I’m really stuck right now on how to define my religion. It’s clear I have one, and that surfing is at the center of it. But should I call it “religion”… or “religious practice”? It seems surfing has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity; the cloaked Buddhists with their walking meditation, one foot, heel to toes, feeling only the dust on the path, the moment, the completion of the movement as it becomes the next movement.
But then Jesus walked on water…
…You get it. There is no point. That’s the whole point. Surfing is like that: goalless, a deep arch carved into the unspeakable realm of feeling that is only always ever now. NOW.
I’ve tried on labels. I’m still trying them on. People like labels. I like labels. A definition feels safe, welcome by the human tribe. We identify and are identified. We are chosen by friends and lovers, institutions and jobs based on our labels. In the best of circumstances, labels promise our little self-important primate brains belonging.
So, what are we, as surfers? Are we pagans? Taoists? Animists? Animism is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. The Native American tribes are often put in that basket, though the word is out of fashion. I like things that have fallen out of fashion, though. Out on the waves I feel like everything has a spiritual essence, like the water and the sky are alive, brimming with life, psychedelic authors of life. But “animist”? Who even says that or knows what it means?
Most surfers I know just call themselves surfers, and there’s an unspoken agreement about not taking the definition any further unless it’s out to “soul surfer”, which defines someone who treats the sport as, well, a religion or something.
There have been whispers about me, no doubt. As there always have been whispers about powerful, feral women who ride things across the sky. Backlit by the sun, standing tall on water, clouds streaming behind our hair, we are the sea witches, the dolphin whisperers, the whale dreamers. Women who ride boards and dance on water. What shame could there be in that? I can only think, in some hut long ago, a woman was shaping a board, and that game of telephone happened around the village and somebody thought she had a weird relationship with a broom…
The sea is my church, the waves are my pews, the moon is my preacher, and the windows to the sky are all thrown open without a roof, nothing stopping the sermon from reaching my soul.
I was raised a Christian Scientist, which is a 2000 years newer Christian religion, founded at the turn of the 20th century by an inspired woman named Mary Baker Eddy who focused her writing on the healing abilities of Jesus Christ, authoring a book before women could vote called Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures. I grew up in churches, surrounded by loving community, in schools and summer camps that upheld our faith.
But as is common, my childhood religion shamed sexuality. Unique among any religion I know of, it also shamed going to doctors. I was raised without ordinary medicine cabinet items like painkiller and antibiotics, as the religion promoted reliance on God for healing. My intimate upbringing with the love of Christ and the celebration of his works was accompanied by a deep and lasting relationship with the daily bread of shame, which I decided at the age of 15 I’d rather stop eating.
So I left the religion. I lost the community, the bonds, the label that made me feel safe and secure in who I was. Freedom had its price.
But I am by no means an atheist or even an agnostic. I believe, just as my religion taught me as a child, that God is Love. Only now I have more vocabulary.
Before learning to surf, yoga helped me find a devotional path. I discovered Atman, Brahman, Purusha, Prakrti, Satchitananda. With yoga came the teaching that you can practice unifying your consciousness with Spirit. (Emphasis on the word practice.) Yoga is from the Sanskrit root word yug, which means “to yoke”. It’s the brain hitchhiking on the back of disciplined breath, which leads to feeling more relaxed without drugs, or at best, spiritual realization. (Disclaimer: never had one while not on LSD, can’t say, spent a lot of time crying in pigeon pose on my mat, though. Pretty sure some catharsis happened there.)
But how often is the practice or the church… not on land? I had to swap my yoga mat for a surfboard and find out more.
Here’s something I know for sure: you never see church congregants standing outside the church watching it before they go in. Nothing about the church is going to change from the time they are outside it to when they go inside it. Let’s just say the church architecture is fairly consistent week after week.
Compare this to a dawn patrol parking lot at any break I know, and all you see are surfers standing around watching the break. You have guys and gals parked, coffees in hand, leaning on the hoods of their vehicles, arms crossed, just staring out to sea. Sometimes in silence, sometimes discussing the conditions with mates. All highly reverent.
My surf coach Christian says it to me this way a lot, “Let’s just go look.”
We stop at different breaks, and sometimes we wander back to the first one. A lot of the time when we paddle out, we’re still not even sure about the call. Because the sea is totally different once you’re out in it. It can change completely on the paddle out. A break you saw peeling just… disappears. A whole new fleet of set waves arrives. The tide drops or lifts just enough to change the way the waves hit the bottom and you’re dealing with a whole new game.
Or the wind. Always the wind. The wind can redefine your session in an instant.
This is how the sea became my church, my teacher, my religion.
The waves of ecstasy, the waves of humility, in equal measure. They carry me, they deliver me, they teach me how to let go, again and again.
I still struggle with what label to use about the whole thing, though.
For a long time I called myself a pagan. (Neo-pagan, more technically, but no one outside the U.K. has even heard of that.) The word pagan just means “country dweller”. I wanted to reclaim the tarnish, buff it out to a shine. But this is a far easier task in a country like England which already has an entire population of pagans, and in fact, is the mother country of that religion.
So I struggle to define and label my religion, but imagine if I called myself a witch. It works in a song anyways.
Maybe moon-worshipper? Or what about surfer girl? …As in “do you love me”?
For now, I’m shrugging and settling on Taoist. Taoism is a philosophy and a practice of doing what is natural, or going with the flow. As it arose from studying nature, it’s the closest thing I’ve got to a label for this surfing religion thing, although I’m obviously not Chinese.
But neither was Winnie the Pooh, and he’s often cited as one of the world’s leading Taoists, so there you have it.
The surfer girl and the stuffed bear with no pants.
Someone should make a religion out of it, or at least a hat.
~ Kaia Alexander
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