Sport & Spirtuality: A 5 Part Series

I wrote this mini-series for PsychologyToday back in 2008. It was a helluva blast and I still have people hitting me up about it 10 years later. This series is tied by my book West of Jesus. WoJ tracks a contemporary surfing myth and looks at the neuroscience that connects spirituality and high risk sport. You should get a nice sense of it from whats below so grab the book if you want to dive deeper.

Part I: Sport and Spirituality–Sports, Science and Spirituality

Around 1911, in something of a burning bush moment, Blake saw newsreel footage of men surfing in Hawaii. Chances are the reason these wave-riding snapshots made it all the way to Wisconsin had less to do with the divine and more to do with Jack London’s recently published The Cruise of the Snark, a book which forever immortalized surfing as “a royal sport for the natural kings of the earth” among many other things. Blake was ten at the time and probably too young to realize he was one of the first Westerners to witness what was not just an islander’s aquatic pastime, but an ancient Polynesian ritual: both a celebration of athletic prowess and a direct form of deity worship. Whatever the case, what Blake didn’t understand as theory, he certainly intuited as fact.

By age eighteen, a high-school dropout doing nothing much beyond marking time in Detroit, Blake met legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympic gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku in the lobby of a movie theater. That meeting left a mark. A few months later, Blake moved to California and became a regular at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. A year after that, he set the world record in the “ten-mile open” swim, two years after he was just another of our country’s novice surfers: a grommet in technical parlance, a newbie, a greenhorn, just another guy in too tight trunks getting good and throttled by the Pacific.

The throttling was no joke. So badly did Blake get beat down that it took him three years to try the surfing a second time, but that second time was the chaBlake is further credited with expanding the realm of the possible, both literally and figuratively. Literally, he was the first person to paddle the 26 miles from Catalina Island to the town of San Pedro, California, just down the road from Long Beach, in a feat many though unachievable.

Figuratively, in a 1969 Surfing magazine article entitled The Voice of the Atom, Blake penned what amounted to the first modern expression of a theory that has since become known as: Surfing as Religion. Following up on this thread, a few years later, in what Surfing magazine editor Matt Walker once termed “an insightful mix of Moses and Thoreau,” Blake carved the core statement of that new religion into a rock in Wisconsin. “Nature=God,” is what he carved. What he really meant is a different story altogether.

rm. In the decades that followed, to quote the writer Drew Kampion: “Blake altered everything. He almost single-handedly transformed the sport of surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th Century lifestyle.” Among the things he altered were board design—inventing both the fin and the surf leash—and, by creating the rules for the world’s first surf competition and thus abetting that competition, the fabric of the sport itself. He also invented the first water-proof housing for camera equipment, thus jump starting a revolution in the field of surf photography and, since there is very little that can compare with frozen images of cresting waves, helping insure the burgeoning popularity of the sport.

Part II: Sports and Spirituality

Krishna said 'I am the ocean.' What did he mean?

Board shaper and writer, Dave Parameter, has long been considered one of the pre-eminent thinkers when it comes to the surfing’s mystical side. In his essay The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman he explains Tom Blake’s spiritual impact this way:

"Some argue that surfing is a religion. If so…Duke Kahanamoku would certainly have been seen as surfing’s messiah or prophet and from the vantage point of the present day we can see that Tom Blake became his chief apostle….The missionaries brought their western God to Hawaii, but in the end it was surfing’s missionaries such as Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake who had the last word. Not only is surfing more widespread than many established religions; it has also proved to be a far more peaceful, benevolent and inclusive “faith” than most."

Part III: Sports and Spirituality

It's official, surfing is a religion, and the Reformation is at hand.

As defined by scholars, a nature religion is any set of beliefs which treats the earth as sacred and the act of being outdoors as sacred communion. While a more detailed investigation of the “mystical experiences” that underpin this notion will be saved for later, it’s first helpful to understand what Taylor calls “the religious elements of surfing.” He breaks those into a number of categories, beginning with the presence of a “scared story, including gurus and saints,” and moves through “a variety of ritualized behaviors” which mostly center around “attending the ‘Church’ of ‘Mother Ocean.’” Along the way, he points out that the rough count of all the surfers in the world, as estimated by the International World Games Association, is twenty million. Other tallies push that number closer to twenty-five million. Certainly, not all of these wave riders feel surfing is actually religion, but even by cutting that figure in half we get a congregation that exceeds the numbers of ten of the world’s twenty-two major religions. 

So large and coherent a group are those that consider surfing their religion, that when the aforementioned Matt Walker wrote about this research in his Surfing magazine cover story: “Nature=God: It’s Official: Surfing is a Religion,” he points out that “Taylor’s manifesto…is the greatest validation of surfing’s spiritual value by outside sources, a trend that’s been on the rise for the past ten to fifteen years, as more new humans enter the water seeking another action sport thrill—and find themselves leaving somehow reborn.” But more than that, and perhaps more importantly, Walker believes that not only is surfing a religion, but it’s been one for long enough that a reformation is at hand.

