I first met Scott Claassen, the vicar of Saint Michael’s University Church in Isla Vista, when I was a refugee from Montecito’s San Ysidro Creek debris flow. That swollen waterway, freighted with wildfire debris, had destroyed in a heartbeat my residence of some forty years, along with my job, as well as an ecumenical chapel with a piano on which, every morning, I had developed a habit of venting my passion for Bach. So, putting first things first, I came to Scott seeking a piano.
Scott listened. He understood. And then he made it happen. After all, he used to play guitar alongside Willie Nelson and could not bear to see a fellow musician divorced from his ax.
The first thing I noticed in Scott’s office was an array of photographs hanging on the wall. Closest to his desk shone the face of Martin Luther King. Then, those of Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, Gabriel García Márquez, Walt Whitman, and Jacqueline du Pré. Reigning above them all, though, towered a photo of a bearded man reposing beside a stream: an iconic image of John Muir. That ranking tells you a lot about Scott Claassen’s priorities, with his concern for Earth almost utmost. Almost? Because atop his desk sit the photos of those closest to him: his wife, Maribeth Claassen, now pregnant again, and his two sons, Henry and James Muir.
The next thing you notice is a blue bicycle bearing signatures scrawled across its entire frame. In fact these are the wheels Scott pedaled around these United States, some 11,500 miles in all, during what he calls his Carbon Sabbath: a year he eschewed cars and airplanes to cycle from town to town and talk about climate change. Though now living a less mobile life, Scott has not given up on raising ecological awareness. That remains central in his present roles as vicar of Saint Mike’s, as chaplain to UCSB students — and as a goofy foot.
For the uninitiated, being goofy foot means that Scott surfs in a maverick kind of way: with his right foot forward. And if you walk into St. Mike’s Church, you will notice surfboards stacked along the walls five deep, making that sacred space appear nicely maverick as well: more Polynesian than Papal. This is because, through the church, Scott leads a merry group of surfing students in a program known as Surfing and Spirituality. Every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., when most of Isla Vista is still dreaming, they steal down to the vast, mysterious, and endlessly rolling Pacific.
Perhaps you too reside by the sea. So perhaps you’ve seen surfers going down to the sea yourself. And perhaps you know that surfers spend countless hours inventing waves. Days and nights they’re devoted to waves, desiring waves. At school, in the margins of their textbooks, they’re doodling waves. In the darkness of night, in the oceans of their dreams, swells are mirroring constellations endlessly blooming and contracting. In the predawn hours you will find them paddling out, pushing through waves, ducking under them, then sliding into and riding those pulsing watery ephemera. And so perhaps you have wondered why. You wonder what is it that calls surfers down to the sea so devoutly in the early light.
For Scott Claassen, it is spirituality. And for several months, between the first time I talked with Scott and the second, when I interviewed him, I wondered about his Surfing and Spirituality program. I figured a guy who understood a musician’s relationship to sound waves might have something novel to offer about ocean waves. After all, having many years ago been a serious student of Religious Studies at UCSB, when Religious Studies had been that university’s most popular major, I remembered that many of my surfing buddies and I had recognized our own surfing experiences in our explorations of Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu modes of being in this world.
A Wu Way
It’s not that surfers back then were trying to be cosmic, at least not all of them. It’s just that surfers, Huck Finning around in structured waters, tend to move something like fish. For waters are often muscled with vortices. Think whirlpools. Flexing energy patterns structuring aquatic flows. Some ocean current whirlpools stretch hundreds of miles across, spinning for decades. Smaller ones, in streams and rivers, whirls and eddies spinning off mid-current boulders, form what physicists call vortex streets. Trout use these pathways to slalom upstream. Effortlessly.
A slight inflection of trout head to one side, and the trout’s scales splay out, catching a propelling galaxy arm of vortex pushing upstream. The fish then inflects its neck to the opposite side, catching a vortex push from the other side of the “street.” Tao-hip biologists call such noodling a wu wei way of swimming. The loose English equivalent is that trout don’t swim upstream: they are swum.
In a similar way, surfers are surfed along waves, propelled by wave vorticity and then finessing that wave physics into pure fun. Surfers learn, wave by wave, what captivated cub pilot Samuel Clemens in Old Times on the Mississippi: the fact that structured water can be powerful, alluring, and that its body language can be sensed, read, courted, and romanced.
Remember, though, this courtship is a wu-wei way of doing: wu wei being a Chinese phrase for ‘effortless action.’ Effortless action is not simply doing nothing. It is skill in action that involves two subsidiary skills. The first is doing less to accomplish more. And that first skill springs spontaneously from the second, the skill of simply being. Being established in silence even while engaged in dynamic activity, being the still source of all movement. That is the “doing nothing” that achieves everything.
The classic go-with-the-flow example of wu wei most often applied to surfers is from one of the venerable texts of the Taoist canon: the Chuang Tzu. It tells of the sage Confucius taking in the view of a waterfall and rapids. He spots an odd and elderly fellow diving into the roiling waters. Fearing for the fellow’s safety, he commands his disciples to line up along the bank and give the guy a hand. But the fellow is so at one with the waters that he lets the swift current carry him along for a long while, until finally he emerges unassisted, strolling along the bank of the river, hair streaming down, and singing as nonchalantly as a songbird. When Confucius catches up with him and asks him how he stays afloat, the old one replies that he has no special way but simply follows the swirls and eddies.
