While researching my upcoming book, The Fear Project, a lot of people have asked me why I chose fear. I could’ve focused on love. I could’ve focused on happiness. Why choose to spend years in the darkness?
My answer never seems to come out right so I thought I would answer in a different way. This is a chapter from my memoir, Saltwater Buddha, called Wizards and Water Walking, a story about overcoming fear and its relationship to magic. It was having experiences like this one — moments that cracked me open — that led me to want to understand them scientifically.
I’ve been warned by editors that our online attention spans have grown too short to post whole book chapters. But read the first few pages of this story and I hope you’ll be hooked enough to continue. Fear and magic are enchanting spirits. If you like it, please also check out how Saltwater Buddha is being turned into a film.
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 small of 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 that year in the monastery, I suppose I was in that middle stage–rivers, for me, were no longer rivers. Or maybe it was over-exposure 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 real 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?