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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College. Professor Lane received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego, where he was a recipient of a Regents Fellowship. Additionally, he earned an M.A. in the History and Phenomenology of Religion from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Dr. Lane is the author of several books including The Radhasoami Tradition and Exposing Cults (New York: Garland Publishers, 1992 and 1994 respectively) and The Making of a Spiritual Movement (1979, 1983, 1993). He is the founder of the Neural Surfer website and co-founder along with Dr. Stephen Runnebohm, former Dean of Mt. San Antonio College, of the MSAC Philosophy Group. Athletically, Professor Lane won first place in the International Bodysurfing Championships in 2014, 2011, 2004, 2001, 1998, and 1997. Besides winning first place at the World Bodysurfing Contest in Oceanside in 1999, he is an eleven time finalist in the event and has been an avid regular foot surfer for over 40 years, winning his first shortboard contest in Del Mar in 1984.


The Subtlety
of Physical Cues

Exploring the Physics of Being a Psychic Surfer

David Lane

It may well be that what constitutes being psychic has more to do with being observant of subtle physical cues than anything else.

Today I was surfing with my wife Andrea at our local surf spot, Bolsa Chica 21 (so named because of the lifeguard tower number) when I realized what it meant to be a psychic surfer. After I caught a little wave, I was paddling back out into the lineup when I paused for a few seconds looking around at the flat ocean surface. I had a feeling, a rather convincing feeling that a large set was approaching even though I couldn’t see the horizon. I yelled over to Andrea and said “Outside!” and she hesitated and shouted back, “No, there is nothing coming.” But right then as I just getting over a little wave, a large set loomed. Andrea was quite surprised. I didn’t catch the wave as I was too far inside, but Andrea inquired, “How did you know that a wave was coming? You couldn’t see that far.”


Right then I wanted to mark it down to a surfer’s intuition, but I knew better. Rather what happened was that I noticed a very subtle textural change in the water, almost as if something was ever so slightly pulling it outward, like a liquid rug being tugged at. Having surfed for over forty years in my life I have watched the ocean and its moods for long stretches of time. After such prolonged observations, one becomes attuned to the subtle physical cues that the ocean provides. Indeed, all of one’s senses become acclimatized to very specific features that arise under differing weather conditions and patterns.

I say all of this because it got me to think anew about the issue of psychic phenomena. Generally defined, most of us think of someone as psychic if they can get information that cannot be gathered through the five senses. But since almost all scientific studies done on psychic phenomena have tended not to pass rational scrutiny, it may well be that what constitutes being psychic has more to do with being observant of subtle physical cues than anything else. Focus long enough on a very specific activity or space and one will naturally become aware of hitherto unnoticed phenomena. I have long noticed how an expert in any field is the one who can see things that for others remain hidden.

The famous body-boarder/bodysurfer, Mike Stewart, for instance is so adept at riding inside the tube that he has become aware of how one can safely exit a liquid cylinder just by waiting for the pressure zone amidst a cascading explosion of white water. Although Stewart’s theory was designed to help surfers get their boards through impact zone of a large tubular wave, I noticed from my own experience that it works just as well when actually inside a barrel.

Mike Stewart at Pipeline, Hawaii
Mike Stewart at Pipeline, Hawaii

In surfing large hollow waves, one inevitably gets confronted with a true existential dilemma as the tube begins to closeout all around you: do you hold the line knowing that you will not make it, or do you try to pull out by prematurely bailing? For most surfers this either/or moment almost seems to be a page out of Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, where in a Kierkegaardian fashion one will invariably regret either decision.

However, from my own trial and error experiments in riding inside the tube while bodysurfing, I can personally confirm the validity of Mike Stewart’s observations. I noticed that right at the moment when it seemed as if all hope was lost and that I was going to get smacked by the wave, if I stayed calm and kept within the tube itself (not trying to withdraw too early), almost accepting my fait accompli, I found myself effortlessly released from the wave as I got pushed out the back of the wave away from harm’s way. It took years for me to master this very simple technique, primarily because an elemental fear arises right at the moment when the wave looks scariest. Right then, and it took a number of beatings for me to learn this lesson, one has to be exceedingly calm in the belly of the beast. I think it took me three years to get to the place where I realized, almost reflexively, that the only way out was to be fully within. Now it doesn’t always work. Sometimes one’s body position is just slightly off or one unconsciously tries to pull out or the wave behaves in an unpredicted chaotic manner, but most of the time the exit is smooth as silk and always a pleasant surprise.

