Your body is made of about 60 percent water. The blood in your veins is close to the consistency of seawater. Even the human brain is more than two-thirds water. Keeping this in mind, try to feel that original part of yourself. Imagine those elbows and knees, bits of tooth and jaw and skull, dissolving into an aqueous state.
You're a puddle on the floor now, tension gone. No, larger than a puddle. You're an ocean.
A light wind kicks up, a breeze that forms ripples on your surface. Those ripples become like little sails, catching more and more of the wind's push. Feel them grow into mounds, spiraling. These are swells -- and you, the ocean, contain them.
Now, get a close-up on one of these swells. See how the body of the swell is a domino effect of wind energy transferring between water molecules. Notice how the water isn't actually moving so much as the energy is, the memory of wind.
What is it like to be that swell, caught in the constant churn of the spiral? What's it like to identify with it: an individual with your own unique properties?
So there you are, an oceanic swell, traveling miles and miles over mountains and canyons. Nothing can stop you... until... wait, just below: a shimmering speck of gold. Then more of them, many specks, little stars looking up. Sand. You're coming into the beach.
Churning momentum, grinding against earth, you trip. All your weight is thrown out and over. This is your moment in the spotlight, your flash of real firmness. You're becoming a thing -- a wave.
You hit earth and spread in all directions, fingertips reaching out onto that warm beach, settling briefly before being sucked back back back. Back into the formless. Back to containing all these individual waves and spirals, gyres and rivulets, all these births and deaths. Until, of course, the next brush of wind. Until the next time you take shape.
For months, this is the little meditation I would guide at bookstores before doing a reading from my first book, Saltwater Buddha. It's something you might say to an audience to relax them, but for me, it was totally selfish. It was to relax myself. I'd written the book at 26, fresh out of journalism school, insecure. Now being on book tour was the most terrifying thing I'd ever done. I had a fear of public speaking, for one. But I was mostly just afraid of ruining my life. I'd worked my ass off to go to the best graduate school in journalism, all to become a "serious" writer, and I'd been sort of doing it: living in New York, smoking cigarettes, writing about politics, sex, and death. I had a good act going. But somehow, just as things were getting official, I'd also decided -- through the urging of a little-known publisher who'd read one of my more bohemian articles -- to reveal all the oddest and most vulnerable moments of my life. How I'd run away from home at 16 to focus my life on surfing, how I'd spent a year in a Buddhist monastery and nearly ordained as a monk at 19, and how Zen and surfing had basically kept me from becoming some missing teen on a milk carton. Great, now anything I wrote would be considered the words of some hippie runaway Buddhist surfer. Oh, the gravitas.
The book had seemed like a great idea when I was writing it on a sailboat in Sausalito, Calif. But not long before the release, I'd become so scared of suddenly having my real life revealed -- scared, really, of just being myself -- I balked. I told the publisher I would give them back the money and shelved the book. It was far too risky to go public with who I really was.
But after some months away -- needing money -- I reread the manuscript, trying to read it as if I was the ocean recording the journey of just one wave, like it was an anonymous novel I'd picked up at a secondhand bookstore. When I read it like this, I kind of liked it. No, I really liked it.
Long story short, the book came out, got good reviews, and I toured all over the world -- Canada, the U.S., Australia, Indonesia. And every single night before I spoke, I wanted to run. Tense chest, sweaty palms. But then, every single time, without fail, once I was speaking, the fear would flip 180 degrees. By the time the presentation was over, I was relaxed, joking, having fun. I felt like the real me again. I was out of the spiral of the wave, free to swim around the boundless ocean -- at least until the next time I freaked out.
As it turned out, my fears of the book ruining my life were unfounded. Nobody shunned me or threw me out of the journalism club. I could still do serious writing (although I realized taking yourself seriously is sort of a bummer). Some incredible filmmakers even started making the book into a documentary. What the hell had I been so scared of?
I still use the wave meditation for myself. It reminds me that we're all individuals with complex stories -- waves who think we have lots of problems, who think we're separate from the ocean. But we all also have the capability, at any time, to remember we're necessarily connected to all of nature, all beings, all times and places -- oceanic. Every one of us contains water that has lived on the earth since the very first days of our planet. We are literally just water and sunlight being born and dying over and over and over again, recycled into various forms, various waves.
Some people call this oceanic self God or Buddha nature or the super-ego. I have no clue what it is. But my experience of life is that we fluctuate constantly between ocean and wave. When we put down our usual story and feel connected to the big picture, the ocean, fear doesn't bother us. But it doesn't take long to get caught in the spiraling churn of self-obsession again, where every little fear feels paralyzing.
The book tour made me realize this more clearly than ever, and I spent the next few years trying to figure fear out. I read reams of books and interviewed many of the world's experts on fear: neuroscientists, psychologists, extreme athletes, sports psychologists, phobics, artists, meditation masters. I also started treating myself as a lab rat, pushing myself to confront the fears that I felt were keeping me from living the life I want to. Three years later, I'm far from being fearless -- and actually don't want to be. Fear has benefits, it turns out. But the research has been so life-changing, I put the story into a book called The Fear Project. The book comes out this winter from Rodale. But fear -- like love -- is such a vast topic, I could never fit everything I've been finding into one book. I also still have so much to learn. That's the reason for this blog.
In a way, fear is the most basic, simple, primal emotion. It evolved in the same way in all of us. It functions in our brains and hearts in much the same way. It arises in the mind and can cease in the mind -- a fabrication. That said, there are a million nuances to fear that scientists are beginning to uncover, nuances that can be extremely helpful in learning how to manage fear's crafty ways. It's these nuances that I'll be focusing on here.
In the upcoming weeks, I'll post discussions about fear, stress, and courage with the likes of a world-champion mixed martial artist, a Stanford neuroscientist who studies meditation, a record-breaking ultra athlete, a famous physician who surfs the biggest waves on earth, a pathologist who became a shaman, an extreme skier with ADHD, a Buddhist monk, a Mavericks champion who battled drug addiction, and so many others -- as well as post my own experiences. A few of these interviews, in their raw form, are already up on my book's website, www.fearproject.net.
Fear won't go away. Fear is there for a reason, a survival tool. But we can change how we react and view our most primal emotion. It can be a huge deal that becomes literally what we are. Or it can just be an occasional flicker on the ocean of mind.
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For more on Becoming Fearless, click here.