Written with Ted Spencer
It was late morning before the mid-winter sun crested the ridge and cast warm rays into the small valley where Michael lived. His gum-wood cottage had been built, lived in, and abandoned years ago by mill-hands who used to log trees from the surrounding bush. Michael had repaired it and moved in a few years ago. A down-home place, but it served the purpose.
It had been a fairly mild winter, lots of clear sunny days and cool crisp nights. The surf had been more than good and winter swells had generously favored the local breaks as well as those along the coast in both directions.
A stream of grey smoke rose from Michael’s chimney, met the morning breeze, then merged with the atmosphere. Inside he sat in an old wicker chair before the fireplace and gazed at the dancing flames and glowing embers, occasionally tossing on a piece of wood or shifting the coals with the poker. Lately he had spent most of his mornings this way, just sitting by the fire and reading or thinking.
Today, as he waited for Varuna, Michael’s mind drifted back through the last several months. He had been through a lot of changes and he felt them to be good ones. “Of course I’ve changed”, Michael mused. “Been changing all my life. That’s what this world is all about … but somehow these past few months seem more significant. Before change had always come from without and had taken place without my really being aware, like changes in thinking laid on me by schools, parents, social forces, and so on. This time, though, it’s different. It’s a controlled change with direction. I’m moving because I want to move, not because someone or something is moving me. The change is coming from within myself and I’m watching the whole thing happen. Although in the ultimate sense I know I’m not the Controller, I’m beginning to feel I have a say in my destiny, that my future is more or less in my own hands in the sense that more and more I’m beginning to see where I am as well as where I want to go.” His thoughts were broken by the sound of Varuna’s car coming down the dirt track and rattling across the wooden bridge opposite the veranda.
Michael looked out the window at the waiting vehicle as he pushed himself erect from the old chair. Walking to the kitchen, he grabbed the waiting sack of homemade cookies and a thermos of hot chai, and then he slipped out the back door. By the time he pulled his wetsuit off the line and rounded the corner to the front of the house, Varuna had already taken his board from the porch-front and was strapping it to the roof of the car.
“G’day, mate!” he called warmly to Michael as he tugged the strap tight and fastened the board securely in place.
“G’day yourself,” Michael responded with a big smile. He was always glad to be around Varuna, and in a way felt it a privilege to be his friend, for he admired him deeply. Twenty minutes later they were sitting outside the break at Hidden Bay. Eight-foot sets moved through the deep water and deposited themselves on the reef.
Varuna took off behind the peak, and deep within the barrel of the wave he streaked along at the same velocity of the lip until he reappeared and drifted over the back of the wave.
As Varuna paddled back out, he saw two fins about fifty yards beyond Michael. They were heading toward shore. “Hey, look, Michael! Here come my friends!“ Michael’s eyes scanned the shoreline briefly. “Where? I don’t see anybody,” he replied. “No, not that kind of friends,“ said Varuna, pointing out to sea. “People in dolphin bodies.”
By now the dolphins were only about ten yards away, and by the way they were leaping about, it was obvious they were in a playful mood. Varuna slipped smoothly from his board and swam slowly toward the dolphins.
“What are you guys doing here?” he said gently, in the same manner one sometimes talks to his dog. “Come for surf, did you?” The dolphins obviously didn’t understand the words, but they seemed to be picking up on the vibrations. One of them poked his head from the water only inches from Varuna’s face, and when Varuna slowly raised his hand to touch him, the dolphin showed no signs of fear. The dolphins stayed and played for nearly an hour, and they caught more waves than Michael and Varuna.
Shortly after the dolphins’ departure, Michael paddled in and lit a fire on the beach. By the time Varuna joined him, the fire was raging.
“Those dolphins were something, weren’t they?” Michael said as Varuna walked up to the fire. “I mean, I’ve had them come up close while I’ve been surfing before, but I’ve never seen anyone touch one. Didn’t it surprise you?”
“Oh, not really. Dolphins are just like people—you be nice to them and they’ll usually be nice to you.” He squatted down and rubbed his hands together, then held them over the fire. “Not just dolphins,” Varuna continued. “Everybody is like that, no matter what kind of body they’re in. You see it in all varieties of life. By nature the soul is friendly. That’s why you feel happy when you’re being kind to someone, and angry or on a bummer when you’re being unkind. When people act according to their nature, then they’re happy, and when they don’t, they’re not.”
Michael and Varuna sat in silence for a while watching the surf and enjoying the warmth of the fire. The wind was barely blowing, just enough to lift a little mist off the crest of the breaking waves. Now and then the cry of a seagull overhead broke the hypnotic drone of the roaring sea.
“Sometimes,” said Michael, “I get as much pleasure from watching waves as I do surfing them.”