As Mike Stewart explains in his very useful essay, Low pressures locating, and then using low pressures in the white water:

“They are formed by the way hollow waves break. This is how they work: As a hollow wave rushes towards the beach and the lip throws out, it has a lot of inertia, not only because it is hollow but the entire wave including the lip is moving inward. As the lip lands and impales the wave face it plows down and forward anything it comes in contact with; an occasional fish, a tourist, the unknowing bodyboarder and what's important for this article water. Inside the barrel, as the lip lands, a shockwave is created and directly behind the shockwave, closer to the lip, a trench is formed by the boring lip. On the outside of the tube, the lip plows the water forward and up. As it bounces up and over it creates a pocket of virtually unaffected water. A low pressure zone in the chaos of white-water. As you are paddling out and you watch a hollow wave break directly in front of you, you can watch the lip boring its way through the surface and then exploding upward and outward towards you. The area in front of the landing lip is the low pressure zone. The size of the low pressure pocket is directly related to: 1. Scale, or the size of the wave and 2. How hollow it is. The bigger the wave the bigger the explosion and the bigger the low pressure area. I can recall a bodysurfing session I had at maxed out pipe where one of the biggest, hollowest waves I have ever encountered broke top to bottom about 15 meters in front of me. Like an ostrich I just stuck my head under and waited for the inevitable, not knowing if the low pressure theory applied to 15 foot closeouts. To my pleasant discovery the wave gouged out a deep column of ocean the size of an Olympic swimming pool that was virtually undisturbed and I simply floated to the surface feeling guilty for my lack of punishment. Needless to say it was the biggest low pressure I have ever been in. The hollowness of the wave effects the trajectory of the exploding water and thus how far in front of where the lip lands the low pressure will occupy. The hollower the wave the more water and power the lip has, the further the lip pitches out, and the larger the low pressure. Hollowness also effects how well-defined the low pressure pocket is. Once in really cavernous shore-break surf, I watched a thick lip slam in front of me and I simply sat up on my board like I was waiting for a set. The lip exploded up and over my head creating a giant white water bubble, totally avoiding the impact and still seated on my board, I simply popped up like nothing happened. An easy way to understand how low pressures work is to visualize a bouncing ball. The harder you throw the ball the further it will bounce (the bigger the low pressure). Also the angle you throw the ball effects the area between bounces. Where the ball hits the ground is equivalent to the impact zones, where the ball bounces up are where the low pressure zones lie. And just as a ball bounces more than once so does the lip. It is possible to find, although not as easily, the secondary and third low pressures. Each low pressure becoming less defined and harder to find the further away from the initial impact it is. So now that you know they exist, with some practice, you too can sit on your board in the impact zone with the confidence of not getting annihilated (most of the time).

Interestingly, I think Mike Stewart’s Low Pressure Theory has a number of analogous applications in our own day-to-day lives.There is something more than a mere feel-good New Age analogy with Mike Stewart’s oceanographic understanding of how the most impactful part of a wave can also serve as one’s bodily liberation from liquid annihilation. Deriving a positive from a negative (or reversing a tidal momentum to one’s advantage) has a long precedent, and can be traced back to humankind’s earliest trials and errors in understanding how to survive life’s most brutish situations. Perhaps the most well known example of how a potentially negative force can turn into a positive one or vice versa is the Japanese art of Jujutsu (sometimes spelled Ju-Jitsu or Jujitsu). Utilizing a series of well-defined techniques (ranging from certain holds and throws), Jujutsu is the art of using your opponent’s striking force to your advantage by rearranging that energy against him or her. Stewart’s oceanic low-pressure technique is similar in this regard since it takes what would erstwhile be the most dangerous part of the wave (its exploding lip) and using its impact to one’s benefit.

