This is the text of the “Advanced Standing” column for Arthur No. 32 (2008, online-only):
Real Eyes: What Are We Skating Towards?
by Gregory Shewchuk
Illustration by Joseph Remnant
“To know the truth of one’s Self as the sole Reality, and to merge and become one with it, is the only true Realization.” – Ramana Maharshi
One indication that I am not quite an enlightened being is my temper—I can get very angry and lose touch with my higher purpose. As much as I enjoy skateboarding, when things are not going well I occasionally lose my shit: throw my board, punch myself, scream at the heavens, and curse myself for even trying to ride the thing. It’s not always fun and games. In addition to the physical challenge, skateboarding can be highly emotional and often takes me to the edge of some very unpleasant feelings: doubt, frustration, depression, seething anger. Yet I keep coming back to my board, to roll around and delve deeper into the process. After 20 years of sidewalk surfing, I’ve started to understand what I am looking for.
I received my first skateboard—a Sims Kamikaze—in third grade in the rapidly developing suburb of Columbia, Maryland. I was a child with a toy. I played on my skateboard, hung out with friends, rode bikes and built ramps and listened to music and played video games. As I entered middle and high school and became more independent and physically capable, skateboarding became more of a lifestyle.
I didn’t fit into any particular mold. I was artistic, but didn’t take art very seriously. I had an intellectual mind, but didn’t care for school. I was athletic, but distanced myself from the organized sports and the jock/coach/spectator mentality. Skateboarding became a way for me to be outside, having fun, while still being creative and independent and curious. I did not like being told what to do and on a skateboard, people kept their distance. Meanwhile I had fun and got exercise and traveled up and down the coast with friends, chasing adventure.
When I left for school in California, skateboarding continued to help me find an identity and establish my priorities. It informed my art, my writing, my taste in music. It helped me meet new friends and get around and stay inspired. I dropped out of school after a year, and then had a horrible car accident. I fractured my skull, had holes drilled in my head, and as a result I had my first spiritual experience. In a hyper-conscious and blissful state, I saw the promised land. I would never be quite the same afterwards.
Eventually I healed and got back into skating. My best friends were skaters, and together we entered the real world and got into business. I chose not to go into the skateboard industry, feeling that I had a more individual path to pursue. I ended up starting an internet company with a skater friend, primarily to make the most of a freeform lifestyle that was not tied to any location or employer. Our goal was fun at any cost. I still felt myself set apart from the social standards. I sought something outside of money and career and relationships, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
I took to booze and drugs, and found myself spiraling towards a self-destructive, nihilistic view of the world. Happy-go-lucky as I may have seemed, I was still a young man foundering in dis-ease, aggression, and frustration. Yet skateboarding was always there for me. It helped me endure, and it provided an outlet. I found it confusing to be a young American from a broken home in a sick society. If nothing else, skateboarding was my connection to an objective reality.
In my mid 20s, bloated and disgusted with myself, I started to change my trajectory. My fascination with Eastern mysticism and martial arts finally took hold with some real practice, and I started connecting the dots between heaven and earth. I made a holy pilgrimage into the ocean and caught some water waves. I started eating organic food, taking herbal medicine, and after 10 years of glasses and contacts, stopped wearing corrective lenses on my eyes. I turned away from the material world and focused on the spiritual meaning in life. I rode around on my skateboard in the middle of the night in Koreatown, New York and Tokyo, seeking answers to the mysteries of the universe, my head spinning with various metaphysical philosophies and magical interpretations.
I had great insights, I really did. I learned about breath, and its relationship to the cosmic dance. I learned about gravity, acceleration, and the energetic similarity to love. I learned about physics, relaxation, balance, awareness, and confidence. Every time I stepped on a skateboard I would have revelations and discern mysterious truths. I got better at skating but I didn’t have any guidance, I didn’t have any grounding. It would take another decade of study, failure, and asking for help for me to cut through the chaos and reach a stable understanding of how things work. I found some mentors and learned some humility, and I learned about myself.
I’m in my 30s now. I have a 12-step sponsor, not a skateboard company sponsor. I do yoga and taiji, pray and meditate. I have gratitude that I am still alive, and I try and share some of the beauty that I have found. I started The Land of Plenty, a skateboard foundation for kids. I think the skateboard is a perfect invention, the quintessence of human achievement. Skateboarding is an American art form, and it has been influenced by the most transcendent acts I have encountered: the surfing of water waves, compassionate relationships, and the study of the self.
Skating is my practice, my discipline. It is a substantial context for the life experience. It is a self-supporting community of artists, engaged in fun, non-violent, zero-emission, independent physical education. And now that I am old and experienced enough to understand the cycles of time, it makes perfect sense as a mind-body, authentic spiritual practice. Every time I return to my skateboard I continue to real-ize: to make real my experience of life.
Bhagavan Das once called India “Dharma Bhumi: the land of religion”, and America “Karma Bhumi: the land of action.” In this land of action, we are called to express ourselves and share our insight. This is my story, and I can’t help but wonder how many other people share a similar path. Reality is here for us to embrace. The wave you choose to ride will not be the same as anyone else’s wave. But if you choose to ride it, you may find what you are looking for, for the truth is nowhere to be found but in your own heart.