Siddhartha and Surfing: How a Novel Helped Reconceive My Surfing Journey
“They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just
water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Change is ever present and constant, like the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. Although things may seem to have states of permanence, the fact of perpetual change is the ultimate reality in this world. If we are living life with a state of awareness, we can easily see this truth all around us and we can no better witness it then in our own unique experience as human beings connected to the ocean.
Minding my own personal evolution, there have been numerous points throughout my life where I have taken stock of myself on various levels and made adjustments where needed. I keep the things that align with my inner compass, making my best attempt to implement them when facing turbulent situations. I also go through personal philosophies and beliefs that I may have outgrown or that simply don’t work for me anymore. I take those things that are no longer useful and dump them in a metaphorical trash can. I not only evaluate where I am with mental belief structures, it is also a complete overhaul of my physical, financial, and spiritual state as well. This process seems to take place about every five years, with the largest modifications being implemented at the close of each decade.
When I first read the novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, I was at yet another pivotal point in my life, and the book seemed to fall into my hands at the precise moment I needed it to. As I read the book, I felt a kinship to the character of Siddhartha and heard much of my own life echoed in this fictional tale.
The story of the fictional character Siddhartha takes place about 2,500 years ago in India, around the same time as the historical Siddhartha Gautama or “Buddha” is believed to have lived. The novel starts with Siddhartha as a young man, feeling empty and confused, as he chooses to leave his brahmanical home life in search of a truth that speaks to his own heart. Throughout the novel, the character Siddhartha finds himself going through various phases while on his journey. Leaving his family, he first lives as a shramana, a wandering ascetic who renounces the material world and practices self-denial. Then he meets the “Buddha” and although he feels the Buddha has attained enlightenment, he also comes to the realization that he cannot be taught enlightenment, for he must continue to follow his own path if he is to discover enlightenment for himself. Disillusioned on his spiritual quest, Siddhartha chooses to learn the ways of city life, business, and the passions and pains of conjugal love. After mastering the ways of so-called material life and becoming complacent, Siddhartha is once again left world-weary and retreats to the forest to live alongside the river. It is when Siddhartha is with the river long enough, that he finally hears the truth he seeks. It comes not from the lips of wise men, nor from the holy scriptures, but from the movements and stillness of the river itself.
During the period of my reading the novel for the first time, I was suffering a major depression and surfing very little. In reading, I would flash back to different chapters of my own life that had been washed away by the persistence of time. I could see much of myself in the character of Siddhartha and felt many times that the book could have been speaking directly about and to me.
In my mind’s eye, I saw my own personal phases come forth in various forms. The carefree and young boy who simply wanted to play. The questioning and rebellious teenager, fighting to seek and speak his own truth, leaving home and family to unsuccessfully live as a yogic monk. Followed by the reckless and egocentric young man, who although seemingly finding success in the city, would soon be left bewildered, as all that he identified with as his “self” would soon be stripped away.
Surfing had always been my first love and my passion, yet I had become so sick and sad with depression, so utterly drained of vitality, that I could no longer surf. I had surfed most of my life, it had always come easy, and it was the one thing I did that I felt I had somewhat of a natural gift for. It was hard enough to drag myself out of seclusion and into the water during my depressive state. When I did get myself in the water I found I was unable to even get to my feet. It was as if I was dealt the final crushing blow to my self-esteem.
I struggled with surfing as it became increasingly difficult and felt completely unnatural to me. Although in a state of total frustration, I began to develop patience and remained persistent as I could not give up on surfing. Being in the ocean and riding waves was just about the only thing that had ever made me feel free. It was a freedom that was untainted and authentic. A state of freedom that cleansed me of inner turmoil and grief. When nothing else made sense, surfing made perfect sense.
So as all else seemed to slip through my hands, I continued to work on my surfing, as I was in need of the gifts that it had previously bestowed upon me.
As this outer cleansing took place, I began to realize it was a manifestation of an inner change that had already been in motion for some time. The depression seemed to be a symptom of my ego resisting both the inner and outer change in every way possible. Through my resistance to change, I suffered. Eventually the depression, the pain, the sickness and sadness would lead to a better, more mature and progressed version of “me”. During this time surfing had become part of my therapy and healing. But I couldn’t see any of this at the time, it would take a few years for me to come to these realizations.
As I began to unlearn all that I had learned in my previous surfing life, I would once again find myself in that state of bliss that I had often experienced when I first began surfing. Through the temporary decline of my skill, the pretense of performance was put aside. What I would have previously considered simple or not noteworthy, once again became as important as any other part of the overall surfing experience. Every moment was special and extraordinary. What I once thought of as mundane had become transcendent. The chattering of birds sitting on the jetty, the sun beaming through the clouds overhead, the calming sound of breaking waves and the rhythmic song of the ocean surrounding me; I had for too long overlooked these wondrous offerings of the sea.
I eventually found equanimity in a time of adversity. Through my steadfast dedication to surfing, my appreciation for it as a whole deepened, I grew from a state of infatuation into that of a deep loving appreciation. Much like dropping in, positioning properly, locking in and riding the tube to a completing exit point, I went with the direction that my surfing was taking me, accepting it’s innate flow into it’s next stage. I slid through what felt like a critical section, finally finding an exit from a seemingly dark place closing in on me. But just in the same way that we can never ride the same wave twice, I was not returning to my previous way of riding waves. That time had passed and another was upon me. I still loved riding waves as much as before. In fact, I loved it more. But as I changed internally, my outward expression of wave riding had naturally evolved.
Like the act of surfing, Siddhartha is a book that I believe can speak to different people in different ways. So to define the novel Siddhartha or the pursuit of surfing is not something I have much interest in. Much like the character Siddhartha, I feel we must come to our own truths through the process of living life, taking the time to reflect, while always remaining open to the natural process and growth of experiential knowledge.
Siddhartha was an ever-questioning seeker who remained true to his heart’s navigation. Eventually, after much of a lifetime lived, he found the truth he sought in nature, through the voice of the river. He learned to accept the transitory nature of material life by welcoming it, not by despising and cursing it. I, myself , have been a questioning seeker who was often perplexed by the transient nature of existence on planet earth. Much like the character Siddhartha, I also came to find my truth speaking to me in the natural world, namely in the thundering voice of the crashing ocean waves.
I never consider my seeking nor my suffering in vain, for without them I would not have found the beauty of the ocean and life anew. I also would have not come to better terms with the ephemeral truth of existence in this world. My acknowledgment of my own perpetual becoming was much like a perfectly executed cutback, wrapping around to bounce back off the energy center of the wave. In my coming full circle, back to my inceptive starting point of self discovery, I found that truth was always willing to be heard if I only had the ears to hear.
Surfer: Author Shawn Zappo. Photos: Christor Lukasiewicz
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