When I was around 11 or 12 years old, a group of my friends learned how to bodysurf big waves at Newport Beach, California, specifically at a spot called 17th street (now more famously known as “the point”). We had long ridden waves straight to shore in the white water, what we usually termed “straight off, Adolph.” However, during the “summer of love” (1967, ironically), we decided to learn new techniques so we could go sideways and ride the face of the wave like regular stand-up surfers. Yet whenever we tried doing this we invariably went “over the falls” and ended up getting munched in the white water. Finally, the best bodysurfer in our gangly crew, Pat Donahue, had discovered that if you rode the wave just right you get flip out at the bottom of the wave and the downward thrust would push you out of the back into calm water away from the crashing surf. It was so simple but quite brilliant. We became adept at it within days. This allowed us to ride much bigger waves and not get pummeled in the process.

I bring this up because to the uninitiated these navigating tools seem like magic at first. Indeed, a number of my friends who don’t surf seem duly amazed by how one can escape the clutches of a 10-foot wave unscathed. But there is nothing mysterious about it at all. It is merely a matter of physics and knowing how (like the Jujutsu master) to harness opposing energies in a complementary way.

Far too often we employ metaphysical language to describe phenomena that we don’t yet understand empirically.

Far too often we employ metaphysical language to describe phenomena that we don’t yet understand empirically. The more we ground ourselves (quite literally in some cases) within the physics of the world around us the clearer our understanding becomes, and, most tellingly, our way of communicating the same with others.

I think the ocean is a wonderful and instructive metaphor for why it is important not to succumb too early to magic or mythic thinking. I remember a time (before wave forecasting systems became extremely adept at employing the latest findings in oceanography) that many of us didn’t really understand the mechanics of wave production and we, as naïve surfers, would invoke all sorts of silly rituals to appease Neptune to secure an incoming swell. It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that even in the 1960s surfers would sacrifice old surfboards or even old cars, to see if such offerings would actually increase the size of the waves. Of course, most of these actions were made half in jest or half drunk, but nevertheless there was still a lingering belief among a certain set of surfers that invoking mantras and the like could actually have an influence on mother ocean. This isn’t that surprising when one realizes that oceanography was still in its infancy and that the mechanics of predicting wave size and direction was more an art than a science. The tide has dramatically changed on this today and almost all good surfers have some requisite knowledge of oceanography and are prone to check out daily, if not hourly, to get the latest updates about wave conditions and surf forecasting. Simply put, magic wiped out and science has taken over, even to the most mystically inclined of wave riders. Perhaps the oceanic metaphor is a useful tool as well when exploring the frontiers of what remains unknown, particularly when we appreciate anew the vastness of its possibilities.

There is well over 300 million cubic miles of water on our planet, as Wallace J. Nichols, points out in his new book, Blue Mind. Given such a huge volume of H20 there is a fantastic number of possibilities within this saline arena, most of which remains unexplored. To appreciate this incredible vastness keep in mind that in only one cubic mile there is well over 1 trillion gallons of water. 300 million multiplied by 1 trillion is a number that staggers our imagination


Yet, this is statistic is almost nothing when compared to how incredibly big our observable universe is, which is roughly estimated to be at least 90 billion light years in diameter and continually expanding at an accelerating rate. Of course, if this universe is part of an unseen multiverse (containing innumerable astronomical systems) our very notion of numbered measurements may be likened to a young girl trying to count all the grains of sand around the world one by one. But, lest we forget, the greatest progress arises when we understand that vastness and don’t look away from it. This brings to mind that old cliché’ often repeated in Hawaiian surf lore, “never turn your back on the ocean.” Which can also be translated as a warning call not to ignore the physics of the world around us, since the more acutely aware we become of any specific geometric space the greater our understanding and our mastery becomes. Thus a psychic surfer is simply one who pays attention to those hidden variables and forces that remain unseen by others less acquainted to the sea and its varying moods. Surfing, in other words, is physics realized.

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