Right after graduating college I started working in the entertainment business in Wilmington, NC. At the time, my home state of North Carolina, was right behind California and New York for the largest activity of film production in the USA. I was a professional actor getting jobs in theater, commercials, industrials and small parts in TV. This now seems like another lifetime! As luck would have it I got a production assistant job in a major movie called “Domestic Disturbance,” starring John Travolta and Vince Vaughn. Although I was at the bottom to the to-tum pole, I was extremely grateful to be on set every day, and see Hollywood up close and personal. Every now and then I got to have personal conversations with the stars and the producers as well that were very inspiring for a young 22 year old fresh out of college.
Soon into production these producers decided to promote me to become a Teamster. I joined one of the most powerful unions in the country working in the transportation department. They gave me a production vehicle and I pretty much drove important people around wherever they needed to go. My salary quadrupled and I received benefits galore like medical insurance and a 401K, and overtime pay was pretty normal. I felt like I had hit the jack pot!
When the production wrapped I decided to move to Hollywood, California with a couple of friends. We packed up our SUV and made the drive across the country. We settled in an apartment 2 blocks away from the Sunset Strip, near the famous Viper Room and Whisky a Go Go. We were right in the middle of all the action. During the day we all hustled to make it into the business. At night we enjoyed the party scene. This went on for a couple of years. As time went on I could feel myself becoming less and less happy. As much as I was trying to numb this inner pain with alcohol and partying, the truth was that it was undeniable. I was quickly getting buried deeper and deeper into the quicksand of suffering.
Around this time, I got a job as a banquet server at The Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey. One of the guys in my department kept talking about this great yoga class he would go to. He kept trying to get me to join him, but I was pretty resistant. At that time I was in my mid twenties and had no clue what yoga was. I just knew that it came somewhere from the East and I had images of people with white turbans, long grey beards and tied up into human pretzels. All of that of course was pretty ignorant.
Eventually, I succumbed to the constant nagging of my work friend to go try a yoga class. My first class was at Santa Monica Power Yoga with teacher Govindas, who at that time went by his birth name Ira Rosen.
My experience in that yoga class was love at first sight. Govindas guided us through a strong, sweaty heart felt class that was beyond anything that I had ever imagined. I was surprised by how it addressed the different aspects of fitness…strength, flexibility, balance and stamina and all that you needed was your body and your breath. It was really tough but I could feel all these different areas of my body opening up in ways that I had never felt. And it wasn’t just physical, it was a meditation in motion infused with awareness. My mind felt so peaceful, and then at the every end of class he sang a chant with his musical instrument called the harmonium. The harmonium is from India, and it’s kind of like an acoustic pump organ that puts out a beautiful, rich tone of sound.
As he sang at the end I could feel my body become light, I could feel my mind become real still, and I could feel an energy inside of my heart that was like a reunion taking place. When I was about 9 years old my mom introduced me to meditation. She would give me these cassette tapes with guided meditations on them. I would go into my room and do these meditations. At an early age, I was gifted with this experience of opening my mind to different perceptions. With the guidance of these tapes, I was able to see things beyond the normal reality. It brought to a place of excitement, possibility and a deep inner serenity. This part of me would soon be abandoned as I got older, but now here I was on my yoga mat having the reunion. It was like being separated from someone you really love and finally you get to reconnect. I was overcome with happiness and joy.
I left that first yoga class feeling like I had just been exposed to a whole new world and became a dedicated yogi. I would go to class as often as I could, usually about 5 times a week. I couldn’t get enough. A few months after my first class Govindas announced that he was hosting a yoga retreat in Kauai. After I found out that the retreat included 2 yoga classes a day, chanting and meditation, all gourmet raw food, and plenty of beach time I was sold! I actually didn’t have much money, but I knew I had to go, so I put the trip on my credit card.
On the very first day of the retreat we went on a hike along the Nepali coast. High up on the bluffs you could hear these fierce waves crashing below. There was a feeling that this had been the case since the dawn if time. The environment felt primal and powerful. We continued our hike trekking deep into nature and leaving all signs of civilization behind.
As we started to descend down from the towering cliffs towards sea level, we began to see multiple signs along the trail. They were warning signs about not swimming in the water. They cautioned of death due to strong undertow.
Eventually we all arrived at this beautiful cove. Other than a couple of other people we had this spot all to ourselves. On the outskirts of the cove were huge, jagged black rocks with even bigger waves crashing on top. This produced a rumbling sound of thunder. But in the middle of the cove, majestic waves just rolled in one after the other. It was like a scene out of a movie, tropical perfection!
It was too much for me to resist. I had to go in. I stripped off my shirt and shoes and jumped into the ocean. I started swimming a little ways away from shore becoming flooded with the beauty and the adrenaline of the moment. This was no ordinary beach and also no ordinary ocean.
“The things you resist persist, the things you embrace you move through with grace.”
All of a sudden, things shifted, I felt an undertow underneath the surface grab me. It had a power and force unlike anything I had ever felt before. It began to quickly suck me further away from shore. As much as I tried to fight it I was helpless. I was being dragged towards the danger zone. The danger zone is that place that’s too deep to stand anywhere and also right where the waves crash. It’s not a good place to be.
