My skateboard started to wobble, the axles twitching right and left on a whim all their own. I was still rolling forward at speed downhill, but the board got so squirrely I had to jump off and land in a run to catch my fall — and failed, miserably. As my right foot hit the ground, the force and speed shot the foot backward and sent my shoe flying off behind me. Then I tried to catch myself with my left foot, with identical results. I managed to plant my feet two more times, sock-bare, in a half-second period before I fell to my hands and knees, sliding five or so feet across the asphalt. At least, the locations and lengths of dangling flesh would have suggested so.
Because of experiences like that, skateboarding has become my favorite way to pray, to learn and connect. As a pantheist, I believe God and the universe are one in the same, and that by being alive in the universe, we’re part of God, experiencing itself, suffering and pain included. So my prayer is one of participation, of celebration as a participant of the divine whole. Plus, skateboarding comes with a lot of harsh-learned lessons I won’t soon forget.
Zen Master Dogen pointed out in his metaphysics that all things are Buddha-nature, or impermanent. The living and inanimate are all expressions of this nature, one of impermanence and change. Mountains and bodies of water transform over time, eroding and flooding and widening or shrinking with the earth and weather. The wood shavings and dust that grind off the tail of my board when I pop it, and it drags briefly across grains of rough concrete, are a testament to Buddha-nature in my daily life. Though it retains a familiar feel under my feet, my skateboard is never the same from one second to the next. The scars and scabs on my body speak the same truth. All things change, and my skateboard reminds me I can’t escape that. We have to let go.
Part of skateboarding is letting go and pushing forward through chaos. Falling hurts like hell, but no one masters 4-foot airs and McTwists their first try. A single trick might take six hours to land the first time, or several sessions of six hours over the course of several months. To get a new trick, I have to figure out each individual mechanic, each moving part, and put them together in physical harmony, while working through exhaustion, frustration, bruises, and soreness. At the same time, I have to learn how to fall efficiently so I can get up faster and hurt myself less. I let go of my safety and of my usual conscious mind to focus on a single moment, and that’s where the prayer is.
A skateboard trick and a Buddhist meditation have more in common than someone might think, certainly in terms of focus. Walking meditation in Buddhism is a meditation of action, one in which the method involves observing the world directly, in the midst of bustling daily life. The meditator feels how the foot gives in to the shape of a stone below it, the motion of the leg as it swings, how the arch of the foot grips the stone from heel to toe, and how the bones and tendons move together to transfer weight to propel the body forward. The meditator becomes aware of each movement, each tendon pull, how each moment gives in to the next without skipping a beat. Now imagine the mechanics of an ollie: The skater is crouched, body curled up like a spring, waiting to release its energy; one foot has toes pressed on the edge of the tail, and the other foot sits near the middle of the board, weight also on the toes. Once the trick begins, the skater transfers force from the hip, through tendons in the thigh to those in the calf and ankle, then the foot and toes — at the same time lifting the opposite foot up, to push the tail into the ground and pop the nose of the board into the air. The raised foot then slides across the griptape on top of the board to meet the nose, while the leg of the lower foot is brought upward; as the front foot meets the nose and the back foot jumps from the ground, the entire board is brought to level in mid-air, along with the skater’s body. This simple jump-see-saw motion gives me a chance to watch myself fly, to break mental boundaries, to observe my body in alien motion, to connect with the physical beyond basic experience. Both the walking meditation and ollie tell us about the infinite complexity contained in each and every moment, so long as we pay attention, and this paragraph hardly touches the long list of details to notice.
Skateboarding turns pure-function and visual environments into artistic ones by repurposing objects. Where most people see a curb painted red and thinks not to park there, a skateboarder sees a red curb and thinks about the slickness of that particular paint, and how easy it is to grind across it. Some people might see a tree trunk that’s split and grown into separate trunks, forking off, and give it a quick half-thought before their knowledge of the tree fades. Skateboarders see that tree, and then wonder if they can jump between the trunks; they check to see if there’s enough room behind the tree to get speed, enough space to land on the other side, and if there’s a good angle nearby for a filmer to capture the trick. In skateboarding, a “nice-looking” corporate plaza or a wash behind Fry’s becomes a place to jump, stomp, flip, scoop, and generally dance — on ledges, rails, steps and stairs, embankments, hubbas, gaps, planters… skateboarding adds to these dead objects a layer of life, a second layer of meaning and possibility in mundane, cold, boring places.
The latest discoveries in quantum theory suggest particles behave differently when we observe them. If that’s true, then each and every particle within every object interacts with us on fundamental levels. Even though I’m not quite sure what that entails, exactly — I’m no physicist — it seems to make for good evidence that all things are inextricably connected. As we interact with our environment, our environment interacts with us, and we get to participate as individual parts of it.
With that in mind, we could say just about any activity can be prayer, so long as it’s an intentional attempt to communicate with a divine realm or power or being or presence — our prayer just depends on what or who or where we think the divine is. If it’s right in front of us, then interacting with our immediate world in any way could be effective. Skateboarding is my way, or my dance, to celebrate that interaction. Some people bow their heads and utter a thank you, some chant, some offer animal sacrifice. I skate.