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.
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?
Every time I ride a skateboard, I fall over. I slip out, wheel bite, hang up, over rotate, undershoot, overflip, or misstep in one way or another that sends me stumbling, sliding, or crashing to the ground. It’s not that I’m into pain or macho ideas of self-destruction — in fact quite the opposite. I like skateboarding because it is an ideal scenario for testing the limits of control, repeatedly walking a metaphorical tightrope between success and failure. Falling in skateboarding is not a sign of defeat, it is a sign that you are challenging yourself and learning and progressing. The continuous prospect of eating shit on a skateboard helps keep you humble and awake.
Skateboarding is an ongoing exercise in finding balance, using abstract motions to perpetuate the central principle of a perpendicular stance over moving ground. Courting the edge of frictional stability allows the radical insight and expression of the form. Skateboarding is an accessible state of liberation: the hands are free, the feet are not connected to anything, and the skateboard exists between the skater and the solid earth only by careful positioning in the cradle of gravity.
With development and progression of the form come more and more difficult situations in which the skater is challenged to maintain equilibrium in unforgiving environments. Movement is introduced: you learn to push and ride down steeper and steeper inclines. You learn to ride on the front or back wheels (manuals and nose wheelies). You learn to acid drop and land on the board after momentarily floating through the air. You learn ollies and ways to travel greater distances through the air before landing. You learn how to ride circular transitions up to, and beyond, the vertical plane. You learn how to balance in different maneuvers on edges and lips, often themselves curved or steeply inclined. Variations and “tricks” are introduced: riding backwards, the board locked into subtle positions of sliding or grinding, flipping beneath the feet and caught in the air before landing. Maneuvers are done switchstance, developing ambidexterity. Skateboarders go faster and faster and constantly look for new terrain and ways to approach it. There is constant progress and refinement. Edges and possibilities are pushed and validation is immediate and obvious. When you fall, you get up and try again until you ride away on both feet.
Anyone who claims to know what skateboarding is “all about” is full of shit. To define it as sport, art, science, transportation, play, culture, lifestyle, or anything else is to minimize the unlimited potential within the form. Skateboarding is inherently meaningless. Its lack of meaning is what allows it to be such a progressive and influential experience.
The origin of skateboarding cannot be localized to any single point. The skateboard was never invented; it was discovered by children across America simultaneously as apple-crate scooters of the 1940s and 50s were broken down and converted into the legendary 2×4″ with roller-skate trucks. Thus, the skateboard has no intention behind it: no inventor, no purpose, no ownership, no goal, no rules. Nothing in the creation or design of the skateboard assumes any meaning or value. It is a perfectly uninhibited vehicle of action-oriented possibility.
As the skateboard was refined with technical advancements (urethane wheels, slight changes in board and truck design) and influenced by surf culture and technique, it evolved and attracted the daredevils and visionaries who crafted the form as we recognize it today. The terrain of streets and sidewalks led to ramps and pools and drainpipes, and eventually begat massive concrete skateparks. Journalists and photographers and filmmakers developed a symbiotic relationship with the athletes, documenting the physical forms and commenting on the culture and surrounding artworks and personalities.
The masters of the form, the leaders and great events of skateboard history, the varied terrain and infrastructure: all of this has been documented and pored over by an appreciating audience. And yet, for all of the journalism and vicarious entertainment that surrounds skateboarding, there’s never really been a deeper examination of the form— specifically the subtle internal and energetic processes—of skateboarding itself.
The technique of actually riding on a skateboard is not that different than standing still. The skateboard is a vehicle, with wheels and axles and a platform to stand upon, but there is no drivetrain. A skateboard moves by the kinetic energy of being pushed, or by taking advantage of its potential energy positioned at the top of a hill or transitional wall. Once the skateboard is up to speed, the majority of the techniques start and end with simply riding along—standing still on the platform of the skateboard, while the world rolls beneath one’s feet, occasionally in excess of 40 miles an hour. In this standing position, the skateboard and rider may cover larger distances, they may roll up and down steep inclines, they may ride up circular transitions above and beyond the vertical axis, they may launch into the air and cover great distances through empty space before returning to solid ground. The skateboarder, more than anything, must shift his or her weight and stance to accommodate these changes in trajectory. The technical aspects of contemporary trick performance include a lot of board flipping and body spinning and sideways sliding and shifting and grinding, but the foundation of riding a skateboard in a casual, two-footed stance remains. The standing skateboarder experiences dramatic changes in acceleration and frame of reference. Dropping into a ramp or bowl sets the rider off on a path of varying degrees of linear and radial acceleration. Physics students are aware that radial acceleration—the way a skateboarder will circumnavigate a bowled transition, or a planet will orbit a star— results in acceleration towards the center of the curve. This curious feature of Newtonian physics segues neatly into Einstein’s theory of relativity, involving acceleration along the curvature of space-time. Einstein postulated a geometric interpretation of the “force” of gravity, and this revelation completely changed the way we view and understand our world.
