No Doubt

Those who have never lived here often trade in concepts of Los Angeles: the home of sun, surf, celebrities and smog. We Angelenos do too but we also know our city as something much more. LA is so big and so rich; it’s elusive, can never quite be pinned down. The Shambhala teachings refer frequently to the vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Could this be the very same sun that shines nearly every day, all year, in Los Angeles? What is it like to approach Los Angeles with freshness, free from fixed mind? This post is the second in an ongoing series called La La Land that explores fixed concepts and ideas about Los Angeles.

In this installment, actor and Shambhalian David Fraioli writes about his experience with the quintessential LA past-time of surfing. 

I am not a surfer.

At least, I do not consider myself to be one of those glistening golden people with surfboards on the roof of their cars winding along PCH. I always envied those people, who had the courage and skill and confidence to engage in that world. But I think maybe it’s all a matter of how they see themselves.

As someone who has been studying and practicing in Shambhala, and has heard the teachings on unconditional confidence and basic goodness over and over again, my experience of basic goodness has largely remained conceptual, although I believe it to be something more profound, more energetic, and more embodied.

I thought that trying something that I had been curious about, and afraid of, might shift how I thought about or experienced myself. I think it’s all a matter perspective, how we see ourselves, how we feel about ourselves…..not so much our ability, or skill.

Do I see myself as worthy to learn something new and make mistakes? At 48 years old. Do I feel that I can accomplish what I want in my life? Even when some ambitions and goals seem so elusive, can I feel, really feel deep in my heart, that I am fundamentally ok no matter what happens?

Even if I fail, can I see myself as a basically good failure?

I started looking into surfing when I found myself going online every night after work, with nothing to do…I had already gone to the gym, already meditated, (maybe) already rehearsed, or performed (I’m an actor). I suddenly had free time….now what? I was searching for distraction–going online for clothes, for men, for entertainment. I was wasting my time.

I became bored and unsatisfied with my constant search for distraction. I decided to stop. First step was to get offline. Go outside. Go further outside….how far outside can I go? The ocean. And not just the beach. Further. Offshore. There is energy, majesty, nature, vastness, wholesomeness…everything I was longing for. And hot guys in wetsuits.

So before I got offline, I searched the web for surfing lessons in LA. I found Jim. According to his website, he’s been surfing his whole life. He is probably in his late 50’s now. We spoke on the phone, and made plans for the following Saturday.

I met him at the top of the wooden stairs at Sunset Beach. The conditions have to be just right, and they were, at 7:30 am. I had never been to the beach that early. The water was already crowded with black wetsuits. He brought one for me. I stripped down to my underwear on the side of PCH and awkwardly tried to put it on. I felt cool…I was one of those half-naked people on PCH getting ready to go surfing.

“It’s inside-out”, he said. Back to square one. Put on the wetsuit correctly.

I carried my board down to the beach…it was a soft longboard, used for teaching, about 9 feet long. The wetsuit felt like another skin. I felt supported, uplifted, as if I had new fascia. All those years of Rolfing, I thought, and all I really needed was to wear a wetsuit?

The ocean air, the sunshine, the anticipation of what I was about to do…I was soaking it all in. My usual morning routine was tea, meditation, and emails and web surfing. This was different. This was OUTSIDE. At 7:30 am. And I was in a wetsuit.

After a ground lesson in how to stand up, how to avoid major catastrophe (dive down under the surface), I paddled out. Jim swam alongside me. He was going to spend an hour in the water with me, treading water, coaching me, calling out to me when to paddle, when to stand up. He was facing the ocean, I was lying on the board facing the shore. When he saw a wave, he told me exactly when to start paddling to catch it.

“Go go go!! Dig dig dig!” That was my cue to started paddling like crazy. You need a lot of speed to catch a wave–this I did not know. I thought it just picked you up and carried you. He said it was like riding a bike…if you go to slow, you will fall over when you are first learning. So on his cue, I started paddling, or digging.

“DIG!!” he was screaming. “Dig like you mean it!!” Dig like there’s nothing else in the fuckin world!”

“OK, Jesus,” I thought, “why so aggressive?”

But it worked. I dug like there was nothing else in the fuckin’ world. “UP!” he screamed. I placed my hands, planted one foot forward, and stood up. On a surfboard. On a wave. And I stayed standing.

