Interview: Dr. Timothy Leary "The Evolutionary Surfer"
Article Originally Published in SURFER, January 1978
Surfer Magazine: Could you begin by explaining your concept of the evolutionary surfer?
Timothy Leary: Well, we're all attempting to find words and metaphors for processes that are ... hard to describe in words. Surfing has always had that problem, as you've already suggested. One of the best ways of describing what we're doing . . . is to define our roles as "evolutionary surfers." Everything is made of waves. At the level of electrons and neutrons ... it's part of a wave theory. Historical waves -- cultural waves. The more you think about the evolutionary process, the more you see the fundamental structure of nature itself. It's the quantum theory . . . dealing with quantum leaps and quantum waves . . . things come packaged in sequential, cyclical, moving, ever-changing forms.
S: That's interesting, because as a surfer for 20 years, you begin to try and intellectualize about this thing that you do...
L: Yes... yes.
S: And one of the lessons that you learn, one of the great rewards to be had from surfing itself is that you begin to develop a sense of awareness of waves, and not just ocean waves.
L: Right (nodding and grinning).
S: And you become a weatherman. . .
S: . . . so one of the great joys in surfing becomes the perception of the wave theory that you mention. Of energy waves, and life spans ... for instance, a go-out is comprised of rides, each one a completed cycle with a takeoff, a ride, and an ending. So to me, surfing is such a unique thing that it might be the most appropriate metaphor that one could choose to reflect upon the totality of waves. You also believe that surfers may have some special sensitivity to broader things than just surfing?
L: Well, sure for one thing the surfer is dealing with the most basic elements of all. There's almost no technology, and there's no symbolism. It's just the individual dealing with the power of the ocean, which gets into the power of lunar pulls, and of tidal ebbs and flows; and it's no accident that many, perhaps most, surfers have become almost mystics, or ... I hate to use the word, spiritual. I prefer the word neurological excursion. But they've somehow been able to get in touch with the infinity, and into the turbulence of the power of their own brain, and then they begin ... see you can talk about surfing brain waves as you would about surfing external waves. There's a purity about surfing. There's a great sense of timing. Of course, if you study how evolution works and how the DNA code builds bodies and builds species, timing is of absolute importance. Being in the right place at the right time -- It happens that whatever you do, you can't create a wave, you know; it comes and there's a time to move and a time to lay back. It's almost Taoist poetry. Almost Einsteinian.
S: Surfers are discovering that surfing is pretty much a head game in a fluid medium.
L: Yes ... a merging of your own body neuromusculature, or brain body, with the power/energy/rhythm of nature. That's what's so jewel-like precise about mind/ body/sea energy interfacing together. One thing I like about surfing is that it is all out. You can't be half-hearted, or you can't be thinking about something else. You've got to give up all the land, social, cultural, moral, political whatevers ... you've got to be totally there. And I think ... well, that's my approach to life. I'm only interested in people who are willing to go and do it. Now you can't go all out all the time. You have to realize that this is a button that goes off. And I'm not talking about, you know, speed freaks that are running around just sputtering, fireworks ... you can't be all out all the time, but there's a gear that when the time comes, whether it's in a relationship with another person, or whether it's committing yourself to something you believe in ... or whether it's catching that wave that comes when you just (snaps his fingers) ... there's a certain amount of risk in it because we're dealing with one of the most basic, ancient fears of all ... the fear of the sea, and of the power of the ocean.
S: One of the great lessons that you learn in the ocean is that while you are totally insignificant to the total mass, that you can survive in it by being part of it. Surfing gives you very elemental illustrations of broader truths by serving as a microcosm that we can grasp.
L: I've been doing a lot of lecturing, and I've picked out as my symbol, surf; and I want to have film of a surfer right at that point moving along constantly right at the edge of the tube. That position is the metaphor of life to me, the highly conscious life. That you think of the tube as being the past, and I'm an evolutionary agent, and what I try to do is to be at that point where you're going into the future, but you have to keep in touch with the past ... there's where you get the power; ... and sure you're most helpless, but you also have most precise control at that moment. And using the past ... the past is pushing you forward, isn't it? The wave is crashing behind you, yeah? And you can't be slow about it or you ... (Leary illustrates the lip picking you off.)
