Surfing and the Philosophy of Star Wars: Meditations on the Dark Side of The Force

Bradley Beach Line Up

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

“Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…” -Yoda

When I walked onto the beach it was just about an hour after sunrise as perfectly groomed chest- to head-high right handers were peaking to break just beyond and a bit to the left of the jetty. The waves were hollow at the initial take off point, breaking over scattered rocks that were just past the bulk of the jetty formation. After a risky tube section over the rocks and in front of the jetty, each wave would roll into a deep section and the face would become fat, sometimes stopping a few surfers in their tracks. But it appeared that with a good amount of speed generated from the takeoff, you could easily cruise over the mushy section with minimal maneuvering and then have a perfect bending face in front of you all the way to the beach.

As I got closer to the shoreline and rubbed a handful of sand in my wax, I could recognize the five guys picking waves off the jetty as friends I surfed this break with most swells. I paddled out swiftly, stoked to get situated in the line up and share in the session with a small group of few fellow surfers. My first wave was a good one, exiting from a quick cover up, I set up straight into a hard bottom turn, laying into an arching turn that set me up for the long inside line I had witnessed from the beach. After a few off the bottom off the top turns, I was on the beach running back down toward the jetty. The session continued with wave trade offs between each surfer, everyone getting their fill and playfully pushing each other further south. Eventually a few of us were sitting on the opposite side of the jetty which set us up deeper for the tube section. Everyone was smiling and the energy in the water was positive. The “force” was flowing if you will.

Mike Hughes putting his 5'6" twin fin on the rail. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.” -Yoda. Surfer: Mike Hughes

After an hour or so of perfect waves, the wind came around out of the southeast, bumping the size up a notch, yet making the hollow section somewhat unpredictable and the takeoff fairly sketchy with a serious rip coming right across the face of the wave.  I fell both times on my next two waves. On the second of the two waves I took off beneath the lip with hopes for a small tube, instead I got crunched a few feet away from the jetty. Receiving some jeers for blowing the wave I grabbed my board in frustration and turned around quickly to paddle back out. After a few more waves that went wrong for me, my whole attitude changed, my perception of the session went dark.

With my mood shaken and overall energy turning increasingly negative, my session would only get worse. As I sat outside hoping to get a solid wave to get my surfing back on track, I noticed three surfers paddling out from the southern side of the jetty with the attempts to sit deeper than everyone who had already been surfing without working their way through the line up. I could feel the anger moving through my body and the “dark side” began to manifest in my internal dialog and eventually in my outer actions.
The rest of my friends were having a good time, focusing on the moment, immersed in the joy of surfing. I was somewhere else, pissed off and unbalanced both mentally and physically. Instead of concentrating on my surfing and enjoying the beautiful morning with my friends, I was staring at the three surfers paddling out. I felt as if they were breaking surf etiquette by not gently working their way up toward the peak from down the beach. Were they infringing on our once blissful session? Fact was, after a few surprising falls I was angered and now sadly I had found something to focus my irritation on.

Two of the surfers rounded the jetty only to set themselves up more down the line up, catching waves that were coming through over the middle sandbar. The third was aggressive and like any annoying fly, paddling around everyone as he was trying to sit so deep it didn’t even make sense. He emanated a cocky attitude that I didn’t feel his surfing warranted. After watching him stuff a few guys repeatedly, almost washing one surfer onto the jetty, I was really burning up. Eventually, I was in an unannounced paddle battle with him. Although I thought I had long since progressed beyond this type of bullshit in surfing, namely being an asshole, there I was participating in the game. It wasn’t long before he dropped in on me and on his reentering the line up, I paddled towards him. As I got just about rail to rail with him I started yelling at him, curses and accusations were flying from my mouth without hesitation. In returen, he began to taunt me, and then I did the lowest of low as my agitation grew, I threatened to hit him. At that point I had simply lost all sense or reason.

What he said to me next stopped me dead in my tracks. Looking me right in the eye and somewhat relaxed considering the situation he calmly said, “I’m sorry your having such a bad time out here and your focusing it on me”.  I couldn’t in the moment find the will to apologize, but I did gather up enough of my sensibility to get myself in check and paddle away. I moved myself down towards the middle of the break, feeling ashamed of myself for the way I acted. I caught one more wave and called it a day.