Some surfers discover how to court waves in this wu-way: lured more and more deeply into blue-latitude wave vortices until, in some moments, at some surf breaks, their dancing so loosens that it becomes an expression of the wave.
If surfing is really a spiritual quest or religion, though, where are the statues? I mean, almost every Way or Path becomes so solid, so statuesque, that it eventually incarnates into glow-in-the-dark dashboard ornaments: be they Buddhas or Christs, Shivas or Vishnus. It makes one wonder in what guise a religious sculpture of Impermanence would appear: A shadow dance? An undulation?
As young Religious Studies majors who hung ten and studied Zen, we learned about a Japanese incarnation of Impermanence, in a certain kind of blossom. Before the weather really becomes warm, everyone in Japan is daydreaming of the slow wave of cherry blossoms that will blush from the south to the north of the island nation in the wake of the gradual thermal tsunami that is Spring. One can imagine that it is not the Japanese contemplating the cherry blossoms — but the trees themselves, opening their trillions of little floral eyelets to take in the Japanese — that long ago instituted the ritual: one devoted solely to the sentiment mono no aware, a poignancy occasioned by the impermanence of beauty.
In ancient times these blossoms would behold beguiling court beauties arriving in kimonos, accompanied by flutists, lutenists, and drummers, with dutiful boys hanging glowing lanterns amid the boughs as the entire crowd downed their sake amid a tempest of glances, gossip, and revelry. The blossoms themselves, for their part, would peer out on the nobles arriving by boat, with their servants, their musicians, and their courtesans waiting on the dignitaries’ pleasure behind curtains as ethereal as mist, with celebrated Buddhist monks adorning the prows blabbering ever more thunderously about zen with each cup of sake, as the moon climbed ever more heavenward and the cacaphony of drunken voices reached a crescendo. It is then that the sadness-of-passing-beauty moment would arrive. The blossoms would see that after the crowd thins and then disappears and the moon sets and the eastern sky begins to blush and the dawn breeze to stir — that neither they nor the moon have been truly appreciated for what they truly are. They would feel, in short, that the moon and themselves have been somehow abandoned. And thus each blossom would watch sadly as the moon sets and as disconsolate and trembling brother and sister blossoms shake themselves loose from the branches of this fleeting and insensitive world, abandoning themselves in flights of sheer oblivion to sail in swirling whorls and dizzying eddies through the indifferent air. Similarly, the ocean is nothing if not a mirage of ephemerality, a tempestuous djinn rhapsodically flailing her million-trillion arms, pounding out rhythms on her wave drum in full-planet scale. For the sea is no solid world, but a watery, wave-woven one. Just try grabbing a handful of wave. Like a fantasy or mood, it will slip between your grasp. And isn’t it specifically grasping, after all, that Buddha isolated as the cause of all human suffering?
Perhaps waves, then, are the ultimate Buddhist sculptures — or even scriptures, because the most kinetically ephemeral, fleeting embodiments of impermanence. Let’s pray our admiration for them does not devolve into undulations of abdominally developed wigglings, like hula dolls, their patented moves reigning atop our dashboards.
The seemingly solid universe, as some scientists say, is nothing but undulant energy. Every “thing” — to appropriate for a moment the Hopi habit of using gerunds as nouns — is a wave-ing in an ocean-ing of wave-ings. Buddha-ing and statue-ing are also wavings.
Sitting on any beach, meditating on waves as presence, have you noticed how ghost-like these figurations of presence, ever-shifting — arise — and fall? How they present themselves by erasing all former “presences,” dissolving, as fresh presences float into vision? How each wave of presence depends upon and bears within its form the traces of past and future waves? How waves thus qualify as what Buddhists dub ‘interdependent arisings’? How, as soon as there “is” some “wave” to see “there,” “it” will have always already been swallowed by another? How there will never have been any central wave that could be written with a capital W, reigning over all the rest? How waves seem to have no inherent existence? How the only real presence — fleeting — among all these enfoldings and fadings — is pure, vibratory awareness. How — floating, frolicking, and leaping between undulations — awareness abides like some immortal, invisible dolphin?
The Dude also abides, as does the word dude. And conversation among surfers is often satirized as a monosyllabic exchange, a form of babbling: with the word dude — colored emotionally by tone of voice — the only element of speech, like an infant babbling.
Vast bodies of water, after all, can feel maternal. As young surfers and readers of Kashmir Shaivism, we learned that beholding vast expanses of anything — space, night, sky, prairie, ocean — does not support busy, crowded, quotidian thought forms. Huck Finn and Jim on their little raft, beholding vast expanses of Mississippi, when surrounded by and safely resting upon the river’s serenely undulant form, are at times enveloped in an engulfing sense of union with the immense maternal body of the river, where they are themselves reduced to silence and babbling. After all, in the monosyllabic babbling of infants, most sounds, with maybe ‘mama’ as the exception, are estranged from the objects they signify: as when, gazing across the still river in at dawn, Finn sees, far in the distance, an axe bite into a log. And only after a long, silent pause, hears the signifying sound.
Similarly William Finnegan, whose surfing memoir Barbarian Days snagged a Pulitzer Prize, when wired up for a promotional video and directed to paddle out and narrate the waves as he surfed along, was surprised to discover that he, the Pulitzer Prize winner, when surfing, was rendered speechless, somehow suddenly bereft of signifiers, of linguistic mastery, and reduced to mouthing monosyllables. Wow! Dude!
