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Jaimal Yogis spent his early years living near the ocean. After getting into some trouble with the law, he started dreaming of the ocean and bought a one-way ticket to Maui at the age of 16. He eventually spent many years going between training at an ashram and living as a surf bum. He has written three books from this experience, including his latest, All Our Waves Are Water.
Searching Out of Suffering
At the age of 16, Jamail had no money or education and the realities of life starting setting in. His parents practiced yoga and meditation, and both were a part of his family life growing up. This planted the seed that drove him to mysticism once in Hawaii, where for the first time he found joy internally rather than in social life.
Riding The Waves
Jamail relates surfing to spirituality and other areas of life. He uses surfing as a metaphor, where in all situations it is best to have coordination and focus, but also requires a person to relax to be successful. Going with the flow, knowing when to guard and when to let go, being both in the moment and intuiting where to go next, are all principals he lives by both on the water and on land.
The Struggle is The Joy
Allowing oneself to feel the struggle for a reference point for joy, Jamail believes, gives us the ability to search for true joy, rather than fleeting joy. Accepting that the human experience can be difficult and no one is perfect can bring us more naturally to a practice of presence than striving after an idea and taking on the personality of what we think it means to be a spiritual person.
Never Give Up But Do Question Your Approach
Tune in to hear the meaning behind Jaimal’s advice, to “never give up, but do question your approach,” as well as the benefits of play when striving to live in the moment.
– Hey, welcome back to The Urban Monk. Dr. Pedram Shojai, hanging out, talking about surfing. There are so many metaphors that cross over from spirituality, Zen, mindfulness and surfing. I’ve actually had the privilege of knowing a lot of famous surfers around here. I kinda stumbled into being a team doctor for the US Open, and so I’ve had prominent surf kids who I didn’t even know who the hell they were end up being patients of mine, and I’ve been in the surf community out here, and I’ve really enjoyed the vibe, the energy of these guys. These are high level performance athletes who have to learn to relax. And so it was really interesting as a qigong guy engaging with these, mostly kids, who were just doing crazy shit that I couldn’t fathom doing in the air over a wave. And so I developed some really good relationships there, and so when I saw this title, this book, I got really interested and invited the author to come and hang out with me. Jaimal Yogis, his former book was called Saltwater Buddha, and the new one is called All Our Waves Are Water. And I wanna just talk about the Zen of surfing and how that applies to life. So hey, welcome to the show.
– Thanks. Thanks so much. Big honor.
– So you are, obviously, you’re into surfing, but let’s get into how you got in. Did you grow up on the beach? I kinda was stumbling through the book earlier and saw that your dad was a big surfer.
– Yeah. I stumbled into it, as well, a little bit, in that I was born into the family that I was. But yeah. I was actually a military brat. Born in New York, and then my dad got re-stationed in the Azores, Portugal and we lived kinda the beach life there, body surfing. I was a little too young for board surfing, but then we relocated to Sacramento when he got re-stationed. And from there, I always had this kind of dream of getting back to the beach, getting back to the islands, and when my, was getting into the usual trouble that high school students do, I was actually on probation for drunk driving when I was 16. I was never the bad kid. I was the one to get caught. Anyway, I was spinning in that churn of suffering that you do as a teenager, and I ran away from home. I basically, true story, I started having dreams of the ocean, and I felt really free in those dreams, and whether that was remembering back to that time when we lived in the Azores or what, it prompted me to buy a one way ticket to Maui when I was 16. And yeah, I had about a few hundred bucks saved, and used 100 bucks of them to buy a surfboard and that’s how it all began.
– Wow. And Maui is a pretty good place to get in the water. The culture is really rich around surfing. It’s obviously where a lot of the pro guys like to be, like to live. Let’s of good surf energy goes there. And so how did you start finding religion in those sets? How did you start really getting the Zen component and downloading that from the ocean?
