Surfing and War: Beyond Flow

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While documenting Shaun Nelson’s experience of combat flow in Vietnam, Yuval Harari wrote: “The only thing he could compare it to was the feeling he found sometimes when he surfed, when he was inside the tube of a big wave…and he was being carried along by some terrific force”. War and wave riding don’t have a whole lot in common. Yet far from home amidst the flurry of combat, Shaun found himself in a familiar place. He was reminded of those moments in the water, surrounded by energy and motion when his entire world would shrink delightfully to the size of a single wave.

It seems that in both turbulent water and turbulent warzones, time falls away, and we forget ourselves. In those moments, things are felt, not thought. And all aspects of our wider life, our anxieties, our deadlines, our big ideas cease to exist. There is only water, speed, salt, and balance. In some ways, it is hardly surprising that in surfing, as in war, a particular moment of deep concentration can be suddenly flooded by awe. This happens not because of a lack of challenge or violence but because of the very presence of both. There is apparently no better time to lose your mind than with waves or bullets bearing down.

But these risky settings can also lead us beyond flow. In his take on ‘Why Men Love War’, Jules Evans writes that the deepest ecstatic experiences are felt simultaneously at the level of the body, mind, culture, and spirit. Men love war because it facilitates this quadruple dose of ecstasy through combat flow, sacred myths, ecstatic togetherness, and blood catharsis. Soldiers have the chance to feel things that are more transcending and more cathartic than a state of mere flow. Lucky for us, each of these elements can also be found out in the surf.

Surfing for a Sacred Myth

There is little room for nuance in wartime. The enemy is bloodthirsty and blameworthy, but not us; we are the good guys. We resort to violence only to defend what is right. There can be no reconciliation between our truth and the truth of the enemy. As Jules Evans puts it, war peddles the sacred myth of Us against Them. A divisive myth is always powerful, and this one is no exception. It creates a mind-altering reality in which each of us believes they have a significant part to play in the fight against the ultimate evil. Soldiers caught up in this reality find themselves deeply reassured by a crystal clear purpose, freed from the uncertainty of a life in peacetime. If flow is ecstasy of the mind, then these sacred myths create an ecstasy of the spirit, submerging us in a reality where some of the most ineffable parts of life make total sense.

Beyond, perhaps, some of the more localized line-ups, a sense of Us and Them doesn’t have a place in surfing. We prefer unifying myths. People are far more likely to be reconciled by a mutual respect for the ocean than divided by it. There is a sense among surfers of connecting with the waves rather than conquering them. Even when we call it ‘Pipe Masters’, the tone leans unmistakably towards harmony with one of the world’s best waves than mastery over it. If there is a sacred myth of surfing, then it is perhaps something closer to the idea of oneness.

Surfers strive to be, as much as possible, part of the ocean. There is perhaps nothing quite as transcending as the experience of being in the water, surrounded and humbled by natural forces, and feeling that you are not in a foreign land. You are at home.

Surfing for Ecstatic Togetherness

In war, we also feel less alone. The sense of connection that a soldier feels towards their brothers in arms is nothing short of love. It is easy to love those who demonstrate each day that they are willing to live and die with you, but outside of war, few of us ever get the chance, and so our love for each other goes unnoticed. But a soldier who exposes themselves to violence alongside their fellow combatants is lifted beyond their little self. They are rewarded with a feeling of unison and communal satisfaction that is difficult to find outside of the setting of war.

Surfing, and perhaps sport in general, can give us a toned-down feeling of togetherness. It is found everywhere, from close groups of friends sharing their love for the ocean in mellow waves to the surfers and safety skis out at Teahupo’o in a code red swell. But surfing can also provide an alternative form of cultural ecstasy. This comes from the togetherness that some surfers are able to feel towards their ancestors and culture each time they paddle out.

Or in the connection some ocean activists feel towards those who are yet to exist, the future people who will inherit our waves. In these rare moments, surfing facilitates a shared reality where people living today can look through time and imagine eyes meeting.

Surfing for Blood Catharsis

The idea of blood catharsis is very old. And in the modern world, war is unique in offering a space to gather together all our negative thoughts to project them onto an enemy who we then destroy.

In sports, this same idea looks slightly different. Jules Evans writes that we have replaced blood catharsis with sweat catharsis. In day-to-day life, we reach an ecstasy of the body by ‘working out’ our anxieties and stresses rather than projecting and attacking them. But beyond the blood and sweat, surfing provides a kind of ‘salt catharsis’. A unique combination of exhaustion, impacts, and breath holds that results in its own kind of cathartic experience. One where surfers feel cleansed by salt water and humbled by the force of even small waves.

Surfing for Ecstasy

People often discuss the relationship between flow and surfing, but surfing seems to be an ideal setting to feel much more. There are well-known stories of big-wave surfers becoming so dependent on the ecstasy of surfing that their life ceases to make sense when it is below 30 feet.

It seems we surf for the same reason others take drugs or turn to religion – surfing is our mind-altering experience. We paddle in time with the breaking water, angle down the line, and forget everything. Time falls away.

It is only later, peeling off the wetsuit and packing our boards, that the speed and the balance are forced into the constraints of a chronological order, and we smile as we remember the wave of the day.