Burn Yourself Completely
by Gregory Shewchuk
Illustration by Joseph Remnant
“Advanced Standing” column originally published in Arthur No. 31 (Oct 2008)
The other day in Echo Park I came across a familiar scene: a cop standing over a group of adolescents while his partner ran their background checks. These kids — I’m guessing they were 12 or 13 years old — had climbed a fence into a schoolyard, presumably to ride their skateboards. Now the boards were scattered at their feet and they were face down on the pavement, most likely wondering what the fuck is wrong with this world.
I could relate to the little monsters because, sadly, even as a grown man I find myself hopping fences and skating spots at risk of being caught by actual gun-toting policemen. There’s not many places to skate in a congested city (oh wait, they just had the X-Games downtown, maybe those millions in revenue will trickle their way towards another tiny, over-regulated, overcrowded skatepark in a distant corner of LA) and a schoolyard is a decent place to cruise around in the open air to practice my craft, without worrying about getting hit by a car or endangering pedestrians and business-goers.
So hop and hustle I do, like I have since I was 13, to skate in relative peace until the cavalry rolls through. It’s embarrassing and laughable and scary. And as a taxpaying citizen, concerned as we all are about the state of our union, the conditions of our schools, gang violence, and so on, I can’t help but stagger at this irony that has been perpetuated in every American city for the past 30 years: kids are racking up criminal records, fines, and sentences for BREAKING INTO SCHOOLS TO PURSUE PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Aren’t our children fat and sad enough yet? Are physical challenge and creativity really that threatening to our society?
To understand what makes skateboarding so compelling, so fascinating to the maniacal hoodlums that dwell in every neighborhood from the ghettoes to the hills, you must look beneath the surface and recognize the internal processes at work. Kids are not risking their teeth, wrists, testicles and spinal cords jumping down staircases into traffic because they think it will make their friends like them more. They don’t do it because it’s anti-establishment or high-fashion or some kind of career path towards being a video game soda guy with a TV show. There are better ways of social climbing that don’t involve rolling around in gutters bleeding from the palms as calls of “faggot!” come from passing cars. Skateboarding is hotter than hell and the source of so much expression and inspiration and mind-blowing progression because it consumes the participant in the fire of self-transformation. Kids — humans in general — need to grow, and we do it by sparking the creative energy that resides in our bones. Skateboarding, the unencumbered progressive form, is a vital opportunity to learn.
Generally speaking there are four ways to learn: rote (practice, practice, practice), informal (learning from life experience), formal (teachers, schools, educational systems), and non-formal (organized learning that takes place outside of formal learning systems). It is worth noting that play is categorized as an informal learning technique, regarded as advanced behavior seen only in developed vertebrates with the security for leisure time: big cats, orcas, human beings, etc. For the sake of this argument, we’ll use a Wikipedia definition of play: “behavior which has no particular end in itself, but improves performance in similar situations in the future.”
Skateboarding is largely non-formal learning (bro sessions) with healthy amounts of solitary practice, but at the core most people would consider skateboarding a form of play. Arguably having no particular end in itself—outside of occasional transportation—the question may be asked of skateboarding: what future situations might be affected by improved performance? For unlike tigers and orcas—for whom aggressive, dangerous play might be said to improve hunting or defense skills or other mundane life-sustaining abilities — humans play for potentially transcendent experiences. Learning on a skateboard isn’t just about where to put your feet and how to move your body, but about adjusting and elevating certain mental and emotional behaviors and perceptions. As the basic physical skills are learned, an extremely high level of internal growth can also take place. A skateboard is simultaneously an instrument, a language, and a philosophy, all to be mastered with individual style. Sidewalk surfing is a deep form. It’s fun, seriously.
What transcendent things might you learn on a skateboard? How could this knowledge be applied? Contemplate the following: a skateboarder develops advanced fear management by confronting physical dangers and repeatedly conquering the self-preservation mechanisms of the ego. Skating sharpens physical problem-solving skills: discovering different ways to perceive and navigate obscure geometric spaces, finding efficient lines and opportunities where a lesser adept might see nothing at all. Skateboarders understand gravity and radial acceleration perhaps better than anyone alive. Skateboarders develop balance and awareness. Skateboarding fosters skills of focus, perseverance, independence, patience, visualization, actualization, and commitment. It also worth noting that skating well can improve the ability to shine—that is, to perform unexpected and unprecedented maneuvers, cast in a certain light of style, for others to behold. Skateboarders learn to evolve, and learn to communicate those insights so that others are inspired to evolve as well.
As a successful non-formal learning community, skaters tend to eschew imposed regulations and teaching techniques. Skateboarding is constant independent study, so there is no need for school. How you choose to interact and study and learn the art of skateboarding is up to the individual skater alone. But for the sake of Advanced Standing, where we consider the mind-body continuum as experienced through skateboarding, I would like to address a radical spiritual teaching, a formal learning technique, that might be applicable to the material process of sidewalk surfing: the Buddhist concept of Shoshin—Beginner’s Mind.
If you want a proper introduction to the oft-bandied and greatly misunderstood philosophy of Zen Buddhism, I suggest The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. Let me be very clear about one thing: Buddhism is an ancient religion with a lineage of master teachers who have dedicated their lives to following the Way. It’s not misty platitudes for well-gardened clever types. Like all great religions it’s some real shit and one of the reasons Zen has resonated so strongly with the martial arts in Asia is because it deals directly with life and death, cultivating unwavering attention in every instant. For this reason it is also very appropriate for skateboarding. Consider the following words of Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
“… the secret is just to say ‘Yes!’ and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.
“When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”
Most skaters probably have some experience with this freedom—getting so deep into the moment that you are happily lost and everything is possible. It often happens when you learn a new trick, skate a new spot, or skate with someone who pushes you a little further than you think you can go. It’s the thrill of progression, the majesty of participating in an evolving art.
The open-endedness of material skateboarding resonates with spiritual open-mindedness, allowing a flow of unlimited possibility. Are you in? Can you stay open-minded and consciously and compassionately (to yourself, as well as others) practice this technique of no-technique? This is to start learning about something very profound, very deep, very real. This is mind-body technique, a way to learn balance and wisdom.
Plenty of people read and chat about Zen and the Tao (and every other religious/spiritual/scientific philosophy), but how many people live them in motion? How many people put it on the line? Take the opportunity and do this. Go skating, and see if you can engage in an experience without any preconceived ideas. Let go of judgments and attachments. Anticipate nothing. Don’t think about yourself and who you are and how you skate. Be a completely open-minded beginner, drinking in the flow of time. Don’t assign names or values to anything. Don’t trip. Surprise yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to do a switch-hardflip down a 12-stair; it doesn’t have to be a trick, it just has to be fresh.
Learn something new each session. Learn something new with each movement. In that way, you will be reborn with each moment, leaving no trace of your old self.
Students of reality: skate and destroy.
Epilogue: I returned to that schoolyard in Echo Park to try and take a picture of the young skaters getting busted, but they were back on the sidewalk by then. The cops were holding only one of them; he must’ve had a warrant or prior of some sort … maybe writing graffiti or something else equally insidious. I hope those kids learned something from this experience.