Freestyle Stone Skipping

(At "the Creek" in southern Maryland, USA, circa 2005)

I am a certifiably staunch supporter of stone skipping; I do it as often as possible, which is not often enough, and I hereby heartily encourage you to do the same.  It can be done almost anywhere in the world, it is free (except for time not spent doing potentially more lucrative things), and it is one of those simple pleasures in which all people could share, were they so inclined.  I have a funny feeling, though, that I am all but alone. Yes, I have convinced a few into coming with me to the creek from time to time and I have even managed to enthuse a still smaller few to the point where we now enjoy it mutually, but despite the fact that so many seem to enjoy it, I continue to struggle against the stream in my efforts to immerse people in the pleasures of which I preach: (Freestyle) stone skipping is easy to do, as it is to enjoy, but-- nonetheless--simple pleasures of this kind are hailed as "out of sync" with the current of our age, tending to sink rather than skip upon suggestion. (I'm sorry for all the horrible puns, not to mention those to come; I can't help myself.)  The following discourse, or diatribe, depending on your opinion, is this skipper's humble attempt at clear the waters and offer a better understanding of Stone Skipping and its merits.
I believe that people so often scoff at "the pleasure" of stone skipping, at least in part, comes from a set of misunderstandings about the "what" and "why" of a deceptively complex act. The "what" of stone skipping seems simple (i.e., throw a stone so that it skims across the surface of the water) but the totality of the act, including searching for suitable stones among a wide range of rocks, focusing on the task at hand and getting said stone to skip instead of sink, and--above all--judging the merits of the aforementioned skip in a consistent way, is decidedly more complicated than most realize or admit, and not just because they couldn't skip a stone more than three times if their life depended on it.  Indeed, there is a wide range of deceptively complicated activities that combine into the graceful simplicity of skipping a stone, but once you get the gist, it becomes as easy as 1-2-3(-4-5-6-7-etc).
The "what" of stone skipping seems simple (i.e., throw a stone so that it skims across the surface of the water), but the totality of the act... is decidedly more complicated than most realize or admit, and not just because they couldn't skip a stone more than three times if their life depended on it.
The "why," on the other hand, is decidedly more complicated, albeit as simple as "for fun," involving meditative practice, aesthetic and phenomenologically grounded concepts of enjoyment, and, to a certain extent, what can even be thought of as a spiritual embrace of "Buddah Nature" (बुद्ध प्रकृति {Bud'dha prakr̥ti}, or tathāgatagarbha, referred to here as represented in the Ratnagotravibhāga (5th century CE), which uses the term to refer to "an ultimate, unconditional reality that is simultaneously the inherent, dynamic process towards its complete manifestation,[1] whewrein mundane and enlightened reality are seen as complementary.[2]). I raise these esoteric notions not to scare away the feint of mind, but rather because many people have said that stone skipping is "pointless" and I strongly disagree: the pleasure of stone skipping in its fullness is a prime example of play, lauded for ages by sages, as well as what I call the "pleasure of concentration" (or what I have also heard talked about as Flow)--and since when has pleasure needed "a point"? Isn't pleasure, to a great extent, an end in and of itself? (I digress; I will save these questions for later so that I may adequately cover the topic at hand, namely that of Freestyle Stone Skipping.) The "what" of stone skipping is simple, the "why," in a profoundly significant inverse relationship, is complex, and the practice is an exercise in humility, grace and power.

Though some would say it is a stretch to talk about something like stone skipping in this way, clearly, I disagree. I have gone so far as to develop a set philosophical considerations (e.g., epistemological concerns, a complete ethical system, political/social philosophy and metaphysics, etc.) that will be addressed in a subsequent piece (The Philosophy of Freestyle Stone Skipping (still in the process as of June 2015)).

efore going much further into these notions about Freestyle Stone Skipping, it is important to point out that I
recognize and celebrates the full variety of what a stone can do when skipped, as well as the dynamic relationship one has with the river when skipping stones, which adds to the act of stone skipping to the point where it is no longer merely "kids' stuff" or "grandpa's favorite thing to do at the lake while camping."  This piece, however, while not delving as deeply into the (quasi)intellectual  side of my interests on the topic, will consider the significant aspects of Freestyle Stone Skipping as it contrasts with the more conventional sort, and sing its praises.  The act of skipping a stone, when done with a whiff of whimsy and creative contemplation, is as profound an act as any, and my enthusiasm is not meant to add value to it, but rather to reveal what is always already present under every stone gathered and with each stone skipped.