– Well, as often happens, it’s suffering that makes you start searching. I thought I would run away to Maui and meet a Hawaiian Tropic model and become a pro surfer right away. That didn’t happen. Instead, I was like, “Here I am, 16. “I’m broke. “All the realities of life are setting in. “I’m not enrolled in school.” So I’m spinning a little bit. And my parents were actually into meditation, as well. My dad was sort of a reformed Catholic and my mom had been raised sort of as a scientific Jew. So they both turned toward yoga, which is where I got my name. In the ’70s, they were studying with San-chee, this guy in Boston. His teacher’s teacher is Baba Jaimal Singh, where I got my name. So they weren’t hardcore into it, but it was always part of our family life was a little bit of meditation, a little bit of yoga. We would drop in at the ashram here and there. And that planted a seed. Of course, once I, again, high school years, rebelling against all of it, didn’t see myself as wanting religion, wanting mysticism, but when I got to Hawaii, it was like, “Oh, shit. “What am I doing with my life?” that I actually started to try meditating and was just winging it. And got a little Thich Nhat Hanh book, started counting my breath. It was the first moment that I got a glimpse of a kind of joy that wasn’t caught up in externalities. At that age, I think one of the reasons I ran away, I was so caught up in the social drama, and happiness was contingent on where I was in the social pack and whether I was getting a girl, whatever. And this was different. It was clearly different from the moment I started, and I related it back to surfing, too, in that they were both difficult, incredibly difficult. I was a decent athlete. I was used to picking something up right away. But meditation and surfing, they presented this big challenge. And I instantly made the correlation of, oh, waves of mind going by like waves of thought. You can resist them and get pummeled, or you can do that accepting thing that all the great wisdom traditions, meditation traditions, teach. And then I just, yeah, I really loved it, and I thought I wanted to be a monk and went and lived in a monastery for a year, and when I didn’t, I was like, “Oh, I’ll try to go back to “the other archetype of freedom, surf bum,” and I’ve gone back and forth.
– The thing about surfing that makes it really interesting is you get all these metaphors where it’s like, “You just gotta ride the wave, man, “and you just go and just let nature do its thing.” But just ducking under these waves that can just kick your ass and paddling your ass off to get into the wave, and then once you’re on the wave, actually being able to surf it isn’t effortless because it takes thousands of hours of micro-adjusting of your balance and all sorts of things, knowing how to stand on a high velocity piece of whatever the hell they make them out of now just flying up towards the land. So there’s a lot of effort. There’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of coordination and a lot of focus that also needs this effortless vibe to make it work because it’s all so soft. So I find it to be one of those really interesting sports that almost requires you to relax to be good. So I’d love to tease that out a little bit.
– Yeah. You have a better understanding of it than most. In some sense, this is unique, and in some sense, this is like everything, when you look at flow states and the zone as you’re intimately familiar with. You have that inverted U shape where you need enough adrenaline and effort to get to peak performance, but you also, if you get into the red zone, your focus narrows, your body freezes up, you start overthinking, your movements become jolted. So somehow, you need to get into that happy medium, the Middle Way, whatever you wanna call it. And that’s a process of trial and error. In the beginning, you’re way overthinking it. You have no timing. You’re just going over the falls. And when you fall, you panic and you fight the wave. You run out of breath to quickly and then you waste your energy. And I think it’s really a matter of, just like life, knowing when to grind and when to let go. And here, at Ocean Beach where I surf in San Francisco, it’s a grind to get out, to paddle out, just to get out there. You gotta use a lot of effort. It’s grit, and when you think you’re not gonna make it, you have to believe that you can do it, ’cause some days, you just won’t even make it out into the surf. And then when you’re paddling for a wave, too, it’s like, there’s the effort. But once you’re up, there is a certain, then you’ve caught the energy of this thing and you’re moving with it. And then, if you overthink it or try to take control and don’t feel the wave, and this is where a lot of the cliches of like, “Dude, just ride it,” come in and actually do correspond where you both have to be completely in the moment and feeling the wave, and also intuiting where it’s going to go. So there’s a lot in that. But I think that’s why it makes it fun, too, is that ever day, you’re getting a little bit of new wisdom from the ocean that then you can bring back on the land. When I go back to write, I’m thinking, “Yeah, it takes effort to sit in front of a computer “and look at the blank page, “but I’m gonna actually get the words to flow, “I need to stop white knuckling “and get into that almost like receiving, “letting go perspective.” So yeah, Middle Way.
