Saturday, September 27, 2014

The sage and the skateboard: a #TaoPunk investigation

What’s skateboarding got to do with ancient China anyway? This is pretty much where I find my life right now, in big picture terms. This post is a stab at drawing so many different strands together. It probably won’t work, but I guess that depends on the reader.


I spent a few minutes reading Skateboarding As Religion by Sean Wilsey. By the end, tears were rolling down the inside of my brain. (It’s been a long week.) I’m not a skateboarder, but I do skate to work and back a fair bit. I love it.

I first got a board when I was about 14, and trickled round the park - too scared to stand up, I knelt down and jumped off whenever a dog came near. I probably quit a couple of weeks after taking a tumble onto my face. Glasses are pretty unforgiving. About 10 years ago though, I can’t remember why but I wanted a board. I was out of Uni and had a life ahead of me. Buses were getting slow and expensive, and it was flat to and from work. That was when I started standing on boards.

Sean’s essay took me back to both of those lives. I repeat, I’m not a skater - I’m closer to a commuter. But I like to think I’m not too old yet, and he touches on all the reasons I still keep my board, and why I still think about buying another, and why I hate the arrival of road gritters in winter.

As an urban traveller, it’s about making the most of your greying environment: the world becomes more like America, more paved and less natural, skating improves. ... Despoilment is gorgeous to a skateboarder.

And it’s about efficiency to the point of invisiblity:

In a crowded city, no one on foot or bike or in a car can ever hope to keep up with you. Up and down stairs. On buses and trains in an instant. Kick it up into your hands and it’s a club to ward off danger; throw it back down and you’re gone.

As constant frailty, it’s about keeping your eyes open:

Skateboarding is observing things minutely. ... Looking at the world like a skater means looking down. It means rarely raising your eyes above curb level, constantly monitoring the smoothness of concrete and being alert to the presence of pebbles or grit

It’s about getting on with the shit you love even when you have to bail out:

My shirt looked like someone had thrown acid at me. My chin was sore. The skin was grated off the palms of my hands. I started to run [after my board].

And above everything else, it’s about keeping moving:

The flow of skating ... makes for bad watching. Pictures are deceptive. Videos don’t convey anything. How someone looks doing it has very little relation to the experience. A skateboarder moves like a thought.

Like a thought. Or less, even - by the time you’re thinking something, it’s too late. Everything has to happen and to react just at the right time, just before you’ve judged what’s happening.

None of this even touches on the “punk” side of things though. You have to go and read the whole thing for that. Or look around you - all around you. Not at the skateboarders though, but at the things which you see and ignore because you hate them. All the stuff you “put up with” because it’s too much effort to argue against. The invading flocks of adverts. The endless rivers of cars. The fences and barriers and anti-pigeon devices and the mini-borders thrown up around every property everywhere. The private barrenness and the tiny gaps which the truly “public” are allowed to be squeezed through, and pay for the privilege. Murder, and All-Bran, and rape.

The original title of Sean’s essay was “Using so little”, and you need to read it to see why. But that’s a good segue.


I don’t really know what most people think of when you say the word “taoist“ to them. Incense and robes and mountains, I guess. To be fair, they’d be kind of right. But wrong as well. There are symbols, of course, and then there are what the symbols sum up.

About the same time that I bought a board for the second time, I also started getting into tai chi, and further into taoism - mostly Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu then. For the first time, I felt like I’d discovered something which spoke to me about being me. Not “me” in the context of “we” - most theories on the self come in the form of “we should be like this”, “we should do that”. The tao texts aren’t like that, they’re more selfish, but to the point of being selfless. They exist to remind you of where you come from - they are texts that emanate from the mind of a child, of a baby, of the forces that make up the human, rather than humanity. Humanity means nothing, absolutely nothing, if you don’t eat and sleep. Taoism is about eating and sleeping.

It’s about getting back to basics - casting off excess, effort, expectations. Eat. Sleep. Go to the toilet. Laugh if you want to. Cry when you need to. Any more than that and you’re starting to get seriously complicated. You’re starting to incur overhead, the overhead of thought. Sounding familiar yet?

Once you have that, you can do anything, because you no longer do anything. This is the magical world of taoism. Symbols appear and disappear, but here’s the sleight-of-hand: anything can be a symbol. Taoism uses a whole bunch of symbols, because they’re often useful for explaining things to people. But again, anything can be a symbol. If a symbol is useful, then why not use it?

The incense? Something to observe. Our nose is the most primordial sense we have - it’s the sense that babies use to find and attach to their mother. It is the difference between fresh food and off food. It’s the sense of survival. Incense isn’t a way to distract the senses, but a way to hone them.

Observe the street. Observe the world. Ride both.

The robes? In a world where parents fret about school uniform prices, the idea of a “prescribed” set of clothing seems counter-intuitive - and it is. Robes, uniforms generally, when done right and not turned into a new symbol in themselves, are a great equaliser. Forgetting your outward appearance is the first, easiest step towards regaining an understanding of your inner entity. Clothes are the most easily changeale aspect of this.

If you want to look good on a skateboard, you’ll fall off.

The mountains? WHO DOESN’T LIKE MOUNTAINS? No, seriously, people like mountains for one reason only - they scare the living joggies out of us. They’re big and you can fall off them and die. And as a result, they’re hard work.

Moving around your environment without fear. Perhaps this is what defines “punk” ultimately, and where #taopunk forms and settles and intermingles. For a taoist, the physical environment is what it is - different places have different forces within them, different resources and affects on the mind. For a skateboarder, the same is true.

And then there is the social environment. Mountains resist the creeping lurgy of urbanisation, and maintain their secrets within deep valleys. They are inhospitable to the point that people stay away.

Unlike cities - the melting pots of civilisation. The inhospitability of cities is on a different level. The lurgy is one of norms and interaction - city “culture”. Cities have their own secrets, but the secrets are of a social nature - icons and fragments hidden in walls that pertain to memories, but get forgotten about as the city cretaes new memories for itself, of itself. The rules over what is both “acceptable” and what is “fashionable” must keep developing. The city is change. You either fit in, or you are spat out.

Both taoists and skateboarders question their role in civilisation. Who are all these “ordinary” people who think they have it all worked out, and yet seem so miserable? How can yet more complexity claim to improve anything, whether it’s a new phone, desirable furniture, higher house prices or anything else? Does keeping up with everyone else really deserve so much effort?

Pursure knowledge, gain daily.
Pursue tao, lose daily.”
-- Tao Te Ching, 48

The mountains are just a way to lose people and to get back to “your”self. Go where people can’t be bothered to go. But at the end of the day, they’re only mountains. Even moountains get “busy”, relatively speaking. The mountains aren’t important. They’re just one kind of filter.

Learn the tricks, get through the filter, and you can live anywhere.

Flow. Detach. #Taopunk.

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