experience it. Eternity happens to us when we are so fully in time that in a way time ceases to matter. How do you launch yourself on every wave?