– Yeah. I have my rituals for writing. I’ve got a room upstairs where I’ve got the whiteboards and I just have the space, and I put on my classical music and I go. So for me, I consider that my paddle in. You go, you clear everything. You put the phone on airplane. You get there. Then you allow for the flow state to come, right? But even with the flow state, if you just asked me to write, I’m useless. I’m an outline guy. It’s like, “Okay, where are we going?” So I have to set up the superstructure to then allow the flow state to manifest or emerge in between the points that I have agreed to lead people on. That’s my flow state. And for you, writing is one part of it. Life is the other. You’ve got three kids. We were talking offline. Talk about needing to be in a flow state there. If you white knuckle your way through certain things with young kids, it doesn’t end up well, whether it’s 18 years later in their lives or just a temper tantrum. So there’s this piece that you talk about called the struggle is the joy. And a lot of people, the struggle is the suffering. So how does that chemical transformation happen? How does one, through this conversation, turn struggle into joy?
– Well, since you mentioned the kids and this just popped into my head, there’s a lot of different examples I could use, but I think, your kids are so much, I’m thinking of my three year old right now, and they say three years olds basically have the mind, a brain structure of a sociopath.
– [Pedram] Sounds about right.
– I know you can relate. You love them to death, but they’re throwing these fits, and you wanna control it. So you can be the big dog and be like, “Hey! “Sit down! “Shut it! “Stop it! “Stop whining.” That gets you nowhere. And so then you try other strategies of like, hey, well, I’ll just give you an example because the Warriors just won the championship her in San Francisco, and our three year old loves them. When they lost that game to the Cavs, he was sobbing. He was just throwing this tantrum. I wanted to try to patch it up and be like, “Hey, no, it’s gonna be okay. “They’re gonna be all right.” He was in the moment, like, “No, they lost now. “I’m sad.” And so I felt myself wanting to patch it, and then said, “Hey, you know what, Eben? “I love the Warriors, too. “It’s sad. “Let’s be sad together right now.” And I put on my sad face, and he instantly, you see this, “Oh, somebody is validating my struggle right now,” and then that struggle became this moment where we hugged. By the way, this doesn’t always work. As you know, you gotta think on your toes with three year olds, but it worked in that moment, and it was a joyful moment. And I think that’s it right there, is A, no struggle, you don’t even have a reference point for the joy, but beyond that, I think the struggle, as I was talking about in reference to running away, is what makes us look for true joy. Because if we don’t struggle, we’re just basically caught in the, “Oh, So-And-So got a new car. “They look happy. “I want that new car.” And it’s like, well, you’ll get some fleeting joy from the new car, but what’s true joy? I think the struggle is what pushes us past that point, that just reacting to pain point, to look deeper and check in, take on something like the Zen where, where it’s not easy. It’s not easy to sit there in that form for 10 hours on the retreat or whatever, but you’re teaching yourself something in the form.
– You had an interesting history with this, because you had the ashram training on one end and the beach bum on the other, and you yo-yoed in between for a bit. And it helped create an internal locus of control for where one would fish for that joy. I know a lot of people, especially here in Southern California, like the Huntington Beach crowd, I know a lot of people that are addicted to surfing, and as soon as they’re having a bad day, they’re like, “Fuck this. “I’m getting my board. “I’m going out,” ’cause that’s their medicine. That’s their drug. And so they don’t know how to differentiate. They don’t know how to compartmentalize and find that joy outside of surfing, so it’s like just the thing that I do that helps bring me back, so they need it. How does one who, say, has maybe found that in surfing or in tennis or in running, all these different verticals where people finally have a place of reprieve, bring that back and have that in their daily life when they’re hanging out with their kid and watching them sob or just at work and having a moment?