A mind on ocean, then, is different than a mind on land. If a Pulitzer Prize winner is reduced to blathering while on a wave, is that a bad thing? In the opinion of the great mystic and foundational force in Spanish poetry, Saint John of the Cross, to be left babbling is a sign of unspeakable awe, of surrendering to a state beyond all worldly knowledge, for the apophatic state of awareness, the state of otherworldly awe, leaves us stammering.
But it is not only the maternal presence of a vast body of water that leaves us babbling, it is also the excitement of contending with energy-muscled waters.
The beauty of the ocean when a surfer is riding mountainous and even small waves is not only beyond words: it is beyond almost everything. And this is why any lexical inventory of surfer lingo will identify the expression ‘awesome’ as somewhere near the most often used. It was his meditations on just such awestruck modes of being that elevated Rudolph Otto among religious scholars of the early twentieth century. For Otto, the essence of all religion was the numinous, a nonrational, sacred state of mysterious terror and awe capturing all one’s faculties in their encounter with a holy and wholly Other. And any surfers who subject themselves to the immensities of exploding mountains of water will recognize, when reading Otto, their fleeting moments of fear. In fact Otto, an inebriate of such experiences, was drinking a wine similar to the ones sipped by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth and the luminous Kashmiri saint Abhinavagupta.
For one dark night, like surfers who paddle out to surf in absolute darkness, an all-consuming terror took hold of young poet-to-be William Wordsworth. Wanting to luxuriate in the moonlight reflecting on the waters of a lake, he had “stolen” a little skiff. And as he leaned lustily on the stolen oars, rowing toward the center of the lake, a dark peak reared up its mass, the immense black mountain growing more and more fearsome with each stroke, as if chasing after him. So frightened was he that he at last turned and rowed hastily back to shore, and with a heavy heart and guilty conscience made his way homeward, where he found himself haunted by unknown modes of being; huge, unfamiliar shapes; mighty forms that did not move like living men but moved through his mind by day, and at night were a trouble his dreams.
Similarly do memories of exceptional days of excitement among huge waves haunt the dreams of surfers. Yet there is another gift that the ocean grants to surfers. And that is what the Romantics called the Sublime. In order to feel the Sublime as the Romantics felt it, any feeling of terror, of delight, of wonder, of astonishment, of awe, of beauty — however intense — must not overshadow one’s heart, but be felt, strangely, as a wave of emotion infused from within by an indwelling sea of tranquility. It is this experience that led Wordsworth to proclaim that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.
The qualities of that feeling of aesthetic distance are what Wordsworth articulated in his poem “Tintern Abbey”: a “serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on, until the breath of this corporeal frame and even the motion of our human blood almost suspended, we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, see into the life of things.”
Some young surfing sadhus at UCSB learned that it is such insights that had long ago made Wordsworth’s writings dear to the hearts of many of those living in the Indian subcontinent. The Kashmiri saint Abhinavagupta wrote of music, drama, and poetry in a yogic milieu where to be a connoisseur of the arts was to be sahridaya, ‘of the same heart’ as the artist. He brought to the conversation the concept of shanta rasa: the mood of peace infusing all art. And if you did not feel that underling peace, yoga and meditation were the cure. For Abhinavagupta, in poetry, drama, and music, the rasa (mode) of peace, like an ocean, underlies any and all subsidiary emotional waves — the heroic, the tragic, the comedic, the romantic, the horrific, the devotional — just as the sea of consciousness underlies all our experiences.
Thus waves arise and fall not only in the sea, but also in the heart.
Imagine if you will an infinite number of tellers of tales. They are all spinning their favorite yarns about the waves of the universe. These tellers of yarns may be in this universe — past, present, or future — or perhaps they are somewhere else. In fact, they may be nothing at all like tale tellers as we know them. Some may endlessly tell the same story as others, but maybe with different details. Or their stories, like waves themselves, may start out the same but end differently. Some thousand-year-long-epics may differ by one syllable, or ripple, alone. In your imaginings, there exist so many possible tellers of wave lore that endless tales differing by only one syllable are not really coincidences. For there are an infinite number of them. Some tales about waves are sequels or prequels of other tales. The countless meanings of most of the tales will elude us. We may perceive them as babble because we have no context for making meaning of them. As in the famous Borges metaphor, in this entire imaginary library of wave lore, any possible tale is being told.
And all these tales have chapters, sentences, and words — or songs, or chants, or even just tones — sound waves. And all those smaller elements of the stories might fit together in infinite other ways. So those tales and their constituent elements all fit together to randomly spin off and spawn whole other universes.
We know that a story is a cultural thing. Different tribes tell different tales. In the end, the nature of waves remains mysterious. We do not yet know the full grammar, vocabulary, and physics of waves. But we can feel waves moving our bodies, and we can dance endlessly to the pulses of their mysterious swellings, and in so doing, feel them resonating in waves of sonorous silence within the ether of our hearts.
For true connoisseurs of the work of art that is the sea, for the surfers who are of the same heart with the sea’s Creator, there abides that underlying feeling of peace. To see this in action, just watch any old videos of Gerry Lopez surfing Pipeline, or of Torren Martyn surfing Nias.
It was with that thought in mind that I met with Scott for the second time. I fond him relaxed and cheerful, and not knowing much about him except for his abundant compassion, I started out asking about his education.
