I grew up in Ventura, California, a small, sleepy beach town an hour north of Los Angeles. There wasn’t much to do. But there were miles of beautiful, empty beaches. The Pacific Ocean pulled us toward her like iron filings to a magnet.
Perched out on the horizon were the Channel Islands, uninhabited chunks of California that seemingly broke off the mainland and drifted out to sea. I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at those mysterious alien lands and wondered just how terrifying it must have been for the Chumash to paddle their river reed canoes over the open maw of the sea to fish her coves and sleep exhausted on her sandy leeward beaches.
All summer long someone’s mom would drop us off at the beach with our Styrofoam boards and small inflated rafts. All day long we’d ride the waves on our bellies, learning how to read the shifting plane of the water, an energy field without beginning or end. The feel of hot sand under bare feet, the smell of Coppertone, and the taste of fifty cent grilled cheese sandwiches from the State Beach snack bar are embedded deep in my amygdala. And the never-the-same-twice shifting face of the sea and sky. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning the lesson of impermanence, and how the beauty of the world lives not in its surface forms, but in the mystery hidden just beneath them.
At the rocky points and deep water reef breaks we saw the older guys surfing, riding hard boards made of fiberglass and resin, daring to stand as equals with waves as big as houses. Because we loved the sea and knew her so well it was the next logical step – to leave the safety of the shore, to go deeper, and commit completely.
My mom bought me my first surfboard at a neighborhood garage sale. I immediately broke the fin standing on it on the lawn. She brought home a swath of fiberglass and a can of resin from the hardware store. “There,” she said, “now you can fix it.”
I spent that summer learning how to stand up on my board, surfing small beach breaks near the pier. Late one August afternoon after the dry Santa Anas softened and the air hung thick and hot, I caught a long left in the evening glass. I rode that wave for what seemed like ages. It just kept rising up to meet me, its concave face reflecting the fiery sunset above, like I were engulfed in flame. My breath caught in my throat. A feeling of belonging swept through me so overwhelming I nearly wept. I felt at once deeply at home in this strange world, and deeply at home in my own skin. For an awkward adolescent this was a revelation – to no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land.
That Christmas I got my first O’Neil wetsuit. It cost a lot. It was a big sacrifice for my working class mom and dad. They knew I was serious. And the fact that they took me seriously was empowering. It helps when the people who love you believe you are capable of things before you are. It carries you through the difficulties ahead.
There were many dark mornings paddling out before high school in the freezing winter air. There were big winter swells that churned the water and turned your stomach. But the challenge pulled you forward. You knew this sea, you knew this break, even if each looming wave on the horizon was a treacherous stranger. Facing them, you face yourself.
Everything changed when we got our own cars. My first car was a 1954 Studebaker Champion station wagon, rescued from Mr. Steinberg’s garage across the street where it had languished abandoned and broken for decades. My oldest brother Eric, ten years my senior, eager for yet another automotive restoration project, hauled that rusted hulk into our family garage and together (o.k., mostly him) we stripped it down and rebuilt it. Once it was operational I mounted surf racks on the roof. Now me and my friends could range much farther up and down the coast, no longer beholden to mom’s ride or the contraption we’d rigged up to haul our boards to the beach behind our bikes.
My next car was a 1968 Datsun 510 wagon, a far more trustworthy and reliable transport. Teenagers with cars. You know the rest. You know the trouble I got into in that car. The bong hidden under the seat, the girls, parking at the beach at night, but not for the surfing.
Every chance we got my best friend Steve and I would load our boards onto the roof and head up the coast checking every break between Ventura and Rincon Point. The best days were when the beach breaks broke into perfect, clean lefts and rights and the sun came out from behind the overcast and the water sparkled under your board as you flew up and down laughing, breathing hard, feeling alive and free because the sea does that to you – it strips away everything that’s unessential leaving you awake and aloft in the heart of your own best life.
Maybe I liked surfing because it was an essentially solitary sport. You paddled out with a friend, but often spent the day out of range of each other, both on your own lonely hunt for the next wave. Unlike most sports, there was no clock – no beginning, no end. No one was keeping score. No one had to lose so that you could win. You simply abandoned yourself to the will of nature, and did what you could to quiet yourself and move into accord with it. You cannot impose your will upon the sea – instead, you must relinquish your will and slip into deep cooperation with her vast and enigmatic design. Surfing teaches you to wait. It teaches you how to align your energies with the energies of the cosmos moving around you. It teaches you to stop interfering and start cooperating.
When I began studying the world’s wisdom traditions in Professor Barret Culmback’s philosophy classes at Ventura College, I had years of lived experience in the sea to frame and contextualize the insights his lectures and readings afforded. The real revelation came when I read the Daodejing, the 6th century B.C.E. book of Chinese wisdom by Laozi. I immediately understood what Laozi meant by wu wei, or effortless effort – that the best action is natural, spontaneous, creative, and unforced action in harmony with current conditions. When we blindly impose our arbitrary preferences and plans onto the fluid reality around us we fail. When we move with the current, on the other hand, we amplify our effort and achieve more by doing less.
In the end it isn’t books, lectures, or teachers, no matter how profound, that awaken us to our own best life. It is the lived experience of our days. If we pay attention. It is of course possible to live one’s entire life and never realize a thing. But every life offers a sea of opportunity to awaken to the wisdom we see, feel, and are. If we’re curious, brave, open-minded, open-hearted, and willing to take risks, the waves of life become our teacher.