Most big-wave surfers dream about surfing Mavericks, the colossal break near the shores of Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Given the lives claimed in those cold Pacific waters and the locomotive force of Mavericks waves, which can reach 80 feet, those dreams are surely mixed with a healthy dose of dread. They were for Jaimal Yogis, a 33-year-old writer and surfer who lives in San Francisco. But he managed to turn those fears and that surfing dream into an assignment. For The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing ... And Love (Rodale), Yogis spent months training for a go at Mavericks.
Along the way, he steeped himself in the latest neuroscience on fear—where it comes from, why we have it, what's good and bad about it—and connected what we know about fear with what we feel about fear, whether that's the fear of a big wave or a guitar solo or a committed relationship.
As the story develops, Yogis finds the love of his life and by the close of the book he has become a father. Somewhat less importantly, he has also surfed Mavericks.
From just sitting in the lineup to being in the grip of a two-wave hold-down courtesy of a rogue wave, Yogis' descriptions of his inaugural Mavericks session make fear palpable. About his second hold-down he writes: "An avalanche of foam mows me down and I'm back into blackness: punched, kicked, splayed, held under again. ... I'm gagging for air, again with no sense of direction. Where the hell is the surface?"
But he is not deterred. Employing some of the mental techniques he's been practicing for months ("positive anchoring thoughts," for example), Yogis stays in the water and comes to terms with his fear. "Instead of feeling weaker by embracing fear, I'm flooded with a surge of power," he writes. After hours of trying, he finally gets his wave.
We spoke with Yogis—whose first book, Saltwater Buddha, explored the linkages between surfing and Zen Buddhism—about The Fear Project and what it says about how getting outside and facing our fears can make us smarter, reduce our stress, and keep us healthy.
Early on in the book you write about the end of a really long relationship and that break-up seems like the impetus for the whole project. Was it?
The idea first came from my book tour for Saltwater Buddha. I had a big book tour because I had a small publisher and I knew that if I wanted to sell books I would need to do a book tour. Just the idea of public speaking made me really nervous. I sort of assembled all these mechanisms to make me less nervous. I brought my friend's band on tour with me—they would play at the bookstore and they have a really groovy, mellow sound, so that would relax me. And I would lead a brief meditation before giving my talk. Both of those would calm me down.
The first couple of stops were pretty bad, but then I started getting into it and I realized that it was fun. That just seemed like magic to me—that I could be so nervous about something and then all of a sudden I could just do it. If I can have a blast public speaking, what else am I not doing that could help me live more fully, more successfully, more freely?