Jim: I’m wondering about your formal education, Scott, and how that influenced your relationship to Spirit and to the sea.
Scott: I was an undergrad in Nashville, where I also worked as a professional musician all through college, as well as afterwards. Then, around the time I felt a drawback from ministry, a song I wrote appeared on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. So, knowing that I was about to enter the seminary, with the song money I bought a plane ticket around the world. I wanted to investigate the major world religions in their own settings. Because in going to the seminary, my intention was to reach out to those who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. And because I knew I was going to cater to those folks, I wanted to be able to explain what each tradition was like in its own context. We know our own context and we know what happens with the ideals of Christianity or of the other traditions in our area, but what are religions like in India for folks who live there? What’s it like in the Tibetan Plateau? What’s it like in each setting? What are their traditions like, for them, day to day?
And while I was on that trip, I was accepted into Yale Divinity School, and I went there and studied Divinity and Ecology.
That double major is interesting because it is reflected in the title of your serious commitment to ecology, your carbon Sabbath, when you did not ride in a car or an airplane for a year, but instead rode around the United States, talking with people about climate change. You must have noticed that when you ride a bicycle, your experience of where you are is much more granular.
I was really sad afterwards, when I started riding in cars again and felt divorced from that experience of really knowing where I was and where I was going — and really knowing the territory between. Because in a car, you just sort of check out and then suddenly just show up where you want to be.
You rode 11,500 miles. How did you, when you were riding around the United States and arriving in different communities, how did you get people to open up to you and talk about climate change?
What was great in that specific instance is that I was coming in as someone who was vulnerable, someone who was dirty and sweaty, and smelly, and someone in need of help. So by taking this position of being vulnerable, which was not intentional, I was welcomed by people who otherwise probably would not otherwise have even talked with me. And the funny thing is that I was willing to talk with them. Whereas before the trip, I really didn’t want to talk with people like loggers, or whoever it was. I had a real deep fear of conservative folks who would judge me. And I thought I might be physically threatened. And that position of vulnerability changed my perspective and changed their perspective. It allowed us to see one another and to have those conversations.
So they were unconvinced about climate change, or . . .?
I would say maybe 40 percent of the people I stayed with, which is a lot … were absolute disbelievers in climate change.
So how did those conversations go?
Well, they started out as being very human. They would help me with food. And about a third of the way into the trip I started not scheduling my entire time, but I would leave space, so I would schedule at least two or three nights a week with people, either with churches or people who I’d met along the way, who by then were friends, and then the rest of the time people would see me sitting on the side of the road and wondering where I was going to sleep that night, or whatever it was, and they would come over and we would have a conversation. That happened a lot.
So, you did not set out wanting to change—
No, I absolutely set out thinking that I was the righteous one and that other people where ignorant fools. But then I realized that we are all sharing our ignorance together. I mean, I know very little, and I think most other people know very little.
You know, Jim, after we talked first time, I’ve been reading Life on the Mississippi [which I had recommended to him as a good book on flows]. I love it, and so have been chipping away at it each night before I go to sleep. And it talks about shifts in the river that take out whole towns.
Yeah, and I like that having to know every inch of the river, day and night, is like getting to know your home surf break.
That’s exactly it! For me, the analogy was an immediate one when Twain writes, “How will I ever get to know all these points in the river?” And as a surfer, I know pretty much every inch of the California coast!
Yes. You can take you or me, blindfolded, and set either one of us down on a beach, anywhere in California—
Yes, blindfolded! And I will tell you exactly where I am. And my wife will say, “How? How do you do it?” And I think it really boils down to love. Because, I love it so much!
So tell me more about that love.
I grew up between Monterey and Salinas. And, that’s Steinbeck country, it’s an area with agricultural riches and the natural beauty of Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. And being around that, I first experienced the Divine in nature. That said, I also attended a Presbyterian Church in Salinas, and so culturally I lived in Salinas. But I had both experiences. I was seeing and had a connection with this beauty of nature around me, which felt eternal, while also seeing and hearing what people were saying in church. And at a young age I felt the two were somehow connected, but that nature seemed more true to me. Yet the religious part also took me to places such as camps in the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz. And being in those settings married those two things very deeply for me. Being around trees that are thousands of years old, and hearing people talk about the Rock of Ages, or talk about the Eternal: it’s an easy step.
I remember when in Sequoia I saw some of those really ancient Sequoias, and of having the experience of really communing with them.
You know, they’re listening to you, and you are listening to them—
Yes, the profound feeling of noticing a living creature that is not only a hundred feet tall but thousands of years old! That draws out something very, very profound in us.
And so that kind of inspiration is behind one of your major concerns: ecology and carbon pollution?
Yes, living into our interconnectedness. Living into our interdependence. That is the most important mission of all at this point. Living into our interdependence. So it’s not just about us being people who take better care of the stuff around us, as if we lived in some manicured garden. It’s that we are part of this eternal, and changing environment. And that we have not just a relationship with it, but that we are it. We’re not just like some outside visitors. Who we are in our bodies is absolutely tied to what the Earth is.
So that if we are listening to this planet, it is telling us in all kinds of ways, that its fate is our fate.
Absolutely! And that is something that we are going to learn, like it or not. We’re looking at geological time. We’re not looking at this the same way as we responded to chlorofluorocarbons impacting the ozone layer. We are looking at geologic time that we have already changed, shifted. And for it to correct itself, it will take a long period of time. So we will experience whatever is going to happen. And that can be scary, but, at the same time, I believe that it will draw us into a greater sense of who we are. And what the Earth is.
