Housman isn’t a surf jock arguing for more wave pools and more Olympics (this coming summer Olympics will be the first for surfers). “I’d push back on surfing being called a sport alone,” he said, leaving the activity’s definition open-ended. His point, however, which many surfers would echo, is to let surfing be surfing.
Identifying too closely with surfing—whether spiritually, athletically, or territorially—can also add to what many see as the sport’s dark underbelly. Surfers are famous for becoming like angry zealots when access to their god—the waves— gets obstructed by crowds, fueling gang-like turf wars in hotspots like Palos Verdes. Steven Kotler’s book West of Jesus captured this tension well: “The irony of it was that most of the people considered surfing a religious experience and that their religious experience was being ruined by all the others surfing for the same reason.”
So why does surfing appear to be so much more freighted with spiritual meaning than other water sports? One key distinction is the structure and pace of the activity. Yes, there are those brief adrenaline pumping moments of actually riding a wave, but in between sets are long lulls when the surfer is just waiting, bobbing, staring at a horizon—time in which there’s nothing to do but breathe and consider saltwater’s flirtatious dance with the sunlight and sky. So whether you’re spiritual or not, there’s still a need for a contemplative solitude in relative stillness. There’s also the constant paradox of having to exert great effort to paddle, while simultaneously surrendering to the power of a wave you’re riding (or falling into)—a Zen metaphor if ever there was one.
All this may feed into why, when you look at the science of peak experiences, water and music are basically tied for first place, Nichols told me. “The ‘oneness thing’ people get is, in a sense, a brain-chemistry response of letting go of that ‘need to know.’ And interestingly, that’s also where the poetry and music is.” Of course, it would be reductive to say neuroscience explains away rapturous moments in the waves—moments that perhaps become spiritual when there is a spiritual language to describe them. And as Housman suggested, surfing is not unique in its ability to give people more happiness, well-being, and awe. But Nichols’s point—and also Carol Schuldt’s—seems to be that water is the best at it. “We try to re-create the water with stained glass, grand architecture,” Nichols said, “but it really doesn’t get close to the real thing.”
Schuldt, for her part, agrees. After doing her own readings on biology and astrophysics, she thinks science has only scratched the surface in revealing why the water is so healing for people. Part of of her reasoning is personal: Her son, Peter, was hit by a car when he was just 3 years old. The doctors warned he’d be completely dependent on others for life, if he made it at all. Unable to accept that prognosis, Schuldt took Peter off life support and rolled his frail body in the icy surf. Today, Peter has a crooked gait and slurred speech, but lives a full life, competing in swimming and running—a fact his mother attributes to his daily saltwater therapy.
But if you really want to understand Schuldt’s religion, follow her on her afternoon ritual sometime, up the steep hill she rides on that old cruiser. Hike another mile with her over the golden dunes, gather firewood, build a bonfire, dive into the cold waters for a bodysurf—and, perhaps, wait for a revelation.
“People ask, ‘How do you do this, at your age,’” she said with a laugh. “I tell them to jump in the ocean.”