While I was researching my upcoming book The Fear Project, a lot of people asked me why I chose fear as the topic. My answer never seemed to come out right, so I thought I would answer in a different way. This is a chapter from my memoir Saltwater Buddha -- a story about overcoming fear and its relationship to magic.
Wizards and Water Walking
Water is full of magic. Shapeless but incompressible, it is the only substance that can exist naturally as solid, liquid, and gas inside earth's temperature range. It's called the "universal solvent" because it dissolves more substances than any other liquid and yet is also harmless to drink and ultimately sustains all life. "If there is magic on this planet," wrote naturalist Loren Eiseley, "it is contained in water."
And the sea is rife with magical creatures. As a boy, I studied them in picture books and often thought I could make out their shadows in the deep: ferocious rhino-like turtles the size of small islands, giant squid thrusting their redwood-sized tentacles through pirate ships, mermaids singing alluring melodies in foreign tongues.
Most of my childhood memories have dissolved, but I do remember vividly the magic of the Azores. Perhaps, because of being surrounded by water, islands take on some of water's magic. The tangled fig tree in our backyard was to me and my sister a witch's lair and fire swamp. Fairies hovered in our mom's garden like hummingbirds. Ciel and I caught them in nets, put them briefly in jars, investigated their peculiarities, set them free. Once, Mom even designed silken robes with golden twine belts and we all dressed up like angels to invite goodness into our new home. I didn't see any real angels, but Ciel and I agreed that we felt them fluttering through the windows and all about the ceiling.
When we moved into civilization -- Sacramento, capital of the fifth largest economy in the world -- sea monsters and fairies took a backseat to basketball games, skateboards, girls. My relationship with the sea and its denizens also seemed to change. I dreamed recurrently of falling off a pier into an ink-black sea writhing with sharks, killer whales, and squid. I awoke each time in a horrible sweat.
Years passed, and I "matured," rarely thinking of magic or sea monsters. But then I began to practice Zen. And perhaps, one might say, I regressed.
How to explain?
Novelist Tom Robbins once wrote that "disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business." And a famous Zen saying comes to mind:
Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; after Zen, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.
After [I spent] that year in the monastery, I suppose I was in that middle stage -- rivers, for me, were no longer rivers. Or maybe it was overexposure to the Hawaiian elements, but I felt the structures that hold reality in place were beginning to crumble. Nothing seemed like what it was. I had fallen into that mental reality that fairy tales and fantasy novels arise out of, perhaps even that place shamans and the mentally ill also inhabit. I often thought of what Heng Sure, the abbot of the monastery, told me: "At some point in your practice, you realize thoughts are alive." I wasn't at that point, but I could see a bit of what he meant. And if thoughts were alive, I thought, then what of those sea monsters in the Azores?
What of my fantasies, dreams, and nightmares?
When I arrived at Kalani, I was trying desperately to integrate what I'd learned at the monastery into everyday life, and I felt like I was failing. I was stuck between worlds. I needed a bridge, a translator, a medium.
And just as I felt completely lost, appropriately, I met a wizard. His name was Romney Noonan. And he moved into the jungle commune shortly after Ciel and I had.
Looking like a younger Gandalf, Rom had long straight hair that had been bleached near-white by hours in the sun. His blue eyes were tucked under bushy blond eyebrows. He was only 25 or so, but he laughed all the time with what seemed to be a much older man's mirth.
I call him a wizard not because he said so or because he had a secret book of spells, but because Rom could do just about anything he put his mind to. He was a part-time gold miner from Australia, but he also fixed the old surfboards that I thought would never ride again, turned the rusty beach cruisers into smooth gliding machines, wrote songs, ran triathlons, climbed mountains, built recycling systems, and spoke several different languages. And Rom possessed a quality that was surprisingly rare among our crew of escapees: contentment.
But more important to me than any of that: Rom was an adept in the particular magical art that obsessed me: the art of walking on water, the art of surfing.
To read the full chapter, go to www.fearproject.net
To become a part of Saltwater Buddha the film, go to our Kickstarter page.
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