In addition to that, are there any experiences in surfing that make you feel more connected with Earth, with God?
I think we all have spiritual practices. We all have things that we do that connect us with the Divine. We all have things to do that help us keep in shape and make us feel healthy. And for me, the thing that combines both of those best is unquestionably surfing. It’s a thing that I love naturally, but it’s also the thing that draws me into something greater. So surfing can be a spiritual practice, in the same way that just about anything else can be a spiritual practice. I’m sure you’re familiar with Brother Lawrence’s book The Practice of the Presence of God, and how dishwashing, such a simple act as washing dishes, can be contemplative, can draw us in to the presence of God.
Now surfing I think is unique, in that we are actually stepping into the wild. We are leaving behind our day-to-day world, and our little silos, and our houses, and our offices, and our cars. We leave those all behind, and we step into an area where we are actually prey. Where we are subject to the wind, and the rain, and the tides, and the swell, and we are out in part of this interconnected system, with dolphins jumping around out there, and sea lions, and pelicans — and it’s that! It’s that!
In your Surfing and Spirituality outings is a lot of your ministry based on dialogue, on listening?
Well, yes, that’s one of the great things about surfing. That there’s a lot more downtime than people usually anticipate. There’s a time when you’re checking the surf. There’s a time when you’re getting changed, and you’re getting all your gear together, and then you walk out, specifically where we go, we take the longer walk out to the break, where we can surf either a beach break or a point break, which is great for us. So it means that we have to walk to get there. So, we walk and we talk — about whatever comes up. It’s providing that space where people can explore what is going on in their lives. That’s the trick of it. As you know, when you’re surfing you might have little interaction, especially if you’re new to it. There’s a lot of just survival. So you have the talking phase, and then you get the beach and—
You go into “dude” mode—
[laughing] Yeah, yeah, although some of the most profound conversations happen at that time. Although you can be down to just a holler between sets, you also have that downtime when someone will tell you about what it was like after their mother died, and it’s such a profound thing.
Yes, there’s probably not a more profound thing.
Exactly. And I think that setting, and that trust that you build, and that shared time, allow people to open up in ways they would not otherwise.
So then, a lot of your ministry has to do with deep, deep listening.
Exactly. We could say it’s a ministry of listening, but we could also say it’s a ministry of noticing: in that we’re being together and listening and noticing what is going on with one another but we are also practicing noticing what is going on with the ocean. Practicing noticing if the tide has changed, the wind — we are practicing noticing.
It’s like when my brother went to law school in Indiana, and he was also a surfer. And when he was there he was lamenting being away from the coast, not because of the water, but because he missed what surfing did for him mentally.
You go for a run, and if you run long enough, eventually you get out of your head space, and it will take you to another spot. But in surfing, the changes in the waves, the changes in everything around you, the act of noticing, is intensified. You have to pay attention to what is going on around you. It doesn’t mean that you feel that, “Oh, I have to act in this way, or act in a certain way.” Over time, that noticing takes over, and it’s not effortful. You can notice, but it still requires your attention. It requires your attention, and it requires your noticing in ways that running or other physical activities do not. And in that practice, that act of noticing, we step in to what sports psychologists might call a flow state, what contemplative prayer people might call mindfulness. You are stepping into the eternal present. So in surfing there is the mindful act of noticing. There is the stepping in to a greater, interconnected Something. Stepping into nature, stepping into the wild. And then, on top of that, there are the feelings of grace and calm that I associate with the Divine. Which is not to say that the Divine is not in other things. But I would say that our partitioning would limit the experience of Unity that the mystics articulate.
That’s beautiful, Scott. I remember as an English major studying the Romantic poets, not only in England, but also in German Romanticism—
I love them—
And their concept of the Sublime.
Exactly! And that shows up a lot for me in surfing, too. As an aside, I think there’s an irony because surfers like me, in the early ’90s, we all listened to the band Sublime, which was a ska, punk, whatever band, that was very popular. Any surfer, you know, vaguely my age, would also associate surfing with the band Sublime. Now, surfing, absolutely, you take those images in Romantic paintings of the small individual in the vast wilderness—
And those can be terrifying—
Yes, terrifying, and I think way more than terrifying. We tend to think of the Sublime as just this fearful bit, and I do think there is this fear of stepping into the ocean, and there is this great sense of humility, or … what is a better way of saying it? It’s an attractional terror. You know—
It’s not just like, “Oh, I’m afraid!”
There’s awe! That’s it! The Sublime has that aspect of fear, but also of deep awe, where, you know, you are part of … a very small part of something that is … much, much bigger.
It’s like when you’re paddling out and you see these huge looming mountains out there on the horizon, looming shoreward—
And you know that you are going to get caught inside—
That’s one of the things I love about surfing Rincon Indicator lefts. I’m a goofy foot, and first of all the south swells are really inconsistent at Indicator, right?
