Jan. 5, 2021

Together, We Are One: Aaron James On Ocean Philosophy And The Meaning In Surfing

Together, We Are One: Aaron James On Ocean Philosophy And The Meaning In Surfing

In this episode, I speak with Aaron James, a philosophy professor who's also an avid surfer.

As a lifelong Buddhist myself and an avid scuba diver with a profound connection to the ocean, I was interested in exploring what deeper meanings a philosopher might find simply by being in the ocean. What I found was not only was Aaron thoughtful and open, and very smart, he was also a lot of fun to talk to.

And he shared his story of why he connects to the ocean, what it meant to be a surfer, and how one single wave in his life encapsulated the entirety of his experience.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

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Transcript

Jason Elias:

Hi, and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean. People for whom that connection is so strong, it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection.

Jason Elias:

In this episode, we speak with philosopher and surfer, Aaron James, who literally wrote the book on what it means to get in the water. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias:

In this episode, I speak with Aaron James, a philosophy professor, who's also an avid surfer. As a lifelong Buddhist myself, and an avid scuba diver with a profound connection to the ocean, I was interested to explore what deeper meanings a philosopher might find simply by being in the ocean. And what I found was not only was Aaron thoughtful, and open, and very smart, he was also a lot of fun to talk to.

Jason Elias:

And he shared his story of why he connects to the ocean, what it meant to be a surfer, and how one single wave in his life encapsulated the entirety of his experience.

Aaron James:

I'm Aaron, James, I'm a philosophy professor and a lifelong surfer. And I mix those two things by being a professor at the University of California, Irvine, which is relatively close to one of my favorite surf spots in the world, Lower Trestles. And I finally wrote a book about what the two might have to do with each other. And that book is called Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning.

Jason Elias:

I read your book. Where does your connection to the ocean come from? And what does getting into the water really mean to you?

Aaron James:

I mean, I grew up as a surfer. And I might've originally got into it because my dad grew up in Hawaii and he was a surfer when he was a kid. He was supportive of me doing it, so I took to it. And just loved it immediately. Then, through my teens, became like just completely absorbed in surfing. And that was just wonderful because I had a sense that the whole meaning of life was possible on a daily basis, just by getting out on the water. Or going surfing, just riding waves, especially when the waves were really good. This is the whole point of being alive. [inaudible 00:02:35]. And what else is there? So, kind of discovered that sense of intrinsic joy in being, because of being connected to the water and the waves very early on. And that had a very palpable influence then, on the rest of my life.

Aaron James:

The rest of my life was then about how do you just keep doing this? How do you protect this beautiful thing you found, the sense of what makes life wonderful?

Jason Elias:

Being a philosopher, of course, these kinds of questions, what's the meaning of life is what you based your entire career on. And giant philosophical treaties are written about this. But what was it when you say, "As a kid, I discovered this might be the meaning of life?" What did that mean to you then?

Aaron James:

What I can really remember vividly was the things I now associate with a sense of the sublimity of the waves, and the ocean, and the beauty of surfing. So, when I'm not surfing these constant visual images of the green face of the wall, streaking down the line of the wave, thinking about the rhythm of the swells, and hollow tubing waves, and the cracking curl, and running along and dreaming about riding inside the tube of the wave was one of the more exhilarating things to do.

Aaron James:

And then, of course, the challenge of skillfully trying to navigate the waves and water, and learn all the ocean skills you have to master in order to just be able to get going on a wave and get going down the line and learn how to do maneuvers. How I really felt was there just wasn't anything more worth doing. There wasn't any other reason to be alive. I'd go to sleep just anxiously dreaming here are the forecasts, which you'd then get over the phone. Just the excitement of every night going to sleep as a kid, and then waking up and getting out there and then finding a surf spot. I mean, just complete absorption. And this thing is just the most important thing you can do in life.

Jason Elias:

I think you articulated what a lot of people in this podcast have talked about. One of the things that you said that really resonates with me is the idea of this deeper resonance with the environment that infuses every moment that you're not in that environment, like a deeper connection that maintains beyond you actually being in the water. And that, even as a kid, maybe you weren't contemplating it that deeply. You were just feeling that felt sense of wanting to get back in the water.