This means that the skateboarder, in his ongoing dance with gravity and acceleration, can use the fine instrument of the central nervous system to examine the most dramatic and fundamental forces in the universe. This movement affects physiological change, in the form of blood flow and oxygenation and chemical release and so on, but also affects awareness and psychological change. Finding the center in these dramatic curves, attaining balance in the midst of this tremendous spiraling movement, is as much an internal discipline as an external one.
Over the past ten years I have considered skateboarding in the light of two disciplines which are often grouped together as “mind-body” practices, Taiji (also Taijiquan, T’ai Chi) and Yoga (specifically Hatha Yoga). While the comparisons have been made before, a deeper investigation is overdue. Taiji and Yoga are physical practices with corresponding philosophies that have endured for literally thousands of years, drawing from the sophisticated and profoundly spiritual cultures that spawned them: Taiji evolved with Chinese Taoism, and Yoga evolved with Indian Hinduism and Buddhism. A greatly simplified explanation of their intention is to prepare the human participant for the discipline of deep meditation.
Taiji and Yoga use the body-mind correlation to enhance and actualize the understanding and expression of spiritual connectedness. In Yoga, the intention is to “yoke” or unite with the divine through mental refinement and physical alignment in the flow of universal energy. The intention of Taiji is to follow the way—the Tao—by “uniting heaven and earth”, balancing the opposing forces of the universe internally and externally. The famous “yin yang” symbol is actually called the Taiji—it means supreme ultimate, and is intended to suggest that the universe in its true state is in perfect balance.
Considering skateboarding as a mind-body activity and relating it to Yoga and Taiji can allow insight into the less than obvious internal processes at work. It is not sheer athleticism—strength, endurance, etc.—that make a good skateboarder; a good skateboarder must be a master of balance, focus, perseverance, creative ingenuity, and fear management. It takes heart and vision (and a good sense of humor) to ride a skateboard, not muscle. Cultivation of the heart and vision are among the primary intentions of a traditional mind-body activity, and they do not involve a painstaking enhancement of the ego, but quite the opposite. Skateboarders have as much to learn about the physical aspects of their craft from these ancient disciplines as they do about the internal, mental, and spiritual aspects.
Regardless of whether these systems are studied or adopted by skateboarders, the point is that there is an opening here for some higher purpose. When you are skateboarding, any goals or obligations are self-created. The intention of your skateboard practice is up to you. For someone who has been skating for 20 or 30 years, the reasons for skateboarding have probably changed greatly. What begins as sport, art, play, a job, etc. can become an opportunity to merge a physically balanced form with open-minded spiritual potential. This can take place by studying Yoga or Taiji, or by incorporating another religious philosophy (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and so on) into the mix. It is certainly not necessary, but the choice is yours.
Whatever you choose, you will not be alone on your path. In 50 years skateboarding has developed into a worldwide culture with millions of participants, growing and evolving at the speed of life, and every flavor of humanity and human achievement is accounted for. This progressive, diverse living community is more available to spiritual development than perhaps any other group of people in the history of the world. In America, where freedom of such pursuit is a constitutional right, we have a unique opportunity to follow our own path and uncover personal insight into the deepest workings of the universe, a balanced experience that might as well take place while standing on a wooden plank with trucks and urethane wheels.
I don’t want to try and define skateboarding, nor do I want to attach any extra importance to it. Its meaninglessness is its ultimate value, and any rewards are up to the invididual to discern. That said, the internal processes of skateboarding are available for anyone at any level to explore—but to do so you will have to see beyond the obvious, and you are well-advised to take a cue from some ancient wisdom. Skateboarding goes deep, and it can be about a lot more than fame or success or being cool; it can quickly transcend any imaginary differences between human souls. Skateboarding is a real, life-long spiritual trip, a profound relationship with a higher power. Skateboarding will require you to open up to the unknown, and confront it without fear or judgment. Then you may bear witness to the freedom within the form.