S: Yeah, you have to hold your trim. You know, surfing is like a mirror, You can see yourself in the act of riding a wave. And your personality or style shows in the way you ride it, whether you're a defensive person, or offensive, or awkward. or graceful, And you begin to look at the function of how you use your mind/body as you surf. Form and style become very important to surfing, as surfing becomes an art form or a dance. And you begin to fathom that a beautiful aesthetic style is a purely functional style without excess or non-functional movement. And you can actually improve your degree of self perception through surfing. It's also interesting to note that surfing is nonproductive...
S:...nondepletive, almost a nonentity. Your wake disappears from the ride, the wave dissipates on the beach. The surfer leaves at the end of the day, and there's no trace. And yet you get hooked on doing this thing. And the child finds it so hard to describe to the parent why surfing, this nonproductive, asocial act is so important to he or she. So in a sense, a discussion like this can become meaningful to a surfer, because it validates this secret thrill, this indescribable thing that he's been experiencing all these years. For a theoretical philosopher to relate to surfing, and to relate surfing to existence begins to help explain to the surfer what the indescribable reward really is that he gets from doing it.
L: Right, but what the evolutionary meaning of it is ... you see, I think surfers are truly advanced people. That on any planet like ours, when you get a culture that gets into surfing ... it's a sign of maturity on the part of that species. Surfing as we know it now is a very new sport, isn't it?
S: Yes it is,
L: And although it's almost non-technological, I mean it's just a board and the waves, still it can only come from a technological culture in which is given a lot of power to the individual. You see, slaves can't surf, or wave slaves can't surf...
S: Even in ancient Hawaiian, only the Alii...
L: Right! Exactly ... you have to be self-defined elite, not in any aristocratic sense, but in being a free person that can take the time off to actualize yourself this way. And only a very proud, independent, affluent, successful species can do that,
S: Leisure time, not having to live a hand-to-mouth existence...
L: Right, and healthy; you can't be worrying about the black plague or starvation. So it is a sign of a very advanced species. These are the future people being thrown forward by our species, and I think it's also predictive of the next step in human evolution which is to leave the planet, where we'd be surfing solar waves...
S: Fine ... put me in the curl (laughing).
L: Yeah, right! Right. So essentially, you could almost say surfers are mutants, throw-aheads of the human race.
S: But it becomes evident that humanity is still in a relatively primitive stage.
L: But to the extent that you understand that then you've got it beat. If you understand how primitive you are, and have some understanding of how things are going to evolve, you're part of that. You're the Neanderthal that can look ahead into the future and help create it.
S: You think it's necessary to create the future? L: Absolutely, that's what being an evolutionary surfer is all about. S: In other words, you can't be passive about it by saying, "this is what will come to pass?"
L: No. The danger of the vulgar surfer philosophy is that, "Oh man, nothing is important; just kick back, wait for the wave, just hang out." That's beautiful, and it's a step forward, but in a sense it's a dilettante situation. The next step is to create the future, to take responsibility for it. That's what you're doing! You have taken the passive aspect of surfing, and you have made it into a cultural transmission form that's creating the reality of 100, or 200, or 500,000 people that are being turned on to this reality. It's your reality. You're posing your reality onto a million readers. And I totally endorse what you're doing, because I think that the people who read your magazine are going to be better for it. It's helping them actualize themselves and their bodies and their minds. Surfers tend to be nonviolent people. They tend to be rather poetic, fun-loving, good people.
S: That's basically right. Well, people accuse surfers of being children ... and we are. Like Doctor Paskowitz (who we earlier met) is a child ... in his 50s, who sees surfing as containing a great wisdom, although he doesn't define it in quite the same way as you do ... but there's still a commonality ... to a certain extent. There's a great deal of commonality in surfers around the world.
L: Ah! That's a very important point. You actualize yourself, and then you find fellows, women or men, who share your freedom, and you link up with them. I suspect that the average surfer would be bored stiff by the totally landlocked person.
S: Another thing, when you talk about the next step being the exploration of space ... the most popular type of article we can run in our magazine is travel/exploration for new surf.
L: Sure, sure... (laughing)
S: Unridden waves, right? L: Right! S: . . . and right now, I'd say only 10 to 20 percent of the potential surf breaks have been discovered and ridden.
L: Is that right? See, that's beautiful, isn't it! S: So there's much yet to be discovered here, yet what happens where the waves are all discovered here?