– Yeah, it’s not easy. That’s the integration piece, and it’s why when you go on a long retreat or something you can start feeling a lot more advancedyou are, and then you get back to Christmas vacation with the family and you’re just like I think it’s, it’s moment to moment, and it’s a process. So I think one, for me, and I don’t know about for you, the biggest piece has been accepting the fact that it’s difficult and that I’m human. So a lot of times, you find the peace and the joy in the surfing, in the meditation, in the running, and you’re just like, “Yes! “Why can’t life be like this? “It’s gonna be like this.” And then you hit a speed bump, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m still human,” and than you beat yourself up. You’re like, “I didn’t react in the right way to my kid there. “I’m not a perfect parent.” And that can just create a downward spiral, and I think the piece where there can be continuity is mixing the difficulties with a constant kind of, I guess self acceptance of being human. And this is just one part of it, but it’s a piece that’s been huge for me in becoming a parent and basically going from having a pretty easy surfer’s life here in California. I realize relative to the world, we live in this great country, I had a lot of spare time, even though I was working hard, to then going to really working hard, as you know, with three kids under five, and trying to find, to incorporate that peace that I find on retreat into the moment, it’s like, A, I just gotta accept that I’m not perfect and keep accepting and keep accepting. And then B, well, I don’t know what B is.
– Keep accepting, keep accepting. It’s not easy. I think we live in a culture that has become addicted to the sedatives, whether they be cigarettes or Quaaludes or some drug or yoga or surfing, whatever it is, and people lean on that. It becomes the crutch. And I think that’s really idolatry, if you will. It’s like you’re giving surfing the power of relaxation. You’re giving yoga the power of introspection. And a lot of that, even meditation, people are like, “Well, I have my meditation discipline, “and this is what I do,” meditation is just about creating the space to then be able to be in a place of acceptance and really being present with what you’re feeling, like your kid being bummed. That’s real, right? It’s bullshit, because it’s like the stuff that comes and goes in life that we attribute our energy to, but for a kid to be into the rise and fall of a team is natural. I mean, we do it. Shit, people paint their faces and go to Patriots games. And so that’s part of the culture and that’s part of where the ups and downs are constantly serving us. One of the things that I really like about the philosophy of learning how to let go and using sport as the metaphor and sport as the vehicle is, I was talking about, I just had a level three retreat with a bunch of my more senior students, and one of the things, it’s like, if you’re sitting there doing some advanced meditation and you fall asleep and you wake up five minutes later and you’re like, “Oh, shit, let me get back to it,” it was kinda no harm, no foul. You might’ve wasted five minutes of your life, but you didn’t go tumbling into a coral reef and lose the skin on your face and get held down for five minutes. So your stakes are really higher in what you do there. We just had a downhill skier that, same thing, it’s like, you hit that fucking tree, you’re done. So were you focused or not? So how does that really influence the mindfulness, if you will, that one can learn by doing something like surfing?
