02/08/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

The Fear Project

Jaimal Yogis is the kind of writer who is willing to plumb the depths of his own lived experience -- and his own heart -- for his material. I'm not surprised to find him quoting Michel de Montaigne, the granddaddy of this approach to writing that most engages and inspires me. It's what I myself aspire to.

So from the very first Yogis' new book, The Fear Project, took me back to my own experience in discovering how fear could affect my choices -- and the direction of my life -- without my even knowing it; and how I learned, in the course of a (much dreaded, eventually liberating) men's weekend, to "go for the roar," or in other words to recognize the source of my fear and head directly into it rather than choose avoidance and suppression. One of my own lifelong fears was rooted in body shame, the fear of physical exposure; it led me -- long story -- to eventually pose naked for four hours under the unwavering gaze of a well-known figure painter!

But that's a small thing when compared with Yogis' choices, which lead him to such extreme actions as a swim across the San Francisco Bay in the attempt to reach Alcatraz Island and a mile-long paddle out to face the gigantic, 60-plus foot waves at Northern California's infamous Mavericks site. Attracted by its title a while back, I reviewed Yogis' earlier book, Saltwater Buddha, which I saw essentially as a coming-of-age story about a young man's quest, through surfing, for his own identity and freedom. That first book was also in good part about conquering fear, so it's no surprise to find the author taking its issues a few (giant!) steps further in this new work.

The Fear Project lives up to its title. Yogis makes of it a project. There are plenty of books around whose authors are happy to tell me how to conquer my fear, think positively, find happiness, and so on. There are few whose authors are prepared to actually do the really hard, practical work and not just preach about it.

Yogis penetrates the darkest of his fears and takes us along for the sometimes hair-raising ride. He introduces us to his personal heroes -- mostly, but not exclusively men -- who challenge the most dangerous surfing spots or BASE jump from tall buildings or mountain tops, who dive to the depths of oceans or make friends with great white sharks. The kind of people, you know, who make you wonder about their sanity and just what drives them to take such death-defying risks. Yogis is not satisfied with wondering about them, he seeks to know them, find out what makes them tick, and at times to emulate them.

But his project is not just experiential. An experienced journalist, he is also a compulsive researcher and he wants not only to confront his fears and conquer them, but also to understand the brain chemistry involved, the history of human fear, and its social, physiological and psychological effects. He's at pains to interview experts of all kinds, from neuroscientists to biologists, psychiatrists , anthropologists and social scientists -- all passionate about their work and eager to share their often fascinating findings with one curious enough to ask. Yogis proves a good listener, and a cogent reporter. From the plains of Africa where homo sapiens first rose on two feet to modern-day America, we learn a great deal about the history of fear and the depths to which it reaches in our human psyche.

Beyond all this... there's a love story. The arc of Yogis' narrative proceeds from the painful loss of one serious relationship, through countless fears and a morass of self-doubt and self-examination, to accepting the possibility of a new one. Along the way, he explores every aspect of the fear that threatens to paralyze him, leading in the penultimate chapter to a profoundly moving meditation on the biggest one of all: the fear of death. (It's here that he quotes Montaigne, by the way: "Let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it... We do not know where death awaits us, so let us wait for it everywhere." I.e., let's go for the roar.)

And then, remarkably, in his last chapter, Yogis moves equally profoundly back from death to life as he narrates the preparations for, and the birth of a new baby son, whose arrival makes all the fears that delayed it seem absurdly trite and self-involved.

It's a beautifully written and emotionally gratifying conclusion to his "project." This book about fear and doubt ends in a joyful celebration of love and faith, the paean of an infatuated new father to his son and to the dearly loved, much appreciated wife who gave him birth.

Find our more about The Fear Project here.