So you sit out there, and basically, the waves are so shifty out there, you don’t know where something may come from. You might wait 12 or 15 minutes for a set of waves. And then sometimes a set comes, and it’s, you know, 30 yards outside from where you thought you were going to catch it, and you’re paddling, paddling, paddling, and … I love that … but as a surfer, I think those days where we have that experience, when the waves are big enough that we are humbled, and we are in that position, especially here in Santa Barbara, most of the time, we’re surfing smaller waves. And I still think that even padding out on a small day, you can have that sublime feeling. Watching your hands slice through the water on a glassy day, absolutely incredible. Paddling at night, in the phosphorescence. The experience of the Sublime in surfing is not just a big wave experience. I think it is absolutely present, for those who are attentive, on knee-high days.
But the mysterious fearsome emotions, those are an important part of surfing. And in the same way that birth and death and normal human experience are challenging. There are times of extreme emotion, and real danger. My wife’s a midwife, and at birth you never know what is going to happen. You have no idea. The baby could get hurt, the mommy could get hurt, it can happen in so many different ways. And that is similar in surfing. However, most of our lives are not in labor delivery. So, it’s like in surfing, these are exceptional days.
So you’re a family man.
Yes, my wife is a midwife, and I have two sons, and my wife is pregnant.
So you are dealing with a lot of unpredictability.
No question. In my job I’m noticing what is going on with people, what is going on in nature, and striving to bring our attention back to love of God and neighbor.
That is what I admire about you, Scott. You hear a lot of surfers talk about surfing and spirituality, but it is mostly subjective and individualistic. For instance, many feel that because they are a surfer, they have some special connection with the Tao. But your approach is more interpersonal. I mean, otherwise a lot of times you paddle out at a break and the gang is not exactly friendly.
[Laughter] Yeah. It seems there are two things going on here. The first is the language that some people have with surfing. I think that, like all physical endeavors, the apophatic wins out, you know: eventually language fails to articulate what we want to say. But some of us have refined our vocabulary to the point that we can begin to say a few things, but by and large surfers have not developed the language to articulate what we all feel. So I think there is work to do there not in refining it, not in making it narrow, but, in fact, to take it in the other direction, to enrich what our experience as surfers, through the traditions — other religious traditions and other experiences — have come forth to offer.
Yes, because you have in those traditions, for instance, the experience of non-thought: in zen, in the Prayer of Quiet, in Hinduism’s samadhi … and suppose you are surfing a shorebreak, so it’s a fast wave, and you don’t have time, any nano-fraction of a second to conjure up and think about how you are going to surf this wave.
Sure, sure, you just go … . I think that in practice that’s true, but at the same time I think that surfers will go into those setting and think, I want to launch a huge air, or I want to pull a big off the top, right? And I think that those types of attachments to expectations lead us into a spiritually void spot. It’s like if I go out thinking I’m going to go catch Rincon right now, and it’s going to be head high, with nobody out, and it’s going to be awesome … and then you get there with those expectations, and you’re disappointed. Then you end up getting angry, and the lineup is full of people all trying to fight one another—
Or trying to be Tommy Curren or Kelly Slater—
Or all trying to be something they are not in a place they are not, in a setting they are not. So I think it is expectations that rob surfing of is spiritual possibilities. If I think I’m going to go out there and catch all the best waves, that I’m going to surf them really well, and after each wave that I’m going to be fully satisfied . …
I spent time at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France. And when I was there, we ate three meals in silence, and we chewed each bite of food 30 to 50 times. So there is great intentionality in what you are doing. Likewise, after you take your bite, you put your fork down. You’re not holding your fork in anticipation of the next bite. You are fully present to that bite. Versus, I’ve seen plenty of people coming off of a wave, before they are off the wave, and they are ready for the next wave. So it’s like we’ve got a bite of food in our mouth, and we’re scooping up another one with a fork, and thinking about, having an image about the next bite. And that kind of mindlessness can be applied to surfing to the point of robbing surfing of its spiritual value.
You know, it’s like when I was in high school, being a surfer, the image in my mind of a surfer meant riding a six-foot-two-inch thruster. With lots of rocker. And that was it! So whether the wave was knee high or big, you were pretty much surfing the same equipment. We had this narrow image of what it means to be a surfer. But in recent years, people have realized how absolutely absurd that was. And at that time, I thought that surfing could not advance any further.
Why were you stuck on that one kind of image?
Surfing for a while was in this very narrow groove. Everyone who was near my age all thought that’s exactly what you do. That’s what the pros rode. Those were the images in the magazines, so that’s what everybody was doing. I thought that was it. That is as good as a surfboard can be. But then over the years, you’d see images of people trying something else. Notoriously, there was this image of Tom Curren riding a fish [a fish-tail surfboard] at J Bay and riding another fish in Indonesia, on a really heavy day. And that launched this whole resurgence of fishes. And then people rode fishes, and then, “Oh wait! What about eggs [egg-shaped boards]?”
So Tom Curren was the guy.
He was the guy. Especially here in Santa Barbara, Curren is our guy. The dude. So the dude showed us another way, and people just finally realized that shortboards are not that good in small surf. So you might take out Doyles [a soft-foam board], and over the years people thought, “Oh, I can ride a longboard when it’s small. I can ride a fish when its just ok, and maybe mushy. I can ride a thruster when it’s good. I can ride all sorts of things.” So now, to me, being a surfer is not just this narrow image or concept of riding one type of board in one setting. Rather it’s this enriching of my whole life, my whole experience, in being part of this interconnected interdependence. For example, surfing is not only going out on a head-high day, or even surfing a knee-high day on a log. I’m also happy just going to the beach and noticing what is happening with the surf, and everything else that’s going on with the waves, noticing what is going on with the tide. And I’m just happy bodysurfing.