– Well, yeah, two things. I think any time you make meditation into this project, you start automatically turning it into an idea of what presence is, and then you’re striving after that idea. It almost becomes like wearing a hat on a hat. You’re not opening up to the moment. You’re like, “Now I’m here to be a good meditator, “and I will take on the personality of a good meditator,” and that’s where you get all these passive aggressive people at the ashram being like, “I just started meditating, “and so I don’t get angry anymore.” And I think it really helps to have a physical component that isn’t quote on quote spiritual where you just go out and play. That play element has a natural flow and a natural presence. It’s what we worship in the child mindset where they don’t have to put anything on to go and have fun and be in the moment. They’re just like, “Oh, I know what to do. “I’m gonna go climb. “I’m gonna go run.” Surfing, becomes of the dynamism of the ocean and because of the danger, as you’re pointing out, you have to be present. And when it’s small, you naturally become present because it’s fun, and when we’re having fun, we’re not thinking about future and past. We’re pretty present. It’s not the same as meditative presence, but it can inform it. I should say, it’s not the same as a yogic state of consciousness that one can come upon in still meditation, but there’s a crossover piece, I think, where if you can bring that openness and sort of playfulness and lack of self awareness or self storytelling to your mindfulness, that’s really helped me. Then, when you bring in the danger part of just what real awakeness is, I think your biology just wakes up in a certain way where it’s truly alert when real risk is involved. And that’s just like a muscle, too, I think, that you can bring back onto land or bring off the slopes. So it’s all changing our brains, changing our neuroplasticity, and we become different people, and I think we look at meditation and wanna put it into a box of like, “This is my meditation time, this is not,” but it’s all meditation to me. And so they inform each other. And if you have the movement and stillness and the stillness and movement, all the better.
– You know what’s interesting is the metaphor we use in my camp, if you will, is kung fu, the literal translation, is hard work, and the saying is, “Life is kung fu.” And one of the things that was always emphasized in my tradition, and now we live in this post-modern reality where everything is scrambled, is someone comes to the temple, you don’t just learn the qigong and the meditation. You’re a student of kung fu, because what happens is we do all these mindfulness practices and if your mindfulness practice is working, you’re getting punched in the face a little less. And so life is kicking at you, life is punching, and life is testing, and life is barreling over you and you better damn well know what to do on your surfboard. And so I think some of this crossover, the information that comes over from the East that gets uncoupled from its traditions has become a little dangerous, because if all I do is meditate and I think I’m such a great meditator and I think I’m so mindful that I’m becoming a pompous asshole and I’m becoming more arrogant because I’m more spiritual than you, then that is now not tempered by reality. Like if you get over your skis or if the wave catches you, those things are very humbling. Those things really focus you in on the present and test your meditation skills in a way that I think makes it way more real. So I think that it’s an incubator for real progress. So you’ve got me thinking, I almost wanna make all of my meditation students have to go take on some sort of sport to pressure test their shit, just to make sure they’re not bullshitting themselves about how well they’ve arrived.
– Well, yeah. I think you had that built into the system in the old days where you had, whether it’s like Marpa and Milarepa telling him, “Hey.” There’s no element of those ancient meditation schools being like meditation getting in a hot tub and being like, “Just take it easy, man.” It’s like you always had a teacher who was poking and prodding you and being like, “Hey, go build me a house. “Oh, sorry. “I just destroyed the house that you built.” And those things would be, if you did that today, the guru would get sued. He’d be taken to jail. But it was the way that it was done in the past. Now, yeah, we’re in this transition where it’s like, yeah, some of the mindfulness things, you decouple them from the system of ethics, the tradition, and it’s like you can get some weird stuff going on where it’s like, “Well, just accept, just accept what is,” without any philosophical or ethical structure. It’s like, well that’s a perfect recipe to just have mindfulness at these corporations and being like, “Just accept the fact that “you work 15 hours a day and you’re a slave to the company.” It doesn’t always, I’m not saying that’s bad, because I’m in favor of mindfulness being a part of our lives and our work lives, but it’s an interesting transition, I agree with you, that’s happening right now where, yeah, scrambled eggs, and nobody really knows, it’s a big experiment. But I think that if we can get a little bit of that perspective of actually doing difficult things is part of meditation, is part of the meditation school, it’s not all about, and taking risks. And sometimes that’s a physical risk. I think, in the past it might’ve been more like doing austerities, doing kung fu. So yeah, I’m with you. Let’s start it out.
– I’m kidding, I’m kidding. We’re running out ’cause we had a little bit of a late start because of a tech glitch, and there’s a point here that you make up that I really wanna cover, and it’s basically never give up, but do question your approach. And I think that it’s such a big topic and such an important one. And let’s touch on it here, and then I’ll direct people to your book for the rest of this wisdom, but do question your approach. Tell me about that.
