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The Zen of Surfing

Surfers find scientific and spiritual benefits in the waters of Marin.



Illustration by James O'Brien

"Where does the wave come from and where will it go?” a student asked Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “The wave comes from water and will return to water. The wave is always water. Coming and going are just mental constructions. Birth and death, coming and going are just concepts,” he answered. Zen wisdom attempts to dissolve ideas and beliefs in the human mind that keep us mortal beings preoccupied; in Zen the wave never ends, it just transforms.

Could that be why we feel so drawn to the ocean? The fact is that our planet is two-thirds salt water, and so is the human brain. Could we physiologically reset our brain to the harmony of the ocean’s vibration just by dipping our head in the sea?

Marin’s big wave surfing champion Bianca Valenti believes that what draws us to the ocean is “the comforting feeling of salt water, which is the first element we experience and associate with love while in the womb.”

To further explore the science of our emotional connection to the sea, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols conducted an experiment in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. First he stood on a pier, attached electrodes to his scalp and recorded his brain waves; then he plunged into the ocean to measure his brain’s response. The brain imaging technology provided new evidence that Nichols deciphers in his best-seller Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. “Once you get into it, you realize that it is chemistry, it is biology, it is physiology. It’s deeply personal but it’s also strong science,” he says.

Nichols’ findings are exemplified by the Patagonia clothing company founder, Yvon Chouinard, author of Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, who has said, “If the surf is up here, everybody leaves and goes surfing!” Chouinard attests that the best mental states create the best products.

Mill Valley’s Louis Patler introduced these concepts to the business world in his best-seller Make Your Own Waves: The Sur fer ’s Rules for Innovators and Entrepreneurs. Focusing on big wave surfers, he describes 10 sport-inspired rules to help entrepreneurs succeed. Rule No. 2 says to get wet — you can’t succeed if you stick to the shore. “Even the best surfers fall,” he says, “but they learn from their wipeouts and paddle back out to once again push the edge, knowing that with big waves come big opportunities.”

Will Hutchinson, co-owner of Marin’s popular surf and skate shop Proof Lab, doesn’t think it’s just one thing that makes surfing so addicting and rewarding for so many. “A huge range of emotions and experiences can be tapped into one way or another through surfing,” he says. “Adventure and travel to exotic locales, a deep sense of home at your local spot, pure joy and inspiration or frustration, failure and scared-for-your-life fear, being alone, getting away from it all, bonding tight with others, relaxing and cruising or charging and pushing yourself to the next level. And through it all you’re always interacting with nature in a somehow spiritual and otherworldly way, riding these pulses of energy that travel thousands of miles just to break for you once and then be gone forever.”

Hutchinson attributes Proof Lab’s success to a combination of good fortune and hard work. “One of the luckiest things about the shop is that we are in a community that values the type of products and services we are offering,” he says, “and we can also find great staff who will run the shops and treat the customers the way we would. I don’t think we could build this sort of a shop just anywhere, because some of the things we do just wouldn’t work.” Proof Lab doesn’t spend money on traditional marketing and advertising. “It’s all spent on events, partnerships with local schools or nonprofits, building skate parks or doing surf contests,” he says. “Around here people appreciate things like that to a degree that I don’t know if they would in every community.”

San Rafael’s 101 Surf Sports is also thriving in Marin. “Our success is rooted in our focus on building a community first, and a business second,” says co-owner David Wells. “Success for us it is about positive experiences and strong relationships that create a new lifestyle for people to embrace. Considering the lightweight boards and minimal extra gear required with stand-up paddling, it’s truly something anyone can do by themselves or with friends. Another major reward is that the physical and mental effort of balancing on the board has been proven to stave off diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. When you wrap up these health benefits in an inclusive and warm community of amazing people you can see why the sport is growing so fast.”

The sport becomes especially Zenlike, fans say, in a community where people love the water so much. “It is spectacularly beautiful here, from the ocean to the trails of Mount Tamalpais,” Valenti notes. “You do need to have a certain toughness or grit,” she adds, “if you want to enjoy the raw and rugged Northern California coast.”

She should know: the deceptively petite co-founder of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing and the only female pro surfer in the Bay Area is also one of the few women who surf the monumental and deadly waves at Mavericks. “Riding big waves inspires me to be the best I can be in everything I do,” Valenti says, “because in big waves you have to be your best or you will die!”

That goes for even the most dangerous moments, she adds, like getting barreled in a monster wave. “Time stands still. You become truly present, transcending time, and that is meditation and enlightenment.” Like Zen itself, the feeling of diving into the ocean is something that can only be experienced; it can’t be explained.

Photos by (from top): Jack Wolford, Sean Cope, Bianca Valenti

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