I know what you mean about bodysurfing. It’s the most intimate experience you can have on a wave.
It’s beautiful! And I can be happy bodysurfing on just, you know, slop!
And how about night surfing?
The best night surfing I’ve ever had was at Rincon, when I was in high school. I had a friend whose house was right of Indicator, at Rincon, and we would go on full moon nights. So here we were, 15 or 16, surfing in the moonlight, and on good-sized days! And there’s nothing like coming down the line and watching the moon, and sometimes you would be blinded, and you take off on a wave, and you really couldn’t see it.
But you can feel it.
Yes, you can feel it. And can’t really tell when it is going to break, but you can feel it. And you take off on a wave and you are suddenly blinded by the moonlight reflecting off the face of the wave! I actually like it better surfing on nights when there is not so much moon, because you can see, and you are not so much blinded. But the best is surfing when there is phosphorescence, making your paddling strokes and watching the foam and the fish below you.
That is a numinous experience.
Your ministry is ecumenical: Episcopalian and Lutheran at the same time.
Yes, now it is.
Is being ecumenical kind of like being bilingual, or multilingual? I mean, we all have our mother tongue for talking with divinity, the one we were born into, and then there are all the others.
Yes, and I find it very important to know my mother tongue very well, so that I can go on and engage other languages. Engaging other languages and learning those other languages engages more and more the language of my own tradition. But it helps, very very important, to know my mother tongue very well.
And does that include, interior language, a dimension of communion, something like Teresa of Avila’s Prayer of Quiet? Being centered in communion with whatever is inside you as a basis for engaging in dialogue?
Yes, sure. I really do not think there is another way. The more I am at peace with myself, the more I am at peace with others. I have spent time at Bede Griffith’s ashram in Kerala, India. He was a student of C. S. Lewis, at Cambridge, and then he went on to become a Benedictine monk, and then he felt called to go to India. So he went to India and started an ashram there that has this tradition of seeking out the mystical unity of all traditions.
When I was in grad school at UCSB, one of my favorite professors, besides Hugh Kenner and Nandini Iyer, was Raimundo Panikkar. He was deeply concerned with dialogue between religions. And this is because he felt that each religion was building a tower of Babel up into the heavens rather than building bridges of understanding between religions. And I would like to know how your emphasis on listening and dialogue, which forms the basis of your ministries, relates to interreligious dialogue.
I come from my experience. And my experience, over time, has shown me that I am dependent on others. And that their experience is different from mine. So if we are interdependent, but different, that necessitates my ability of having some understanding of what is going on with them.
So, it’s like, as Panikkar would say, you are seeing the world through your window, and your friend is seeing the world through his or her window. And so, the cleaner the window is—
The cleaner the window is, the more we see the world and the less we see of the window.
And we are interdependent. And different.
And so we realize that, looking through our window, we do not see the whole world.
And that’s great! We don’t see the whole world, yet, the whole world impacts us. And the danger is that we see only that little bit. We don’t realize how inherently the whole world can and does affect us.
And so dialogue is built into that situation.
So, either we listen to our neighbor, or ask, “Well, what do you see through your window?” Or what he sees through his window comes along and impacts us anyway.
Because we are not isolated.
We are not the whole story. And so do you feel that dialogue in and of itself can be a religious experience?
Absolutely. Because we are not isolated. We live in interdependence. In the same way we talked about that when we are surfing, you can go out there, have this incredible, sublime experience where, it’s a huge day, and it’s beautiful, and you catch the right wave, and you know, and get this nice little barrel … and you’re helping somebody out there, or giving them a wave … or you can go out there and you’re angry and the person next to you is angry, and it ends up being a horrible thing.
Or it can be like when you are in dialogue with a person, and you listen to that person with the same quality of attention that you would listen to God.
Right! Exactly! Exactly! And you feel that internal tickle.
You must feel that a lot, in your ministry.
Oh, no question! That’s a privilege of the work I do. Yes.
UCSB Students on Surfing and Spirituality:
Cynthia Vong: As a flutist and grad student at UCSB’s Music department, I enjoy surfing because it offers me a break from my many hours of practice. I love sitting out in the water and soaking in the breathtaking views of the mountains, ocean, and wildlife. As a new surfer and Californian, catching a wave and standing up on the board gives me a different sense of accomplishment, feeling like I have conquered something “impossible.” As someone who likes to take on challenges, surfing has been a fun and rewarding challenge. Furthermore, my favorite thing about Surfing and Spirituality is the bond that we build together every Wednesday at 7 a.m. We all know it’s early, and we’re tired, however, when we go into the ocean we are immediately awakened by the excitement and unpredictability of the ocean. We feed off of each other’s enthusiasm and energy. So by the time we are finished, everyone is in a great mood to start the rest of the day. We support each other throughout the wave-catching process and make sure that every single person is enjoying their time out in the ocean. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have special ocean visitors swimming along with us, extending our bond out to the animals of the sea.
Robby Russet: Surfing gives me a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of capitalistic America and be reminded of how glorious nature is. Coasting on a cold wave is the nearest I’ve ever been to God. Catching waves with a gang of friends is truly the most healing activity that I’m invested in. This intention to build community through the adventure that Surfing and Spirituality embodies is the secret to peace on earth. God has blessed the world with the beauty of nature to reconnect the mind with the body so the spirit can soar. So, I surf to Soar.