Aaron James:

Yeah, that's what you're calling resonance is really close to the way I ended up describing it in the book. And I thought what really surfing is about is you get going, and you get picked up by the waves, you're carried along. And then, you can harness that force where the first turn, and then you glide off the bottom of the wave and up onto the face, maybe do a turn, but then you accelerate out. And as you link these different moments of the wave, as you sort of feel it as it comes, it feels like a kind of freedom.

Aaron James:

And what's wonderful about it, and surfers experience this almost after every good wave, is that you immediately feel stoked because you're aware that this fortunate coalescence between skill and circumstance is happening. The wave gets over and then surfers, they just hoot. Just hoots of joy. It doesn't even have to be the most dramatic, big, beautiful wave. It can just be wave where everything comes together. And then, there's a surfer inside in the whitewash. No one's around, and they're just hooting for joy in this kind of joy of being alive, because there's a recognition of their profound sense of fortune for being caught up in this coalescence. That's stoke. I mean, that's what I felt all the time as a kid, stoke.

Aaron James:

So, the result is not just fundamental in the sense of fortune and being alive. It's also a sense of connection to the ocean, to this vast expanse, and the waves that came from thousands of miles away, which emerged just so on the reef bottom that you're surfing. That kind of joy in being alive rather than not is fundamentally different, I think than just the pleasure of eating a cheeseburger. The cheeseburger enjoyment doesn't attune you to larger things, to nature in a very direct way, or even other people. But then the act of surfing, even on just a good fun wave, it just does. And that right there, it's just a whole reason for existence. A really good and sufficient reason just to be alive, to stay alive a little bit longer, even if you'll die relatively soon, that's all good. It's like the whole reason for being alive is already here and now, and complete.

Jason Elias:

And the reasons I really wanted to talk to you is because I've thought a lot about this in scuba diving. I was like, why does scuba diving really engage me in this way? For me, getting in the water fulfills so many aspects of getting present. So, getting present from a Buddhist perspective, you breathe and you meditate, and you kind of like drop all these spots around you. And all the concepts that you hold fall away and allows the world to arise as it is.

Jason Elias:

And one of the things that scuba diving does for me, and I would posit even from a larger perspective, getting in the ocean does, is it forces you to engage in a fuller body way. There's a giant environment that is touching all parts of your body. You're forced to move within what the water is bringing to you. And what it does is it engages you in a much more direct way. And I'm curious what your thoughts are on that?

Aaron James:

Yeah. Right, that's really great. The psychologists, when they talk about the zone or being in the flow state like the way athletes do, or artists, or creatives, the idea is in surfing, or it sounds like in diving, you're physically and [em-bodily 00:08:01] engaged in a dynamic relationship with the real world beyond you. So, it's that real relationship. That's what I want to call being in the flow.

Aaron James:

And what's beautiful about it and good about being in the flow, or being attuned to something beyond yourself isn't just the good state of mind that you get. It has a real kind of self-transcendence through this relationship.

Aaron James:

So, Freud on religion, he thinks that has a tie to what he calls oceanic feeling. So, there's this connection between the ocean and religion. And Freud actually nicely describes that it has to do with a sense of oneness with the world. Or, in particular, a sense of belonging in it. That the world is a place that you can't fall out of. You're riding waves and you're connecting to the ocean, and these swells I'm surfing, they didn't just come from thousands of miles away. If I'm in California, they came from below New Zealand. They come from the superstorm that rotates around the bottom of the planet that also spits up swells from below Africa, around the bottom of the cape, and then up into the Indian Ocean. And then, up in Indonesia, in Western Australia.

Aaron James:

All the waves we're going to surf in either South Africa, or Indonesia, or Western Australia, or Fiji, or Tahiti over in the Pacific side, all of these waves in all these incredible surf spots that surfers spend day in and day out, we're watching them make photos and videos of all these spots, and not to mention planning to go there. They're all tied to this superstorm that's rotating around the planet a lot of the year.

