Jaimal Yogis spends a lot of time thinking about not thinking. He’s a writer and surfer based in San Francisco, California, where he pursues the elusive quality, or perhaps a state of being, of Zen. Yogis has written two memoirs about the relationship between surfing and his Zen practice, as well as a non-fiction book about the science of fear. His most recent book is All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride. Yogis brought readers along as he left home at 16 to surf in Hawaii then join a monastery in his first book, Saltwater Buddha. This time Yogis goes on a similar journey, from the Himalaya, to Bali, a few years in New York City, and finally to his current home in San Francisco. What’s he seeking? Peace. Fulfillment. Joy. In the excerpt below, Yogis is challenging himself at a hairball reefbreak in Bali. The waves are shockingly powerful, the reef below razor blade-sharp, but the electric blue tubes on offer are worth the risk. Yogis draws strength from a confident friend, and, well, sends it.
“Any words of wisdom?” I asked Jimmy.
He flashed a grin.
“Believe,” he said.
It was bright and sunny, but I felt chilly as we bobbed between sets. I repeated Jimmy’s advice silently: Believe, believe, believe. Believe, believe, believe . . .
The ocean was calm, and we floated there for a good ten minutes, waiting for a pulse. When the next set came, it seemed the sea had been storing power. The swells were mountainous as they rose under the sky. My instinct was to paddle for the horizon so none of these behemoths broke on top of me, which was exactly what the other six surfers did. But Jimmy ticked his head toward the beach, urging me to hold ground. Apparently, we were already in the zone.
The first swell began to show boils, tracking the indentations of the reef. The other surfers in the pack began to thrash for it, but they were too far out.
Go, go!” Jimmy nodded, shouting a whisper.
My brain didn’t want to go. But my body seemed to move anyway. Paddling as hard as I ever had, the water sucked me up, up, up to the crest. I stood. But it was too late. The wave was already going concave. And like that, I was airborne.
In that blink of weightlessness, I smashed my back foot down on the board’s tail, an attempt to feel the face of the wave, to keep from nose-diving. I knew this was unlikely to stop me. I almost surrendered to a horrid fall. But it worked. My fins touched vertical blue liquid. I landed with my feet positioned on the wax. And I began zooming down the mountain.
The wave was fast and smooth. It shimmered, and I enjoyed the raw speed. But as I transitioned to at sea, the bass of the wave seemed to hiccup. It dropped below surface level, slurping against the reef, and I realized that I had never seen a wave look anything like this. It didn’t even look much like a wave. It looked more like a blue-green subway tunnel that had been chopped in half and was falling from space.
When the next set came, it seemed the sea had been storing power. The swells were mountainous as they rose under the sky.
The blue circuit warped and bent into a tunnel so long it seemed that I would have to be going the speed of a subway to have any hope of making it to the end. Looking down, I could see the coral seeming to rise. Water, of course, can form optical illusions, but there looked to be only a foot or two of water down there.
There was no going back though. I heard a whistle in my ear as the wind rushed past. I leaned onto my heels, trying to veer left, the direction the wave was peeling. But as the water encased me, it didn’t matter which way I wanted to go. The wave was in control. Just as Jimmy had said, time was different in here. In here, there was just the echo of water on stone. This and this and this. Somehow my board seemed to continue with me continuing to stand on it. Blue, blue, blue. The roar, the roar, the roar. The light at the end of it.
I kept floating through until a burst of foam hit me from behind and I was—could it be possible? — going to . . .
Make it . . . Out . . . Please . . . YES!
To follow Yogis’ journey further, pick up a copy of All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride.
For more surfers crafting entire lives around the fleeting chase of perfection, pick up one of these titles:
Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast by Daniel Duane (1997). A climber-turned-surfer peels back the foggy curtain of surf life on California’s sleepy central coast.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (2016). New Yorker journalist Bill Finnegan recounts his younger days globetrotting in pursuit of the world’s best surf, and, also, in pursuit of his own maturity.
The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw (2010). A joyously readable chronicle of surfing’s surprising and quirky history.