The following will go through the process sequentially, mentioning the significant aspects in each step of a stone being skipped, in the hope of both explaining and encouraging, and any references listed or implied should be followed up at your own discretion. 

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Searching for Stones

The act of selecting stones, the first thing one does as a stone skipper, is an exercise in meditative focus and, with but the slightest embrace of Zen sensibilities, can be a useful tool for enlightenment. To be standing amidst a pile of stones that can number into the hundreds of thousands, looking for stones with very specific characteristics among the tumultuous and ever changing mass of a river bank, seems like it could be a prohibitively arduous exercise with which to begin. But, like many things in life, with patience and practice the search for stones becomes as enjoyable and gratifying as skipping those rocks turned stones shortly thereafter.* In time one learns to peruse the stones with such a precise sense of purpose that you only bend down for the best of the bed.

*- All stones are rocks, but not all rocks are stones: A rock in the bank of a creek is much like, although often smaller, than the stones that make up walls, bridges and homes. The difference between them is that rocks that have been chosen, and therewith given purpose, are metaphysically converted into stones. Therefore, each time you pick up a rock and think,"this will work well--I choose it," you have transformed that rock into a stone.

In order to process all that you are seeing as you scan the stones of of the riverbank for skippable specimens it is not only helpful to clear your mind of all extraneous thoughts, when one is fully focused on the search there is no room for thought and the mind is cleared. One enters into a trance-like state that takes over your perceptual powers--you often don't hear people call your name, or notice the cold (or heat) as much, and hours seem to pass in minutes--and the mind is cleared of all thoughts by the concentration necessary for the search. Focusing intently on something that seems so radically unrelated to the life-world that spins wildly around us, like skipping stones for no reason other than to see how well you can do it, is not only relaxing, but also gives us a chance to take a break from our lives and return to them anew having allowed our emotions and thoughts to settle before re-engaging ourselves as it exists away from the creek. I not only metaphysically change rocks into stones, I change myself when I skip stones--as we all do--and enter a world where rocks bounce on water and all is forever well. I re-immerse myself into the eternal tranquility of existence for the time that I search the stones. As I focus on my search I find something that was not sought after--or perhaps, something finds me. When I reduce my world to a bank of stones all that matters are the rocks, and in that time my mind wanders unconnected to "reality," free from worry--clear.
Some may be unwilling to accept that staring at a pile of rocks in the woods qualifies as a meditative experience that helps us realize our place in the world, but even if that is true, it still involves being out in nature, near the running water that assembles the stones and is the skipping surface, and can only be done with daylight. Since it is hard to see the stone skip in rain, and they won't skip on ice, stone skipping can only be done in fair weather, when it's not too cold, and the experience of being in nature is a wonder that never gets old, or at least I think it shouldn't.
That we are allowed reprieve from life's unwanted stress, giving ourselves a chance to stop think about things while searching for impossibly subtle differences in stones, by default in nature on a nice day, is enough of a reason to satisfy a "why?" of stone skipping, but in addition there are morally and spiritually nourishing analogies to Freestyle stone skipping that take it from the kids game you remember having done with your Grandpa and turn it into something fresh.

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Skipping Stones

With each stone skipped across the water we have an exercise in the acceptance of those things different, for no two skips are alike, and we also practice an impractical approach to life--which can be useful as a respite from stress. Unless everything has some kind of value, sometimes simply because it exists, there would be nothing to make spinning stones across water worthwhile. Freestyle stone skipping encourages us to see how everything, no matter how unconventional, has something that makes it special in a way that nothing else in the universe will ever replicate. Though we take something that is worth nothing, do nothing but spin it vigorously with our hand, and leave it in its original (worthless) state, we derive tremendous pleasure from a process with no product.

