To a 16-year-old junior in high school, living in the suburbs of Sacramento, California, surfing represented ultimate freedom. With this passion in mind along with a desire to leave his troubles behind, Jaimal Yogis purchased a cheap, one-way ticket to Maui.
“I’m somewhere in the world and I’ll let you know when I figure it out,” Yogis wrote in the note to his parents that he left on his pillow before climbing out his bedroom window. He grabbed a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha from the bookshelf on his way out. Although he hadn’t saved more than a few hundred dollars, it was enough to buy a surfboard once he got to Hawaii.
“I ran away to Maui, not really knowing any more than I wanted to learn how to surf,” says Yogis, now 38, who chronicled his spiritual journeys first in Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea (Wisdom Publications, 2009) and most recently in All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride (Harper Wave, 2017).
Yogis was drawn to Hawaii not only by the imagery, but also by the memory of joyful times as a preschooler, playing on the beach with his family when his father was stationed with the Air Force in the Azores off the coast of Portugal.
“That was the last time I could remember our family being really happy,” he says. “Once we moved to Sacramento, both of my parents seemed more disgruntled and they struggled with their relationship.”
While consciously Yogis ran away to restart his life after getting busted for drunk driving and for smoking pot at school, unconsciously he was yearning to find a relationship with his father, a former surfer.
“Surfing was the carrot to freedom that was driving me,” he says.
Yogis was in Hawaii for only a few weeks before his father came to get him. He wouldn’t agree to return home until his parents (who he describes as Buddhist-yogi) agreed to let him spend his senior year as an exchange student in France. There, he visited Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery, Plum Village, and decided he was born to become a Buddhist monk.
After high school, he lived in a Buddhist monastery back in California and was within weeks of becoming ordained when the abbot encouraged him to attend college first. While earning a degree in religious studies at the University of Hawaii (followed by a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City), he managed to continue traveling the world—surfing in Indonesia, India, Mexico, and Europe.
Dodging the Second Arrow
Saltwater Buddha chronicles this search for surf and serenity. All Our Waves Are Water continues his story, beginning with a heartbroken Yogis living in the Himalayas after his girlfriend broke up with him. The book’s title is a nod to what he learned then from a Tibetan monk he befriended: “We experience waves of emotion—from joy to sorrow.” In life, as in surfing, if you get caught under a wave, it’s best to let go and let the wave pass you by. If you fight against it, you waste your energy.
This idea, Yogis explains, stems from the Buddhist parable of the second arrow. In this teaching, the Buddha asks a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” When the student answers that it is indeed painful, the Buddha then asks, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” Again, the student answers in the affirmative.
“So if you get struck by an arrow,” the Buddha then asks, “do you shoot another arrow into yourself?” The metaphor illustrates that while in life we can’t always control the first arrow, the second arrow—our reaction to the first—is optional.
“When you’re in a deep bout of fear, which comes from our primal brain—a reaction neuroscience tells us is really faster than conscious thought—that emotion grips your body,” Yogis explains. “If you fight against it and create a story about that fear, you create a whole other spiral of suffering that is optional. If you just feel the fear and observe it, then you’re just feeling one arrow. You’re seeing it as a natural survival mechanism and it just passes by. You’re not adding fear to fear or fear to jealousy or fear to sadness.”
Meditation, he says, can help us learn to eliminate the optional pain of the second arrow by watching our minds. “Some pain in life is not optional,” Yogis says. “It’s sad when your parents pass away, for example. But the storytelling around that pain, which creates more pain, is optional.” The essence of this teaching, he says, is that true happiness—and true freedom—aren’t dependent on what’s happening externally but on how our minds react to it.
Although he hasn’t yet mastered dodging that second arrow, he’s getting better at it. “I’m always telling myself stories about my pain and lamenting,” he says. “But I’ve shortened the window where I allow myself to really feel bad for myself. I catch myself in the story and it’s like being caught in the wave.”
Freedom in Discipline
Now married and living in San Francisco, Yogis shares his life with his three greatest teachers to date: his sons, ages 6, 4, and 2. Being a father allows him to carve deeper into questions he’s been asking for decades. The discipline Buddhism has taught him has been invaluable along the way.
“When you’re coaching kindergarten basketball, it’s total chaos and you feel almost powerless to do anything,” he explains as an example. “But you have to just stick with it for the hour. That’s the kind of relinquishing control and just being present that you don’t really have to deal with when you’re just taking care of yourself. But when it’s your kids having a tantrum or fighting, you must find a deeper reserve and the ability to not be reactive. That’s by far the best teaching I’ve had along these lines. I still lose my cool all the time, but I see myself learning. It’s the failing that allows you to learn.”
Drawing firm boundaries while being firmly compassionate is one of the hardest lessons we learn as human beings—especially, he says, as it relates to true freedom.
“Real freedom isn’t just having a martini on the beach,” Yogis says. “It takes discipline to have true expansive inner freedom as well as compassion for ourselves.”
He cites one of his favorite teachers, the late Chan Master Empty Cloud, who believed discipline is the foundation of enlightenment.
“If you want to find the most profound peace and most profound potential of your entire being, it’s going to take a little discipline and hard work,” Yogis says. “Ultimately, there is this paradox where you are letting go into what you already are—because you are already divine. This enlightened part of you is already there. We can fall into a trap and say, ‘Well, I don’t really need to do any work. I’m already enlightened,’ but the fact is that letting go takes some discipline. You have to focus your mind. You have to be able to know yourself intimately. All of these things take discipline. You can’t find the great freedom of the mind until you’ve learned to focus your mind.”
Beyond meditation, yoga and prayer can help, he says. For Yogis, being quiet in nature, surfing, or hiking works best. Reflections on compassion or love can also lead to freedom, he adds.
“When we feel true compassion for another being, we’re touching a deeper level of reality,” he explains. “Compassion gets us out of our own selfish cycle of thinking, which is where a lot of suffering happens. When you get into that frame of mind where you’re feeling the pain of others, it opens the mind. When you’re giving back to somebody who is suffering more than you, you’re not worrying about yourself as much. There’s a freedom in that for sure.”
Writing has been both cathartic and liberating for Yogis. In All Our Waves Are Water, he wanted to validate that it’s okay to look everywhere—from religion to science to philosophy—“and that questioning conscience itself is freeing.” The process ultimately leads to oneness.
“We live in a world that’s a big classroom,” Yogis explains. “I think we have an obligation, living in this age of information, to try and understand each other’s perspective. It’s essential for surviving on our planet together.”
He believes it’s important that we go beyond our own traditions and beliefs to “try on these other types of shoes and walk around in them, to see that they are not exactly the same, but similar.” Our different stories, traditions, and practices are different ways to listen to “our deepest heart.”
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to know yourself and be happy and then bring love into the world however you do that,” he explains. “We’re not meant to just regurgitate people from the past or our parents. We have to come out and live uniquely and reflect light and love in our own way.”
Jaimal Yogis is an award-winning writer living in San Francisco, California. His first book, Saltwater Buddha, was turned into a feature documentary film.