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Book Review: West of Jesus

West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief by Steven Kotler, Bloomsbury USA (June 13, 2006), 224 pages

Some religious rituals like repetitive chanting and rhythmic drumming have been found to produce excessive religiosity, out-of-body experiences and vivid hallucinations. Out of body experiences have been reported not only in religious texts, but also in action sports like surfing, mountain climbing, and motor cycling. Brain scans have found that such feeling are produced when the parietal lobes, the part of the brain that integrates sensory information and determines the spacial location of objects go quiet and portions of the right temporal lobe, which is mainly involved in visual memory, become more active.

SPECT scans of the brains of Buddhist monks during meditation have shown a significant decrease in activity in the right parietal lobe implying that meditation temporarily blocks the processing of sensory information and explains why meditators feel that the self is endless and is interwoven with everyone. In the fifties, neuro surgeon Wilder Penfiled discovered that stimulating the right temporal lobe with mild electric currents produced out-of-body experiences, heavenly music and vivid hallucinations usually associated with near death experiences. All this means that our brains are wired for mystical experiences.

Interestingly, I read all of that in a book by a surfer (not web surfer), on surfing, science and the origins of belief. The surfer, Steven Kotler, was making his living as a writer, with the perfect apartment and perfect girl friend and then he got the Lyme disease. On days he could make it to the kitchen from the bed, he would end up standing with a coffee pot in one hand and the tap running not sure what to do next as he had forgotten to do the most basic tasks. He lost his job, woman and his mind and he started thinking of suicide. So he decided to do the best thing possible – go surfing to Costa Azul, Mexico and to his surprise he started feeling better. Then he wanted to know why he felt better.

What makes this book, which is partly about what happens in the brain during mystical experiences, interesting is that it is not just about this topic. Besides Steven’s personal story and explanations of neuroscience, there is also the search for someone called the Conductor. While surfing in Chacala he gets mashed onto the rocks and according to him “more shit happened”. When he got out of it, his fellow surfer came over and said, “Looks like the Conductor had his way with you”.

The Conductor, he was referring to was a mythical surfer who could control the weather with a bone. Steven had heard about this story a long time back while surfing in Indonesia from another surfer acquaintance. This triggered him to find the truth about this myth and he started a journey which takes him to New Zealand, and Hawaii where he meets other surfers and historians, folklorists, mythologists, urban mythologists, psychologists and parapsychologists.

He also goes bungee jumping, and sky diving and then explains what happens in the brain during each of those activities. In the process he indulges us with pop-culture, history of Polynesians and Maori, mythology and folklore that you get fascinated with his trip even though you have absolutely no interest in surfing. Another thing which helps is humor. Lines like, “The van was a Maui Cruiser and looked like the bastard child of a Volkswagen Microbus and R2-D2, but larger and more uncomfortable”, makes the book easier to read.

Dropping out of college, Steven had tried his hand in mysticism in Santa Fe, with Sanskrit chants, strange mushrooms, ashrams  and even meditating with amethyst crystals taped above his forehead in a giant copper pyramid. At the end of his stay in New Mexico, he could sit in full lotus for six hours at a time but never achieved anything mystical. One day, after Lyme, while on a wave in Gisborne, New Zealand, he writes, “..the world vanished. There was no self, no other. For an instant, I didn’t know where I ended and the wave began.” This is what Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow, a state where “..the ego falls off and time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” This is similar to the statements made by people who had spiritual experiences.

While sports like NASCAR or football are also capable of producing transcendent states, Steven thinks that surfing produces it more than any other sport because in surfing, you need to catch a wave and ride it. The speed, size and ferocity of each wave is different. Riding such a wave requires extreme concentration and meditation research has shown that pinpoint concentration triggers mystical states. Buddhist monks and vipassana practitioners do Anāpānasati to improve concentration and the Buddha used it to achieve his own nirvana. In such mental states, the Orientation Association Area of the brain that helps us distinguish between the self and others go quiet and produces a feeling of interconnectedness.

The book covers diverse topics, but at the end it all connects so well with some brilliant writing. Though a major part of the book covers surfing history and detailed descriptions of riding the waves, it was the neuroscience that made the book a fascinating read for me.

PS: I would have never read this book, if not for the interview with Steven Kotler on our wonderful public radio station KQED.

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