Freestyle stone skipping is often confused with it's predecessor--what I call Conventional stone skipping, which does not have the potency or profundity of freestyle. Though the difference between the two is very subtle and most will scoff at my distinctions, the power of freestyle stone skipping lies not only in how you spin your stone, but how you approach the river, the stones...yourself.

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Conventional Stone Skipping

In Conventional Stone Skipping there are very few kinds of stones that work well and only one thing to do with the stone you choose: take a flat, skinny stone and throw it at the right angle, spinning the stone off your finger, so that it skips across the water as many times as you can.
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(This is the stone skipping you might remember from when you were a child.)

Though I am drawing a line between Conventional and Freestyle stone skipping, the difference is extremely one sided: Conventional stone skipping is all but the same as its Freestyle cousin, the only difference being that it does not value a short skip which changes direction, bounces off a tree and flips backward at the end with a "plop!" as any more than four skips (whereas Freestyle recognizes and celebrates it for having turns, ricochets and interesting sounds.)

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Freestyle Stone Skipping

Freestyle stone skipping distinguishes itself from conventional stone skipping on several levels. The first difference between the two schools of stone skipping is primarily related to the location: Freestyle can only be done in a (relatively) narrow creek-bed with plenty of obstacles, whereas Conventional stone skipping works best with large areas of open water. The reason for this is at the core of the disparity and is the cause of all the other differences.

The confined creek bed makes Conventional skip counting all but impossible and leaves only Freestyle for the stone skipping enthusiast.

The open water leaves space for Conventional stone skipping but makes Freestyle uninteresting.

Freestyle stone skipping is essentially Conventional stone skipping with a detail-oriented twist: while the number of skips and distance traveled is significant, the most important element of a skip is how it interacts with the river.

The skipping station, aka: whichever bend in the creek or bank of stones you find yourself at when you skip will determine what kinds of skips are possible. Each station will also have different types of stones that, naturally, affect the way that the stones skip.

There is only so much you can control when skipping a stone: Once it leaves your hand it is the shape of the stone that dictates where it skips. Elongated stones very regularly skip strongly and then turns dramatically with big splashes; extra thin stones can be made to fly through the air with grace before skipping lightly across the water; heavy, balanced stones can skip so fast it's hard to count how many there are. Freestyle uses the control you get choosing from many different kinds of stones to create new challenges and games. At the end of the day, it's all about pushing yourself to achieve all that you are capable of...much like life.

Because of the different types of desired skips the types of rocks used are very different, which also dramatically affects the stone search: instead of only using one type of stone a Freestyler can use just about anything in the river bed, and different stones will produce predictably different skips.

Like the other freestyle sports (e.g.: skateboarding, rollerblading, skiing, snowboarding, Parkour, &c.) the only opposition is your limits (and gravity), so when you're in the river skipping stones, you are free to experiment with what is possible. As with all the other disciplines there is a blend of power and finesse when you spin your stones. Because freestyle is usually done in a creek or river, if there is only 25 feet of water you can't throw your stone as hard as you can or it will just hit the bank and fall into the water; though conventional stone skipping is impossible in the creek, the freestyler is free to use spin and style to skip the stone over and off obstacles, under logs, and over water falls.
Our style really is free.


  1. Did you make that diagram of skippable stones yourself? I think that this post is genius.

  2. I made all of the diagrams myself. (I'm such a dork, I know.)

    I have developed a deeper analogy of Stone Skipping to life, one that connects the differences between "freestyle" and "conventional" Stone skipping to the different conceptions of "success" in societal and personal terms. I'll add it as an addendum the next time I feel inspired to write.

  3. The images have all been lost, and the discourse been confused by edits that were never fully completed, so please bear with whatever failings are present and keep skipping steadfastly!