Aaron James:

When you have a really strong connection with the world as a set of oceans, not just trying to catch this wave, but on the moment you set up, maybe your foot's tangled around some kelp, but then you're looking up at the sky, and then you see the waves pour in. And then, just this sense of connection with the world that you're a part of the world, you belong to the world, your home in it.

Jason Elias:

Could you talk me through one experience in the water that really resonated with you some way? And what was it about that experience that really stuck with you emotionally?

Aaron James:

One really jumps out at me as an early experience in Indonesia before I started going every year for long periods of time.

Aaron James:

So, I was still in graduate school and I went to this spot in Java, Indonesia called Grajagan Bay, G-land. And I was spending a couple weeks there. It's on the edge of this jungle, there's some surf camps there. Now, you can kind of take a boat right there, but you'd do this long, overnight trip just to get there. There used to be tigers there, there's humongous spiders, it has malaria. The reef is really dangerous. It's pretty shallow reef, so you're going to hit the reef a lot. And you're pretty far away from medical care.

Aaron James:

While I was there out in the water, a guy, you hear him start yelling. And he'd hit the reef and broke his neck, and he was paralyzed immediately. So, his friends went and got them and put him on a surfboard. And then, a helicopter had to come and fly him in. Landed, but then couldn't leave, so he was strapped to the surfboard all night.

Aaron James:

So, this is all setting the stage about the context for this place, for G-land, as they call it. The waves get really big. And so, they're big and really hollow, just cracking on shallow reef, especially at lower tide. You walk out this long reef to get out there, and you push through the really heavy breakers, timing between the sets. And the waves just peel in these beautiful big open tubes, but they're not so perfect as to be completely reliable. There's a lot of technical ability to be able to pull in these big tubes, and then navigate through these things.

Aaron James:

So, at this time in my surfing life, I'd been surf traveling for 10 years. I was, by that time, a good surfer. I was pretty happy with my level of surfing. Except there was one big flaw in my surfing, which was riding inside the tube on our backhand. When you stand up on the wave, your back is facing the wave instead of your front. And it's technically more difficult to ride inside the tube of the wave on your backhand.

Aaron James:

So, I saw it as this life goal to ride these technically difficult and very dangerous, big, big tubing waves at G-land on my backhand. So, I'm surfing a lot, I'm surfing like eight hours a day. I'm starting to get some of these good tubes. Getting drained, as we call it, of these really good tubes. I'm on my backhand, and it's difficult to make adjustments or turns to try to avoid getting knocked off when you're inside there, so you can keep watching the opening, trying to come out.

Aaron James:

And then it was one wave where I was just getting these big, long tubes on my backhand, and I was making the right adjustments inside the tube, and then just coming out. And I came from really deep behind these couple of sections. And then, I just came flying out of the tube, and I was just totally ecstatic. I mean, just one of the best tube rides I've ever had in my life. And coming out of it, it wasn't just the usual joy of getting a big tube and being released. It was a sense that my life was complete. Not just in the moment, like it's worth being alive for this. But everything I'd done up to this point in life, I'd succeeded in doing already.

Jason Elias:

Finally, we end interview and every episode with a single open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to, what does the ocean mean to you?

Aaron James:

To put it sort of crudely, I think it's about life. There's both the biological idea that it's the origin of life. But then, the idea of to really live and live well, to me anyways, it's all about being in, and on, and around, and oriented by the ocean. I think it's just sort of my basic orientation to life in the world. And I sort of always know where I am relative to the closest ocean. So, in some sense, it's just the most basic orienting fact of my life.

Jason Elias:

Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias:

Next time on Big Deep.

Dr Mikki McComb-Kobza:

When I go diving and I see a shark in the wild, and I'm able to share space with it, it's profound. Had great white sharks swim right next to me. And you feel insignificant. It's hard to describe.

Jason Elias:

We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep as we explore an ocean of stories.

Jason Elias:

If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference.

Jason Elias:

For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to let us know at our Big Deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans.

Jason Elias:

Thanks again for joining us.