Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shit on a Stick by Len Barrow

It’s What You Make of It: The Pre-Conceptual and Surfing

In the 12th century, a Zen master was asked by a monk “ what was the nature of the Buddha’s enlightenment?” He replied “SHIT ON A STICK”. This is an actual formal Zen Koan (a type of riddle). It came to my mind one day when I was surfing with a friend. We were traveling around looking for good waves, yet the waves on offer were “shitty” lumpy one foot crap.

My friend was grumbling about the state of the surf. He elaborated that his board was not designed for crappy waves. He also stated that only kooks surf lame waves. I convinced him to paddle out anyway and his moaning and groaning only worsened. I remember the look of frustration on his face and truly felt sorry for him.

Despite this I managed to have a great time. I was doing mini off the lips and tiny round house cutbacks. The day was sunny and I looked back at the green mountains with little fluffy clouds wafting by. I would then catch another wave bounce around and fall off. The whole experience was most enjoyable and I found myself giggling like a little boy who was getting away with something that he was not supposed to do.

I turned around to see my friend paddling into the beach. He sat on the shore with his arms crossed. On his face was a stern expression of anger. I caught a few waves more and paddled in and drove my disgruntled friend home.

This is when the “Shit On A Stick” Koan came into my mind. In a literal sense the Koan refers to how the people of old Asia would wipe their buttocks after defecating. They would actually use a stick. So the Zen master was stating that Zen is no more than the shit on a shit-stick.

This would appear to be a paradox. How could something like Zen be likened to the most filthy, polluted ”shitty” thing on the planet? Could it be that it is only our point of view?

When I recollected this Koan after dropping my friend off, I began to have a wonderful reflective experience. I wondered why I had such a great time while my friend had the lamest experience possible? Why was I thrilled in such shitty waves? It struck me like a lightning bolt. I WAS PAYING ATTENTION and he was not.

I then sat and wondered who had taught me to do this. My first thought came to my coach and mentor, Ben Aipa. He had coached me to a US Championship in Longboarding and was a true Zen master in his own right. He payed a great deal of attention to everything. His encyclopedia was the ocean and surfboard design.

More specifically Ben Aipa taught me how to focus my attention on different aspects of a wave. He informed me that all waves were magnificent creations of nature that “spoke” with different voices. Some were loud and some were soft, yet they were all asking you to work with their energies . He was an acute observer of nature’s ways.

Ben altered my perception of waves in the deepest way possible. Mr. Aipa taught me that any wave is good as long as you focus and pay attention to its energies. While I was training for the US Championships, Ben had me surf crappy waves on a daily basis. He would take me to Sandy Beach “Full Point”. This is literally the shitiest wave in the world. It usually has cross winds in excess of 25 mph and the wave is heavily backwashed. Yet Ben taught me how to “Sing” with Sandy Beach. He told me to focus my attention on only the breaking part of the wave and the” Bowl” that extends about 1 foot next to it the curl. When you focus your mind on this tiny section of the wave, even a tiny wave has power and juice. If you look at the whole wave you will miss this little gem of the bowl. By altering PERCEPTION USING ATTENTION you can turn any wave into a point break! Every wave becomes an enjoyable miracle.

In a way it all comes down to perception or conception of the wave in front of you. Ben Aipa and this Zen Koan were just asking me to return to the “pre-conceptual”. They were asking me to rely on an unborn instinct that we all have to make the best of all conditions from 10’ to 1’.

Similarly, Zen as depicted as shit on a shit stick in the Koan should not surprise us. It is only our perception that makes us revolted by crap being on a stick. Let us look at the phenomena of crap on a shit stick.

It takes a whole digestive system, not to mention a nervous system to create feces. This is truly a miracle of nature (their even exist groups of scientists who study fossilized turds!). The tree that became the stick needed the sun for photosynthesis (another amazing phenomena) and the earths weather system to allow it to grow. Therefore the shit stick is actually a beautiful miracle just as the lamest wave in the world is a miracle. It all depends on our perception of the object. This is what the Shit on a Stick Koan is asking us to think about.

With this change of perception applied to all things in life, we can move beyond conceptions of good and bad, life and death, polluted and unpolluted, rich and poor, good waves and bad waves. In Zen Buddhism, the goal is to return to your original mind which does not divide the world up according to prejudices. This mind was and is unborn and pre-conceptual in nature. Everything arises interdependently. There is not one phenomena in the world that is not interdependent therefore we should move away from the conception of the individual and egoism to achieve happiness. If you find this statement abstract, test the logic.

All is perfect. As long as natures is here, this interdependent mind is here.

The ego and self with its prejudices and likes and dislikes distorts this perfect mind that we all already have. Instead of seeing the beauty of a one foot wave we perceive a shitty wave due to our distorted conceptions. Instead of seeing an interdependent miracle of nature, we see a polluted, dirty shit stick.

Find this shit stick. If you are a SUP surfer, paddle upwind in 25mph winds. Surf un-surfable conditions. Go out when it is six inches big. Mix it up on an ultra-crowded day. The world is your oyster to enjoy if you ALTER YOUR PERCEPTION BY PAYING ATTENTION.

If you think this is random tree hugger babble you are mistaken. I took these ideas and won the US Longboard Championships at 1’ onshore Huntington beach California in 2004. My fellow competitors could not figure out why I was so excited over shitty waves. Oh well.

I hope to see all of you out on the next onshore rainy 1’ day!

See Ya………..goin surfing

Dr. Len Barrow


  1. I am Grateful for Everything I have received from your Story/Point/Lesson
    The Stick and the Shit are words only, un-attach from the visual context is when you see Buddha smiling
    Glen with one n


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