West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief

My earliest childhood belief was a sneaking suspicion that the world was more mysterious than people were letting on. It’s hard to say how much of this was suburban boredom and how much heartfelt sentiment, and in the end it didn’t matter. By the time I got to college, that little notion had grown into a bad case of Jonathan Livingston Seagull-itis. When two semesters of philosophy failed to satisfy, I dropped out and moved to Santa Fe because the New Age was booming.

West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief Q & A

Why is it called West of Jesus?

A little bit of this book is about how ideas move through culture, about why we believe what we believe, and about mythology. In Polynesian mythology, which figures into this story, west is the direction that the souls of the dead travel when they leave this world and head for the next. In American mythology, west is the direction of the frontier. For 200 years its been the direction we traveled for freedom and space, physically and intellectually and spiritually. Almost 250 million Americans are Christian—over 75 percent of the country. One way or another, in the US, Christianity is the dominant paradigm. West of Jesus is about a couple ideas that push on that paradigm, and because of that, it’s about the possibility of what’s next.

What is this book about?

Thematically, West of Jesus is about the very peculiar intersection of science, sport and spirituality. Over the past 150 years scientist have made a series of startling discoveries about athletes in extremely high risk situations, the first of which is that they tend to have what, for lack of a better word, have long been called “mystical experiences.” Surfers become “one” with the ocean, mountaineers have visions of angels, skiers have out-of-body experiences, that sort of thing. Simultaneously, over the past two decades, neuroscientists have made a huge amount of progress in understanding the biology of these sorts of mystical experiences. What’s been missing so far is a deeper examination of the overlaps. There are great questions here, like, for example, why adrenaline athletics, alongside prayer, meditation, and other “spiritual practices,” can produce these experiences.

What does the neuroscience of mystical experience have to do with action sports?

When Bush Sr. declared the 90s, the “Decade of the Brain,” money flooded into neuroscience. Because of concurrent advancements in imaging technologies—which allowed us to peer deeper into the brain than ever before—we could begin to ask harder questions, including questions about mystical experiences. For example, Dr. Andrew Newberg, head of the department of Nuclear Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, started taking SPECT scans of the brains of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist monks during moments of ecstatic meditation. Newberg’s work pinpointed the exact locations in the brain that were most active and most inactive during their religious experience. Among many others things, he found a marked decrease in activity in a part of the brain often called the Orientation Association Area (because it helps us orientate ourselves in space). People who have brain damage here, or who have suffered a stroke, can’t do things like sit down on a couch, because they don’t know where their leg ends and the couch begins. Newberg’s brain scans showed that meditation temporarily blocks the processing of sensory information from this area. No information gets in, none comes out. But every millisecond or so, the limbic system asks the brain a bunch of safety and security questions. Where am I? Are there any new threats here? That sort of thing. The question of where am I gets directed to the OAA, but because it is shut down no response is given. Very quickly, a feedback loop develops and the brain demands an answer. When that happens, the brain has no choice but to perceive that the self as endless, boundless, as “one with everything.” Newberg points out that this “perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.” As it turns out, the same type of focus and concentration needed to mediate is required by action and adventure sports, especially in higher risk situations—which helps explain why surfers, when pulling into a tube, often feel themselves become one with the wave.

What drew you to surfing and adventure sport?

When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, I remember sitting at a table in the cafeteria wanting nothing so much as a girlfriend. I was not the best looking guy in the room, the smartest, the most talented athlete, the most sophisticated charmer, many other things. I needed an edge. I decided then and there that I would spend my life in pursuit of adventure, that when push came to shove I would always have the best stories to tell. Stories would be my edge. Go figure.

A lot of this book happened because you got Lyme Disease, what is it?

Lyme is an infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a type of spirochete bacteria carried by deer ticks. Currently, Lyme is second to AIDS as the fastest spreading infectious disease in America and Western Europe. Symptomatically, the disease starts out like the flu, then worsens: exhaustion, headache, joint pain, fever, chills, progresses into excruciating, debilitating arthritis, severe fatigue, swelling of the joints, numbness, tingling, palsy, paralysis, cardiac abnormalities, and enough brain abnormalities that Lyme is often misdiagnosed as paranoid schitzophrenia.

Did you really surf your way back to health?

My life with Lyme had gotten pretty sparse. I could barely walk, could barely think. Mostly, for a good number of years, I never left the couch. Then I started in surfing—or, at least at first, because I was so sick, barely surfing—and started feeling better. A lot better. I went from about 25 percent functionality to about 75 percent functionality in about six months. None of it made much sense to me. As surfing is not known as a common cure for chronic autoimmune conditions, West of Jesus is sort of about my attempt to figure out what the hell happened.

Reviews for West of Jesus

“A heady mix of brain waves and ocean waves.”
—Men’s Journal

“Kotler creates a work that combines the most compelling elements of memoir, travelogue and scholarly abstract into an accessible tale of physical and mental adventure… both enlightening and inspirational.”
—Publishers Weekly

“The ideal book for any readers who have ever asked themselves, ‘How did surfing take over my life?’ Kotler brings us close to the answer via a wild globe-trotting journey in search of surfing’s much-referenced but rarely discussed spiritual side.”
—Los Angeles Times

A surprisingly entertaining nonfiction account of his own spiritual quest through surfing… Kotler is often laugh-out-loud funny.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Kotler’s tale starts slow and then, like a seasoned surfer calibrating his board to his ride, monumentally catches stride. Call it mysterioso or the oceanic feeling, what Kotler’s seeking is nothing less than the big explanation”
—Village Voice

“West of Jesus is a colorful, rambling memoir of his adventures in the world of surfing. Surfing, not just as a sport or a pastime: To the initiated, it is more like a folk religion, complete with myths, rituals and transcendental experiences. Kotler describes all of this with tremendous verve and clarity, and sets out some intriguing ideas about their neuroscientific underpinnings, such as how the neurochemistry of emotion impacts our perception of the world, and the evolutionary roots of religious ritual.”
—Seed Magazine

This is a cool book, admirably well-written and reported by an observant fellow who takes the reader on a surf journey to exotic spots but also a journey of the soul and the boundless territory of the mind…Sounds heavy, but it’s not — Kotler is so smart that it’s bright and engaging, self-deprecating, peppered with evocative song lyrics and quotes from an apparently vast and diverse diet of reading, and gratifyingly full of “aha” type moments.”
—Santa Cruz Sentinel

“A wonderful and engaging book, West of Jesus provides a unique window into the neuroscience of belief. Woven into an enthralling surf narrative, Kotler’s quest will appear to anyone interested in understanding the connection between science, sport and spirituality.”
—Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of clinical nuclear medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Why God Won’t Go Away.

“Steven Kotler’s West of Jesus is a fascinating and enlightening journey, like a global surfing safari with the coolest professor you never had. A perfect companion for anyone’s endless summer.”
—John Albert, author of Wrecking Crew.

“Here is a strangely exciting tale of coincidence and serendipity sub-populated with shaman, Tibetan White Buddhists and kahunas at the intersection of Stoke and Karma. The surf quest, for Kotler, is experienced as a disturbingly real search for the Holy Grail.”
—Drew Kampion, author of The Way of the Surfer and The Lost Coast.


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