“That may be true”, replied Varuna matter-of-factly, “but either way it’s all in your mind.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I’m coming to realize that pleasure is something internal. It’s not an attribute of any gross material thing. Take a wave, for instance. If nobody is there to watch it or ride it, then where is the question of pleasure? For there to be pleasure, the presence of a pleasure-experiencing personality is required. Pleasure itself is not inherent in waves or in anything of this world, for that matter. A wave cannot reciprocate pleasure with a living being, but the effort of the living being is required to generate the pleasure experience. The pleasure doesn’t come from the wave; it comes from within the person experiencing it.”
“But what about the dolphins?” Michael asked. “They seemed to be enjoying the waves too.”
“That’s just it,” Varuna replied. “The dolphins are also pleasure-experiencing entities, and, like us, they too are busy using the resources of this world to try and bring that pleasure to the surface. Of course, I can’t really say that there is anything wrong with all that,” added Varuna after a momentary pause. “But is it really necessary or in our best interest? I mean to say, such pleasure is within us; why do we have to draw it to the surface with something outside us? What if a man could pursue the pleasure potency without having to depend on any crutch made of matter? Then he would be a free man. If he could tap that pleasure reservoir residing in his own soul, he could transcend the whole world.”
Later that day Varuna and Michael took a walk around the perimeter of the bay. At the bay’s edge where it met the open sea there was a natural rock jetty, which had been built by the subtle workings of Mother Nature. The combination of erosion and landslide from the cliff’s edge, added to the ocean’s lapping fingers, had created it as well as a series of small but rugged tide pools near the beach side of the bay. The pools were abundant with sea life, and walking among them between surfs was one of Varuna’s daily habits. As they walked, Michael reflected on the conversation by the fire and tried to absorb the ideas Varuna had spoken about. Under his arm was the bag of cookies and thermos of hot chai. They soon sat by the edge of a small pool for an afternoon snack.
Sipping at the chai, Michael sometimes threw bits of crumbs into the pool and watched the small creatures race to eat them. He set his cup down on the rocks and spoke.“I’ve been thinking, Varuna, about what you were saying earlier. Seems to be really important. It’s like more and more I’m trying to understand life’s mysteries, to go deeper into them. That point you made about not needing material crutches really struck home, because until I get there, I don’t really feel that I’ve reached the condition of absolute happiness or satisfaction. I guess in a way what I’m striving for is total perfection.”
“What do you mean by perfection?” asked Varuna.
“Well, when something is perfect, there is no need for change or improvement. Everything is just right, perfect. I want that in my life. I want to be perfect.”
Varuna was silent, and Michael could tell that he was thinking about what he had just said. After a moment Varuna turned slowly to Michael, their eyes met, and Varuna looked at Michael deeply, intently.
“Friend, what you call perfection, I call stagnation. What you see as perfection in my eyes is the stroke of death for the spirit of progress.”
Michael’s brow furrowed as he tried to understand Varuna’s assertion. He didn’t need to voice his request for explanation. Varuna could see his mind.
“In other words, why do you want to reach a point where your progress stops? Do you really think that this is perfection? In surfing, for instance, one of its beauties is that no matter how good you become, or how refined and sensitive you get in relationship to the waves, there is always room to go further. That’s one of its attractions, an attraction that makes it more than a mere sport, like football or baseball. The beauty of surfing is that there is ample allowance for individual expression and creativity. You never reach a point where you know everything about it because it’s always changing, and because of that the fire of progress isn’t extinguished. Stagnation never sets in. The perfect surfer is not he who feels he has conquered every wave, mastered every maneuver, and now there is no room for expansion or improvement. No, it is he who is always striving to become more perfect. Don’t feel that life is like a mountain and that you can conquer it by climbing to the ‘top.’ That is not perfection. In actuality life is such that the deeper a person goes into its beauty, the more he realizes he has just begun to scratch the surface. It is only the folly of fools to think ‘Now I’m perfect, there is no need for improvement.’” Varuna tossed a crumb into the pool and watched a shrimp-like creature chase it and eat it. “Perfection and stagnation are not the same,” he added. “How can you equate the two?”
They finished their meal in silence, then slowly walked back to the boards. The sun was still high enough in the sky to chase the winter’s chill from the air, and Michael nestled himself down out of the breeze between two small sand dunes. He watched the waves breaking for a while, but it wasn’t long before he was peacefully asleep.
Varuna walked to the other side of the bay and then back to his board. He picked it up and walked to the water’s edge. As he rubbed some sand on the deck to rough up the wax, he called over his shoulder to Michael, who by this time had curled up and rolled over on his side. Michael yawned and sat up, then yelled something incoherent back at Varuna about letting a poor man sleep. Varuna just laughed and paddled out to sea.