Amélie Gontharet: I am an exchange student from France. These weekly meetings have been so great for me, even if they are really early. Going back to my studies they help me remain really focused for the rest of the day. What I love the most about these sessions is the opportunity to see animals that I never thought existed. That was the first time in my life I saw dolphins and sea lions, so you can imagine the feeling of having them swimming right next to you. You begin to understand that the difference that we build in our mind between nature and humans has no need to exist, that we are all part of nature. Before going in the water, Scott helps us focus our mind on nature and our actions that we will try to apply while surfing, but we also use these thoughts for our daily life. And I had the opportunity to improve my surfing so much, surrounded by these amazing people who helped me and became my friends. I am going to miss surfing when I go back to France, because it is my daily meeting with nature. As I improve my surfing, I create a greater connection with nature and heal my mind from disturbances that could hide this link when you live in a big city.
James Digby: When you’re surfing, you spend hours staring at the horizon looking for tiny ripples or bumps that could grow into waves by the time they reach you. It demands huge concentration, but your thoughts are free to wander and contemplate. Your mind is so clear, but your attention is so focused, and in that sense, just sitting there is meditative. What I enjoy most about Surfing and Spirituality is the sense of connection we get by being out in the ocean early in the morning. The waves may be huge or almost non-existent, but we are all out as a small community, together, and we’re often by ourselves. It’s a real wholesome crew vibe. And nature is so beautiful in the mornings. There are often dolphins or pelicans, plovers, terns, and so on. It really feels blessed. And everything feels better after a rejuvenating surf.
Daniel Coman: There are many reasons I enjoy being a part of Surfing and Spirituality, but I’ll quickly mention a few. First, that’s how I learned to surf, because, as anyone who tries surfing for the first time, it is not as easy as it looks. It is like going to a ball and never having danced before. But the positive atmosphere and encouragement keeps you coming back regardless of your first awkward attempts — which in reality may last for a few months. It took me a year to get a really solid breakthrough. But discipline and tenacity is part of the experience. Second, there is community. One of the best parts is meeting in the morning, excited, greeting each other with high fives and hugs, talking about our days, interests, and even tough times. While we have many travelers, people who come once or twice but might not show up again, we have a base group who serve as the foundation and make the group available and welcoming for anyone and everyone. Over time, we have developed real friendships, but we extend an excited welcome to anyone and everyone. So get in contact! Third, the group drew my attention to the way surfing is a spiritual practice. Although we do an explicit spiritual meditation before getting in the water, led by our awesome mentor, Scott, for instance, by being thankful for the amazing place we live in, or thinking about some group that is suffering, or just paying attention to the beauty of nature, or just being present: the practice of surfing itself is a spiritual exercise, both in its aesthetic aspects and discipline. As a graduate student doing analytic philosophy at UCSB and open to the idea of a Creator, I have skeptical worries about interpreting my feeling as feeling of God, or my life as providentially influenced by God, because there isn’t any way to distinguish mere wishful thinking from it being the case, at least not through experience. However, I do think the existence of God is rationally respectable. Now back to the spirituality aspect of surfing. In the practice of surfing, I find experiences which I naturally express in religious language coming and straying from Christian tradition. On some surfing days, I experience a liturgical beauty of nature: the natural beauty is stunning, and something like religious praise infuses me, even as a skeptical “believer.” The rays of the sun in the morning, the clear blue water, on some days, silver mist in the air against the background of the greenish gray mountains, which often have low clouds covering their peaks. No matter what, whether a good day or a bad day, a warm one or a cold one, I leave Surfing and Spirituality with a positive attitude, as if, and hopefully even the most secular among us can appreciate, “renewed in strength and soaring on the wings of eagles.” But surfing also requires discipline. The practice is like a spiritual discipline in that it requires the virtues of patience to learn it. It is difficult at first, and you have to persevere. It requires patience when the waves are not good, or too small, or in the winter, too big and powerful. You have to take the day as it is given. Since we consistently go on Wednesday morning independently of whether the surf report is good, waking up in the morning at a set time, 6 a.m.-ish, you get up, sleepy and groggy, you grab your gear, you change your garments, and put on the wetsuit, you walk barefoot over rock and sand to the spot. You then walk over the rocky reef into what it often cold water, losing any sleepiness and grogginess along the way! The process is somewhat ritualistic, one might say. But it’s always worth it. If you want to learn to surf in a safe and welcoming environment, come join us. We’re just a group of happy people.
Scott: Surfing and Spirituality is a ministry for students at UCSB and SBCC. We meet Wednesday mornings, during the academic year, at 7 a.m. So that’s the majority of what Surfing and Spirituality is. We get together, and Scott has gear for students, if they’ve never surfed before. We have boards and wetsuits. And a lot of these students just want to learn to surf, to try it out. And there are a few who come and try it out, and generally enjoy it, but do not take it up as a lifestyle. There are other folks who come out for the first day, and they are hooked for life. You know how that goes!
We also have a Surfing and Spirituality for non-students, who are older, which usually takes the form of a lunch-break surf session. And that tends to be more on an as-needed basis, during the summer: some of the professors and other folks from our congregation.
Jim Powell is a property caretaker, an internationally published writer, an editor, and an English tutor. Having lost his job and residence of many years at La Casa de Maria to the debris flow, he is seeking work and a bucolic living space conducive to writing and meditation.