Spiritually Found Among the Surf
Standing on a surfboard for the first time, it felt as if time stood still. I can recall the palm trees on the shore, the dusty blue of the island’s silhouette in the distance to my left, and my teacher afloat on his board to my right. That first, miraculous ride seemed to last forever. In one unforgettable moment, every stray thought inside me was quieted, pushed aside. All I knew was a sense of harmony between myself, the board and the wave. The water must have been slapping on the sand and the birds must have been chirping, but I heard absolutely nothing. A complete and total silence enveloped me and carried me closer and closer to shore, until the board stopped and I fell. The moment was gone.
Nothing in my experiences as a travel writer, which includes crazy stunts like flying in a skydiving simulator, produced the same kind of exhaustion and euphoria as surfing. My shoulders and arms ached from paddling out to catch waves. My skinny rib cage was terribly bruised from the hard board. Even laughing hurt. But it was better than any workout, any walk in the woods; I had fallen in love.
It had been a few years since those lessons on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I tried surfing again during a visit to San Diego, but the waves were breaking short, a fierce riptide was raging and my rides seemed to last only split seconds. So when I recently visited Maui, I was eager to get back up on Hawaii’s easy, graceful surf. The islands, where modern surfing originated, boast long, steady waves that are a haven for beginners.
In the city of Lahaina, I joined a group class operated by Goofy Foot Surf School. We met at “505” (near 505 Front St.), where the Hawaiian Ali’i, or royalty, once surfed. Even if the rest of the island was quiet, the Ali’i would “hold court” here, because there always, always is a wave.
As our teacher, Carny, led us through the on-shore drill, I was amazed at certain similarities between surfing and Judaism. One of the first things he said was, “Be centered and don’t look down. Pick a point on the beach and focus on it because where you look is where you go.”
His words reminded me of the teaching of the legendary Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810): “You are wherever your thoughts are. So make sure your thoughts are where you want to be” (“The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy,” Jewish Lights Publishing).
Carny’s emphasis on finding a focal point on the beach also made me think of the Jewish shiviti. This decorative drawing usually integrates geometric shapes and kabbalistic ideas with the Hebrew phrase, “Shiviti Hashem l’nagdi tamid,” “I have placed Hashem before me forever.” Tradition holds that gazing upon these words prior to tefillot or when an interruption occurs enhances focused kavana, or intent, during davening.
Once we hit the water, I found my own shiviti on the shore to stay focused. I was amazed. I got right up on the board as if no time had passed since my lessons in Kauai with Ambrose and rode wave after wave. It was so incredible I returned the next day for another lesson.
I made a mental note when the next teacher, Armadillo, explained how the board works. The small fins on the rear underside of the board are what give it control. “Without them,” he said, flapping his hand around without direction, “the board just slips around.” His description reminded me of how mitzvot are like the fins of Jewish life. Designed to make us a holier people, mitzvot give our conduct structure and meaning in what could otherwise be understood as a sea of chaos.
During my final lesson, Carny described the board’s sweet spot. Standing within the back half of the board — but not too far back — vastly improves your ride. The concept reminded me of the classic recommendation for both meditation and prayer. Conducting your practice regularly at the same place and time helps condition you. Each time you return to that place, you send yourself an unconscious signal that you are ready to remove yourself from your ordinary consciousness, which is also a fitting concept for surfing. Like many demanding sports in which you must maintain intense concentration, surfing allows you to enter into a quasi-meditative state. Repeatedly standing in the sweet spot makes that even more possible.
Although the associations between surfing and Judaism may seem foreign, veteran surfers have long recognized the connection between surfing and spirituality. In fact, Chabad Rabbi Nachum Shifren chronicles his journey from surfing to smicha, or rabbinical ordination, in his book “Surfing Rabbi: A Kabbalistic Quest for Soul” (Heaven Ink Publishing, 2001). As Shifren puts it: “What better way to experience the greatest act of Creation?”