It all happened so fast. I was snatched up by an enormous wave and then thrown down with an almost back breaking kind of intensity. I was held under the surface by the tumbling whitewater far longer than I could hold my breath. As soon as I could get back to the surface I would come back up, have a quick second to gasp for air, and then the exact same process would be repeated. After a few cycles of this I knew I was in serious danger and was now fighting for my life. Despite all my efforts though, I couldn’t free myself from the grasp of the ocean, and the life was being drained out of me scarily fast. Reality was fully setting in, I probably wasn’t going to make it.
At this point the ocean current started to pull me towards the edge of the cove. I could see these big waves colliding with the jagged rocks. I remember having the thought, “great, not only am I going to die, but I’m going to have my spine broken in the process.” My little bit of hope that I had of survival was completely dashed. I was forced into a state of absolute surrender. Instead of fighting to live, I was now moving into a mindset of dying with as much grace as possible.In what I was convinced were going to be my last thoughts, all I could think about were the people that I had loved, and the people that had loved me. I didn’t think about anything material or remotely physical. There are many accounts of people that have had near death experiences and they shared the same thing. All they thought about was love. What saddened me the most were all the people that I would never get to say goodbye to.
“The best way out is always through.”
– Robert Frost
Now I was dangerously close to the rocks as the waves endlessly peaked and thundered downward. Periodically as a kid we would go whitewater rafting in the Appalachian mountains. One thing we were trained to do, if we fell out of the boat, was to immediately cover and protect our head. If your torso or limbs were to collide with rocks it could cause damage, but you most likely would still survive. However, the moment you knock your head onto a rock and you are knocked unconscious you are done. It’s lights out and good night.
This training saved my life. Now the next wave lifted me high up and then ferociously slammed me on top of the rocks. I did everything I could to protect my head curling up into a ball. It was the worst kind of nightmare. This nightmare I couldn’t wake up from though. I took the kind of beating that made the most brutal MMA fight look like a joke. There was no referee to step in, and to stop the match. In fact there was no lifeguard or help at all. Over and over this repeated. All I could do was ‘let go.’ Had I become reactive or freaked out I would’ve died instantly.
I’ll never forget this one moment at this point in the experience. After one of the waves had thrown me on the rocks I tried to make a run for it. Actually it was more like make a crawl for it. I had a tiny window for a possible get away. Govindas was on shore yelling for me to get away from the water. In my mind I was thinking, “no shit dude, can’t you see I’m trying! Do you really think I’m enjoying this?” Of course, he was in a horrible position. Here was the first day of his retreat and he was witnessing one of his students drowning. Those signs we saw posted along the trail clearly stated not to try and save a drowning victim, it would only magnify the number of deaths. Let’s just say that the look on his face said it all, he was aghast.
Before the next wave was coming, I summoned all the strength and power that I could to slither across the rocks away from the ocean. The problem was that the rocks were as slippery as ice. For thousands of years the ocean had hit these very rocks proving the immense magnitude of the water element.
My brief glimmer of hope was dashed. Just when I thought that I might get away, the evil villain was back even more vengeful than ever. Like a gigantic claw shooting out of the water, it grabbed me by the legs and the feet. As it pulled me back towards the ocean my finger nails etched their way into the slippery rock, my skin in places was ripped apart, and worst of all my hopes were once again crushed. Once again the wave lifted me high up and BOOM! body slammed on the rocks….again.
This last hit was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. I was actually surprised that I had even made it this far. It’s funny how the mind has no pride. Even in the act of dying, there was the ego finding something to inflate about even though this ship was sinking fast.
Due to the crush of the last blow it was officially too much to handle. My nervous system was pushed way past the brink and everything shut down. I blacked out. For a period of time I lost consciousness and don’t know what happened.
“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.”
– Jon Kabat Zinn
Eventually when I came to, I was drifting out to sea. At least I was floating away from the rocks. After all the events that had just unfolded, every muscle fiber in my body was beyond exhaustion. My tank had been running on fumes and was completely empty. There was no question that my time had come and I didn’t have the energy to live anymore. One last micro-moment in this incredible incarnation of human life… I took one last breath and then completely released and let go…
Just as I began to sink into the mystery that awaited something grabbed me. This time it wasn’t the ocean, it was a human arm.
It was a guy named Scott who was also on the retreat. At the time Scott was about 40 years old. However, he looked like he was 28 years old. He was slender, in great shape and had grown up as a lifeguard in the Bay area near San Francisco. How lucky was I?!?! Talk about being at the right place at the right time. When Scott saw me getting dragged by the current towards the rocks, he swam out into the ocean. He glided out past the breaking waves waiting and praying that the ocean would eventually release it’s pummeling by the rocks. Like a fearless warrior, he risked his own life to save mine. He was a hero in the truest sense of the word.
Although Scott was now supporting me I was still very uncertain of survival. In fact, there was a part of me that felt worried that now we could both lose our lives. Many lifeguards are also killed by the drowning victim. He assured me that we would both be OK. I could hear and feel the confidence his tone. He encouraged me to keep resting while he tread-ed water for the two of us.
