The nature of spirituality is a difficult quest undertaken by religious practitioners, new-age gurus and academics, but understanding it in terms of snowboarding is indeed a “leap of faith.”
About 10 years ago, Rev. Neil Elliot, minister of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Trail and an avid snowboarder, came across the boarder’s term, “soulriding.”
With its overt spiritual connotations, the elusive concept piqued his interest, so much so, that Elliot decided to fashion his PhD around it.
“It’s the first PhD in snowboarding at all, so it’s pretty unique,” said Elliot. “It gave me an excuse to get out and participate in a sport I love and it provided me with a framework to examine human spirituality.”
Elliot began his PhD about six years ago and, after a brief interlude, was able to complete and defend it in December. Now he’s just waiting for the official documentation at which point he has officially earned the academic title of “doctor.”
Already an ordained priest holding a master’s degree in theology and Islamic studies, Elliot decided to undertake his doctorate in the sociology of religion at the secular Kingston University in London, England.
“That was an important thing for me,” he said. “I deliberately wanted to get away from doing theology, which is dealing with God, and look at what’s happening on the ground and the kind of stuff you can actually measure.”
Elliot’s research is devoted to snowboarding and in it, he interviewed a cross-section of over 30 boarders from the United Kingdom and Canada.
But first he had to develop a research model that would adequately define and differentiate between what is spiritual and what is not, both from an academic or secular view versus a religious view, and where the experience of soulriding is situated.
The model identifies three dimensions of spirituality — context, experience and identity — each composed of varying elements: nature, freedom and escape, risk, peace, transcendence, community, lifestyle, rhythm and flow, meaning and purpose, and play.
The 10 elements were chosen to incorporate features of snowboarding that might be construed as spiritual by those interviewed, he said.
Surprisingly, many of his very religious interview subjects did not consider snowboarding a spiritual experience, although they identified with many of its elements. They reserved spiritual experience exclusively for the realm of their particular religion.
In contrast, others spoke of the growing apathy and outright rejection of religion in favour of spirituality.
“One of the prompters to this research is, you have a lot of people saying, ‘I want to be spiritual but not religious,’ and I’m trying to find out what that means, especially for me as a priest and representative of a religion. I want to try and understand that because it has big implications of what is happening to religion.”
Another hurdle he faced during the interviews was the subjective nature of the experience and whether it was “spiritual or just special.”
“From talking to them, you can pretty much tell they are having the same experience but some consider it spiritual and others do not,” he said.
Many athletes experience it, whether it’s called being “in the zone,” “in the moment,” “a Zen moment,” “a rush,” or something else. He said it is similar to the feeling experienced through meditation and prayer, or an uplifting church service.
“You’re very much aware of all your senses in a way that you are not normally, and you are also almost detached; detached from your body.”
Elliot is trying to bridge the gap between that experience and God. It may be elusive and ephemeral, but there is a community of boarders that get it, and the soulriding doctor would like to engage tourists and locals in helping them understand what that connection to snowboarding and the ineffable is all about.
“Soulriding, like spirituality, was a frame of the snowboarder’s reality,” writes Elliot in his thesis. “Whilst there was no simple answer to the question about the nature of soulriding and spirituality, soulriding seemed to be a mirror for perceptions of the essence, the spirit, of snowboarding.”