– Yeah, I think there is, well, you know, all of the projects that we take on are complicated, and oftentimes, when we, again, in the scrambled eggs syndrome, I think there’s this idea that if you just believe it, it will be. And then when that’s mixed with this Protestant work ethic of grind it out, like you just keep grinding, you keep believing, it’ll happen. But there’s some times where you’re just, I use the metaphor of paddling out at Ocean Beach, where you’re grinding, you’re grinding, you believe you can make it. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you just got in at the wrong spot, and you need to find the rip current. And so it’s about taking a break, surveying the conditions, and being a little smarter about your choices. So you jump in at the place where there’s a rip and you might be able to paddle out with little effort, whereas a mile down, you would be spinning your wheels. And so that’s an easy sports metaphor for what happens all the time in our work lives where we have an end goal, or relationship lives, spiritual lives, we have an end goal, and I think it’s that place where you have to recognize when you are spinning your wheels to the point of ridiculousness, and just believing because you’ve been told to believe without also taking a step back and looking at the meta perspective. That’s what I’m getting at there. I don’t know if you can relate.
– Oh, man. If I had a nickel for every time I found myself spinning my wheels and continuing to gas into spinning those wheels, I’d be retired right now. And that’s where meditation really helps me, is I just step back and be like, “Yo, dummy, that’s not working, so look at it differently.” Elevate. It’s kinda the old Einstein thing. He said, “You can’t solve a problem “from the same level of consciousness that it was created.” And so questioning the approach, kinda pulling back, disengaging for a minute to be able to then get your bearings and look at something. There’s so much energy that’s expended on things that don’t work in our lives that if we could just free up five percent of that we’d have enough energy to feel enlightened. It’s we’re terribly inefficient. You see that in sport all the time and paddling out. You guys have some serious freaking waves up there. It’s really hard to surf that stuff, and it’s dangerous, right? So you’re playing a higher stakes game. But I would argue that every single one of us are doing the same thing in our careers and in our traffic and just our morning rituals all the way through, just looking at where we’re inefficient and giving ourselves an opportunity to step back and correct that and question that approach. So I think there’s a whole two hour conversation in just that one point there. We’re out of time. I love these types of conversations. I love being able to break reality into metaphors we can understand. Anyone who’s surfed already gets this. Anyone who hasn’t surfed, you’ll relate this to any other thing in your life. I really enjoyed this book, and I really think that this is how we need to think about mindfulness, how we need to think about life in metaphor, because then it kinda simplifies our ability to realize that maybe what I’m doing here is trying to paddle out in the wrong direction in my day. So Jaimal Yogis. Is this your second or third book?
– Third, yeah. I thought you had a book, before or after the Saltwater Buddha?
– I did one after Saltwater Buddha that was more scientific on the neuroscience of fear and courage called The Fear Project. It gets to a lot of the same ideas we’re talking about, but puts the research behind it. So sometimes, I just wanna tell stories, write from the heart, and other times I wanna geek out on the technical details.
– Excellent. Well, either way, All Our Waves Are Water. He’s doing some great work and he’s riding some big waves, and he’s standing here, and one of the biggest waves he’s been riding is a one year old coming after a three year old coming after a five year old. So talk about a monster set.
– Absolutely, yeah. No time to question the approach. We’re just in.
– That’s it, that’s it. Well, you look like you’re getting your head up above water here, so you’re doing something right.
– [Jaimal] Some days.
– Yeah, some days. And other days, there’s saltwater coming out of my nose.
– [Jaimal] You got it.
– Cool, man. Well, thank you for your time. Again, I will, at some point, if we’re in the same town, we’ll go paddle out and we can talk about this stuff on the board with some GoPros. Let me know what you think. I will see you next time. Dr. Pedram Shojai, The Urban Monk.