After a little bit of time had passed he instructed that we would start to slowly swim back toward the middle of the bay. We would still position ourselves, for the time being, to be way out beyond the breakers. As we slowly moved further away from the rocks, for the first time, I could see Govindas and all the other students crowded on the beach. I could only imagine what must’ve been going through their minds.
Scott and I eventually arrived to the spot he wanted us to be. After treading water for a little more time he broke the news that it was now time to swim into shore. I resisted. I thought there was no way the two of us would make it. I expressed that if I went under water there was no way I was coming back up. He reassured me that he would be sure to bring both of us back up to the surface. The truth of the matter was that we didn’t have any other options. On a normal beach, lifeguards would come out and rescue us. But in this case there was one way and way only.
We started swimming toward the shore. He held me with one arm and swam with the other. He instructed me to kick my legs. He was our engine and I was our broken rudder. We were now going for it. It was do or die.
As we moved closer towards shore, I could start to see the anxious expressions on people’s faces. But mixed in with the anxiety was also hope. That hope fueled me to kick even harder. The ocean swell started to magnify as Scott and I bobbed up and down like a small cork in a massive body of water.
“Teamwork makes the dream work!”
– John C. Maxwell
All of a sudden we were back in the danger zone. There it was, a gigantic wall of water coming right at us. Every cell in my body was flooded with fear. Scott yelled at me, “Don’t worry, I got you!” The whitewater crashed upon us with a deafening sound. After being spun around in all directions for several seconds I could feel Scott’s arm tugging at my ribs. I did my best to follow that direction, not sure which way was up or down. Salt water flooded it’s way into my nostrils and even forced its way through my lips. All I could taste was salt. I could feel it’s sting burning my sinuses. There was that tug again, a strong but compassionate reminder that we were literally fighting for our lives. I moved in that direction.
We both penetrated through the surface gasping for air Scott yelling, “kick your legs!” A split second later we were pummeled again. Luckily, I had Scott with me as a constant force to keep me going. He was the eye of the storm staying steady in the midst of turbulence. He was a master in being able to yield to the powers of nature. He knew when to act and then when to release. He knew when to strive and then when to arrive. He knew when to slip into doing and then when to slip into being. He was a modern day Zen Warrior. He was guiding us through the jaws of nature back to freedom.
Again, we came back up to the surface sucking in as much air as possible. This time we were much closer to shore. Now, instead of the waves breaking on top of us, they were breaking behind us. Finally, we had a legitimate shot to make it. Instead of fighting the waves, we were now in a place where we could use the force of the waves to our advantage.
Another wave broke down behind our position, the white water came rushing at us with tremendous velocity pushing us close to the beach. A group of guys quickly ran out, grabbed me and Scott, and dragged us onto the beach before the undertow could continue this saga any further. The ground, below my battered body, never felt so glorious. Against all odds we made it.
“Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to learn.”
Had it not been for Scott I wouldn’t be here and I certainly wouldn’t be writing this book. Later that week I went to go see a local chiropractor. When he saw the gashes all over my face and body he asked what had happened. After I told him, he said I was very lucky to be alive. He went on to say that multiple people drown in that exact spot every year. Due to the strong currents the bodies will resurface many miles down the coast or worse, never be found.
Eventually, we headed back along the trail. Of course I couldn’t help but notice all those Warning signs against swimming in the water. We all had a laugh about it. The signs were all over the place, but I still chose to ignore them. Isn’t this true in life too? It’s like we get off course and the Universe whispers into our ear, “warning, don’t go there.” But, we don’t listen and continue. Then the wisdom of the Universe speaks more audibly, “I said, warning, don’t go there.” And of course, we still don’t listen, so then the Universe screams at us, “You big fool, WARNING, don’t go there!!!” If we are lucky, we eventually get the message. If not we pay the price in more ways than one. But the point is, is that the wisdom of the Universe is always speaking to us, the question is ‘are we listening?’
I didn’t listen and I paid the price, almost the price of my life. In many ways I had been fighting the natural flow of the Universe. The near death experience taught me so many different things. It taught me to become an expert in surrender. I was being forced to surrender to a force way much greater than me. I was awakening from the small self to the big SELF. It taught me that in the end there is only love. Although there is nothing wrong with physical and material things, its not the be all end all. Yet so many people spend so much energy on this stuff instead of love. And by love, I mean supreme love. The kind of love that gives but doesn’t expect anything back in return. The experience also taught the importance of community. If Scott hadn’t been there to sacrifice his own life, I would’ve just slipped quietly under the surface never to return. We worked as a one unit team to make it out of there alive.
As we continued home along the trail my face was bloodied, my skin scratched up, and my bones were in pain, but I didn’t care. I was just happy to be alive, in this body and in this life. I was happy that there would be another day to see the ones I loved. Every step became a step of gratitude. The ocean that day had washed away the things that were not serving me in a positive way. Our greatest challenges become our greatest blessings and I was now walking down a new path, the path of Dharma. The rest of the retreat became a celebration of life through yoga, meditation, chanting, good food, gratitude and community.