L: O.K. I can give you the answer to that question. And I urge you to contact people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. George can give you the names. The next thing after sea surfing will be solar wave surfing, solar sailing. Now this may sound like acid hallucination, but the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the most respected scientific institutions we have in the country, with enormous government grants and aerospace investments. It has as one of its largest projects now, working out the hardware aspects of solar sailing. The action out there ... since there's no gravity or resistance, we're going to just float along on solar winds. George would you explain further?
G:* Well, coming out from the sun, there are great waves of energy, which if you erect super-thin sheets of phase vapor deposited nylon mesh that's about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, you can catch and harness these waves of solar energy.
S: I can relate to that. There are quite a few surfers who have evolved from surfboarding to sailing. They're all aspects of what we call nature's free rides.
S: It's the use of gravity, the use of natural forces for playing with motion and coinciding with those natural forces. Like Woody Brown, a classic surfer, had a great deal to do with adapting Polynesian designs into new, more efficient concepts for multihull sailing. Surfers also make great helmsmen because they can sense a boat into trim with the least rudder resistance.
L: Catching the tension point, right?
S: Yes, there's an energy line, or trim line, on a wave where the rising force of the water rushing up the face of the wave and the downward force of gravity on the board counter each other and squirt the board out down the line like a bar of wet soap. This line runs just under the lip, and if you blow it, you either get pitched over the falls, or lose your edge and fall down the face.
L: I'm so glad you used the word gravity, because gravity is the key. We have to master gravity.
S: Well, gravity is like a biologically limiting discipline that's been imposed on our universe. Gravity is the fall of Genesis ... literally; that's the original sin, gravity ... (laughing) it sucks! So surfing is a way of playing with it, suspending the drag of gravity. Giving us that freedom which is basically post-terrestrial freedom.
L: Yes! When we are no longer slaves of gravity. Gravity will be an option. There will be multiple gravity. Another thing that's going to happen ... I don't know if you've read any articles yet on the space cylinders of O'Neill, but right now on the drawing boards of N.A.S.A., and so forth, there are permanent space colonies in which there will be multiple gravities. There will be a spin imparted to these worlds (which will be as long as 30 miles). A thousand people will live in them with four acres each, so I'm not talking about urban slum. Now on these mini-worlds, on the surface is one "G," but if you climb a mountain, each step you go up, you're getting closer to the center of the cylinder, so the "G" force lowers, so you get to the top of the hill ... and you body fly! Then when you body fly, as you soar down, it's tricky because you're increasing gravity. So that we'll be literally body surfing in multiple gravity within ten or twenty years. Now this has already been done to a certain extent in current space exploration. Now what this lessened gravity environment will do to our body control and grace and precision...
S: It may turn us all into stylists...
L: Yes, absolutely. The key to post-terrestrial living is going to be grace and aesthetics, because we don't have the problems of ... you see, down here, for example architecture, the city is built for protection/fortification. It's built on a hill, or it's built for commerce down by the river, or it's built near the oil mines ... but up there, there's no more constraints on linearity, of four walls; a building can be any shape at all . . . but it's tied to surfing because it means that we'll be freed from gravity, and we can be totally into style and grace. And it may seem strange to be talking to surfers about post-terrestrial living, because surfing is water, and we're talking about air or a vacuum. But it's perfectly logical to me that surfing is the spiritual aesthetic style of the liberated self. And that's the model for the future. And now coming back to my original statement; the reason that I define myself as an evolutionary surfer is because surfers have taught me the way you relate to the basic energies, and develop your individual sense of freedom, self-definition, style, beauty, control. . .
S: . . . and that's surfing.
L: (Laughing) Yeah! Yeah!
S: Speaking about post-terrestrial society is interesting in that mankind seems psychologically, physically and spiritually reliant on being from earth, being land creatures...
L: But surfers aren't . . . surfers are shoreline creatures! They're on the interface!
G:...and you have to understand where we started, too ... that we came from space, that life on this planet was seeded on this planet ... by spores, if you will, from the interstellar dust clouds permeated with amino acid molecules ... so we're simply going home again. It's not a matter of leaving the earth to get away from home. It's going back to the source of the swell.
*George A. Koopman, President, Insgroup, Inc., acting as an informational liaison between members of the scientific community and the general public concerning Dr. Leary's theory.