"You will know when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge…" -Yoda. Surfer: Denny Hood

“You will know when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge…” -Yoda. Surfer: Denny Hood

The incident haunted me as I played it over and over again in my head the rest of the afternoon. Later that evening I talked to a friend about what happened and I related it to a scene in “Empire Strikes Back” when Luke enters the cave on Dagobah. I know many people reading this will think, “what the fuck does Star Wars have to do with surfing”, but the scene I spoke of seemed like a good metaphor for what happened in the water earlier that day.

During Luke’s jedi training with Yoda they come upon a cave and the dialog goes as so:

Luke: There’s something not right here… I feel cold. Death.
Yoda: That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.
Luke: What’s in there?
Yoda: Only what you take with you.

I know I’m entering into serious nerd territory here and I may be losing some of you, but those who are compelled to keep reading, I ask you just to bear with me as I explain my point. This scene in the film tends to not make sense to many people but I never felt confused by it, even as young boy. After Yoda tells Luke that within the cave is only what you take with you, Luke starts to put on his belt with his weapons. Yoda tells them he will not need his weapons, but Luke takes them anyway. So before he enters the cave, Luke already is bringing in fear and aggression.

As the scene plays out, Darth Vader comes forth from the darkness in the cave, there is a small lightsaber battle that eventually ends with Luke Skywalker striking Vader in the neck and severing his head. When Vader’s head hits the ground in the cave, there is a brief pause, then the helmet’s face explodes and inside is Luke’s own face. In the context of the film Darth Vader was never actually there, it was a manifestation of Luke’s fear, and his deepest fear was that we would become what he most despised: Darth Vader or the personification of his fear, doubt, and anger. That theme plays out throughout the rest of the film.

As I thought more about what happened that day I realized that it in essence it wasn’t the other surfer I was having a confrontation with but my own aggression and fear. I was surfing well and feeling great, then my session took a turn for the worse as I started to surf poorly. This is where my anger began and also my fear. Anger because I was become frustrated with myself as I lost my rhythm with the ocean and the waves. The fear aspect seems to be more on an egotistical level, as I was surfing well and then I was wondering what others were thinking of my surfing as I started to lose my footing so to speak.

Fear was also present because as I age I realize my peak performance doesn’t last as long as it did 15 years ago. After two hours, that’s about it for me these days. I can keep surfing but the chances of me becoming fatigued and making mistakes I normally wouldn’t make becomes much greater. So there is fear of losing skill, precision, and stamina as I age.

I also came to the realization that I wasn’t much different from this other surfer. When I was in my mid twenties I was very aggressive in the water and cocky. To this day, I can become aggressive and greedy for waves. It was what I brought with me into the water that I was facing, my own fear, aggression, and anger. So what I was looking at was not his possible shortcomings or misconduct in the water, but my own. Behind his face was my own looking right back at me and I felt foolish. I was wrestling with my own lower, darker self.

"Remember, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they." -Yoda

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they.” -Yoda. Surfer/Author: Shawn Zappo

We all have a choice in how we approach surfing and the energy we bring to the line up. I’ve always been someone who has talked very little in the water, even to close friends. I tend to keep my center of attention on the horizon line and where the waves are. Although this tends to be meditative, many times it can also lead to selfishness in my surfing as if no one else is present but myself. Surfing by its nature is communal and is better enjoyed when shared with others.

I made a mistake that day and truly felt bad about it, but I soon forgave myself for my less than virtuous actions. Surfing is both playful and fun. It also takes intense practice and skill. Personally, I also find wave riding to be a self-cleansing ritual and spiritual practice when approached in the proper state of mind. Surfing is not all about performance as the industry would lead many of us to believe, in fact I tend to think it’s more about method, style, and intention. With that said there are many lessons to be learned over a lifetime of surfing, and after that day it was apparent I have a ways to go on the path.

Therefore, I will just keep surfing, knowing there is still much to be learned and take the lessons as they come.

All photos: Christor Lukasiewicz (Photos from actual session)

For more on Surfing and the Philosophy of Star Wars check out: Surfing Like a Jedi: The Tao of Yoda Among the Waves

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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