The core component of all reformations, be them Catholicism’s 1517 Martin Luther-inspired Protestant split, or the Eighteenth Century Hasidic break with traditional Orthodox Judaism, centers on bringing magic to the masses, to form, what University of Virginia associate professor of religion and JAAR editor, Charles Mathewes calls: “a priesthood of all believers.” Walker’s point is that anything that ups one’s access to the divine ignites this fervor. “What’s a forecast saying “Waves coming Friday” but a revealing of well-hidden secrets—especially for those of us who’ve spent a lifetime studying a specific area’s weather patterns and choosing jobs with loose hours?”

What he means is that back in the Sixties, when these spiritual trends were first solidifying, weather forecasting was an art, not a science, and predicting which spots would get the best waves was so difficult that those waves often remained protected from the laity. Even something as seemingly simple as getting a functional surfboard required both locating a great shaper and the months of patience it often took to deal with that shaper. Today one can buy a machine-made version at Costco. Worse, this new breed of surfers who ride such boards don’t seem to understand the sport’s long unspoken rule that gives the most waves to the best surfers. “In the incoming flood you get cultural instability,” says Mathewes. “Where before you had the criteria of excellence created by virtuosi—the experts—when you have a mass emerging, the criteria is entirely up for grabs.” 

Walker’s issue is not just that there are too many surfers in the water, but that thanks to easy access to good waves and even better equipment, these surfers aren’t going home anytime soon. “If you believe that surfing is a religion—and I don’t think that question’s really up for debate any longer—than the real gripe is that these new surfer’s access to the divine isn’t earned, it’s store-bought and mass marketed.” 

Part IV: Sports and Spirituality

The next instalment in an on-going exploration of sport and religion.

Johnny Unitas, Michael Jordon, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Sharma, Laird Hamilton: our list of modern athletic deities tends towards the mortal side of the equation, but this wasn’t always the case. For nearly as long as there has been sport, there have been gods of sport. A list of the deiforms who specialized in hunting alone runs off the page: the Nigerian Dorina; the Roman Diana; the Indian Alopurbi; the Canaanite Astarte; the African Coti, who once gave birth to an eland and thus serves as both progenitor and lord of the chase; the nearly unpronounceable Inuit Tekkeitersrktoc and the even worse Celtic Gwyn ap Nudd, the latter of whom once led a pack of supernatural hounds along his stalking trails.Beyond this one category, there are Irish gods of strength and physical prowess, Norse gods of wrestling and fishing, Egyptian gods of archery and outdoor activity. Both the ancient Chinese god Tung Lu and the ancient Germanic god Ull governed skiing; while the Aztec Macuiloxochitl watched out for sport’s gamblers. Of course, there’s Nike, the Greek goddess of athletic performance, whose name twisted over time into the Roman Victoria, from which descends our word for triumph in all contests: Victory.

Our most famous global contest began three thousand years ago as a local Hellenistic festival of the gods. Some five hundred years later the Olympics became the empire-wide celebration we think of today, but this was always a spiritual celebration. As Pausanias wrote in 160 CE, “nowhere is the aura of divinity so powerful as during….the Olympic games.” Events alternated with sacrifices and ceremonies, worshiping both Zeus, in whose honor Hercules built the first modern stadium (legend goes that he walked off four hundred paces and called this distance ‘stadion’), and the chariot-racing deity: Pelops. There was an altar for Hera, in whose name the runners competed, and another for Rhea, the mother of Zeus and the technical birthplace of the games themselves. So potent was their pull, in 393 CE, when the Holy Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished the games, he did so to decrease the popularity of pagan religion.

And while these Western traditions used these games as both worship and a way of training virtue—the Christian notion of self-sacrifice and celibacy began as a Greek athletic ritual—Eastern traditions found physicality a path to god in its own right. The Hindu “dehvada” or “way of the body” saw salvation as possible only through physical perfection. Yoga comes from this lineage, as do a bevy of other sports: swimming, wrestling, archery, polo and—of all things—hockey. Hatha nose-breathing techniques, known as pranayama, were developed up oxygen content in the blood (the earliest form of blood doping known to man) thus increasing strength and stamina. As an added bonus, this technique—as several thousand cures for anxiety can attest—also lowers our ability to feel fear.

As Hinduism gave way to Buddhism, this worship of sport continued. Gautum Buddha himself was said to be an ace at archery, horsemanship, chariot racing, and hammer throwing. The Indian un-armed combat technique of kerala, spread globally by Buddhist monks, gave birth to karate and judo among many other forms. It was the wandering holy man Boddhidharma who crossed the Himalaya to teach these techniques at the Shaolin temple in the Honan province of Northern China, an act which begat much of what we think of as martial arts.

Even the notion of surfing as religion did not originate with Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake, rather began as a much earlier Polynesian tradition, both an act of prayer and a way of celebrating the divinity within. So sacred was this activity that even felling a tree to carve a surfboard required elaborate sacrifices to the gods. In Fiji and Samoa and Tonga and New Zealand there are prayers for good surf and prayers for good luck while one surfs. So steeped was this sport in pagan tradition, that one of the first acts of Christian missionaries, after arriving in Hawaii, was to ban this practice on those islands.

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