San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Taken by the sea

I am very pleased to report that Jan and I are alive.

On Dec. 29, while swimming at Playa Bejuco – one of the deadliest beaches in Costa Rica, on the central Pacific coast – we were caught in a powerful riptide and swept out to sea. As it turns out, this riptide is responsible for many deaths each year, including, just last year, a group of students. There are no lifeguards, despite the scores of deaths and famous tragedies that have taken place there.

One moment we were surf crashing, the next we suddenly realized, to our terror, that we were being sucked out and under with a force that could not be resisted. Life turns on a dime. One second you are immortal, the very next moment it is entirely clear that, barring a miracle, you will be dead in the next short while. Panic swept through me, I could not breathe, and I was drowning. Jan tried to help me, but it was instantly obvious that if she did not let me go she would drown, too. As the current sucked her away from me, we both realized that we were most likely seeing each other for the last time.

The ordeal lasted for more than two hours. There was to be no rescue; we were simply swept too far and too fast for anyone to have seen or noticed.

In my new incarnation, here in Costa Rica, I am a meditation teacher. On this day, meditation was to be one of the two keys to my survival. My original and unbidden panic, had it lasted, would have killed me, within a minute, maybe less. I was drowning. I was, however, able to still my mind and focus on my breath. Calmed, though clearly understanding that my chances of survival were small, I was able to stay afloat; resurfacing time and time again as I was pulled under and spun about, lungs filling with water and death ever closer. Perhaps, because of this meditative and observing state there was very little “content” to my hours on the water. I understood that I would almost certainly die. I also understood that I am very attached to life. I also knew that it was one attachment that I was unwilling to let go of, at least at this time. What was clear, however, was that as long as I was breathing I was not dead.

For the next while, I just focused on breathing and remaining calm. I noted that I was strong. My lungs (ironically for anyone who knows me) were very strong. My heart, slowed through meditation, was very regular and strong. My arms (I never once stopped backstroking though often I was going in the wrong direction, as I kept getting turned around) were powerful and filled with strength (though days after I sure have a sore neck and arms). There was no “white light” experience, nor did my relationship to God or life alter in any way.

I also had tremendous confidence in Jan. She is ridiculously fit and athletic. She is strong in her will and body. As I floated and stroked, never moving closer to the land (now just a distant tease) I imagined her having made it back to the beach and summoning help. In my mind, I urged her forward, believing her to be my only hope. I was so grateful to have her in my life. Alone, there is no doubt that I would have died. Even were I to perish, it would be with a profound sense of connectedness and knowing that I have been blessed.

There was, however, to be another terrible and disheartening moment when after about 40 minutes, I turned my head to see if I could catch sight of shore, and saw, instead, Jan, maybe 20 meters away, terrified and also struggling to live! I could hear her shouting out words of encouragement to me. At one point we drifted quite close to each other. I wanted to say goodbye (for now I was certain that this was it), to tell her how much I loved her, but I felt to do so might frighten her and sap her will. Instead, our eyes remained locked in desperate and silent communication until, once again, we were swept apart.

After another long time, I again caught sight of her. She was much closer to shore than I and seemed to be making some progress (though she was still far too focused, in my opinion, on not losing sight of and calling out to me). It was then that several realizations arose that were to save my life. The first, if she could make progress so could I, and, next, that I did not need to make it to shore, just to where I could stand up; about half that distance. I then put all of my efforts into a renewed energetic backstroke, risking exhaustion for this chance at salvation. Jan kept yelling, “Avtar, away from the sun!” But no matter how I tried, every few strokes I would find myself turned around and heading back out to sea. At one point I was close enough to shore to see where our truck was parked: seconds later I could make out nothing beyond a streak of green.

Big waves began taking me, crashing over me, spinning me. I was nothing more significant than a grain of sand: and then, and without really understanding, I found myself standing, supported by the gravity of the Earth and sand beneath the current. I was standing! I could move forward toward the shore! If I were not caught by the riptide again, I would survive! As I carefully and most painfully made my way forward, one cautious footstep at a time, I scanned the beach and water for Jan. And what I saw was frightening. Jan was some 20 meters away, standing shoulder deep in water, but facing the wrong way and diving forward into the waves as if to return to the open waters! At first I could not get her attention. Then she noticed me. I was waving my arms and screaming out “Turn around and walk to the beach”. She seemed to hear me then in an awful moment returned to her efforts toward the sea. I realized that she was disoriented and unless something happened she was going to be swept away again. I started to move toward her, all the time realizing that this could mean facing my own death again. My legs were cramped and I could feel the sucking of the undertow. She now turned toward me and calling out to me out of her own fear began making her way to me. Her eyes, when we were finally close enough that I could see them, were the eyes of a helpless child. We clung to each other and carefully started making our way to the shore.

There was to be a last moment of fear when the shallows gave way suddenly to a deep area. There were people not 10 meters from where we were. I could feel Jan’s sudden desperation. But there was just no [expletive] way that I was going to be defeated now. The sea had had her chance and I was not about to give her a second chance with either myself or Jan.

It was surreal as we waded up to a group of two strong young men and a woman. We were returning from death, they were strangers in another, unperturbed and ordinary life.

Later, as we drove away, we both sang along to the music on our vehicle’s sound system; Jan, along with me, for the first time ever. Suddenly, life was not worries, challenges to be overcome, annoyances, chores or the next thing. It was now, this song, singing along, and singing along with this wonderful partner whose love and determination had just saved my life! 

Avtar is co-founder of Eden Atenas, a meditation center in the Central Valley (

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