The Fear Project
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.