Once up, I thought, wow, I am doing this. For the first time. The rush of water, the rush of energy…if there were any thoughts, I don’t remember them. It was more a feeling of exhilaration, slight panic, and being totally present. I think my life could have that quality. Not knowing if I will fall, but just riding the present moment, trusting my ability to stand up, and not only that, but to relax and look around.

And that was the key. Jim said once I got up, the main thing was to relax. Stay loose. Stay in the knees and hips. He said I tried to balance from my upper body, which made me stiff. “You’ll go right over.” But it’s a very “conversational stance” he said, meaning, it’s natural. Just stand on the board like you’re talking to someone, easy and natural. No balancing act required. No squatting. Almost like a qi gong stance….not locked, but loose.

So getting up was the easy part…staying relaxed and loose once I was up was the challenge.

After a few waves, I was able to stand up smoothly and slowly, and then settle into a relaxed standing posture. I was able to just look around and enjoy the scenery as I rode the wave–he other surfers, the shoreline, the sky. I felt completely confident. I suddenly thought of myself as a surfer. One who surfs.

I had an acting teacher who taught his students to do handstands. It was not about the handstand itself. It was about learning something new. And how that affects how you see yourself. At one time, you see yourself as someone who cannot do a handstand. And then after being shown, and some practice, you do one. You are no longer someone who cannot do a handstand. You have done one. You might never do one again. But you are now someone who has done, who can do, a handstand. A slight shift happens in your self perception. On the one hand, you could say, “no big deal” and it really isn’t. Which is the point. Because you’re still, and always will be, yourself, handstand or no handstand. Wave or no wave. And yet, it is a profound shift. From “I can’t.” to “I can.” is very profound.

Maybe the same can be said for meditation. You think, “I can’t meditate…I’m just one of those people who can’t”. But then you find a teacher who shows you how, and you sit for 10 or 20 minutes, and occasionally experience your breath and your body very simply, and you become aware of your mind.

In the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, there is a ritual called “pointing out the nature of mind”. The teacher, or guru introduces the student to their own inherent nature of goodness and confidence. They see us as we truly are. In their eyes, we are all “surfers.” Or rather, we can do anything. Basically, the teacher says to the student. “You can”. After years of thinking you can’t, someone finally comes along and shows us what has been so close we couldn’t even see it. Our own ability to see ourselves as we truly are…wise, kind, strong, and good people living in a sacred world. The great realized teachers have experienced true human nature, and they are excited to share their discovery with us and teach us how to experience it for ourselves.

They do not want to be the only ones on the ocean, riding the waves of love and compassion. They want us to join them.

We need to hear and study their teachings. But we also need to “go in the water” with them and have them coach us through actual practice–meditation.

Likewise, I needed Jim to give me some tips, advice, to coach and guide me. I needed his instruction, but I could have gotten that from a book. What I got that day on the ocean with him was his presence, his voice, his encouragement, and his patience. And his love of surfing, which he wanted me to experience. And a different view of myself–he saw me as one who can.

He didn’t know my past failures, rejections, history, and he probably couldn’t care…he just saw a guy who could surf.

So now I am a surfer. I may never surf again. I hope I do. I have been shown how to stand up and relax. And I glimpsed how truly free and confident I can feel.

Of course I will forget. Over and over, we forget who we truly are and that we can live according to virtue. This forgetting is called doubt in the Shambhala tradition. The Shambhala teachings emphasize basic goodness and enlightened society because in this time, doubt is the main obstacle to waking up. People aren’t convinced they are complete, whole and worthy. People aren’t convinced that society is basically good. So all the forms of Shambhala–the practices, the sangha, the shrines, the bowing, the chanting–are all ways to overcome doubt about who we are…to remind ourselves and each other that…we can. We can acknowledge our own goodness . We can feel our body at any time. We can stop and smell the roses, literally, or the salty air. We can look at ourselves with nothing but love and a sense of pride. Not arrogant pride, but healthy pride. We can be kind to each other. We can see clearly how we forget, how we doubt, and go online in search of entertainment, sex, clothes, whatever form of distraction we can cook up, thinking that there’s something missing, and it’s out there. When we find ourselves doubting, forgetting, no problem–that’s called the path. We can even linger there for a while without feeling bad about it. And then we can go outside.

David FraioliDavid Fraioli is an actor, surfer, and meditator. He is a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and has been studying and practicing in Shambhala since 1999. In February 2013, David was interviewed for the Shambhala Times.

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