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West of Jesus

by Steven Kotler

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West of Jesus
"If you want to know God, learn to surf."

This is sage advice coming from Rabbi Nachum Shifren, aka "the Surfing Rabbi," who keeps the Torah in a cloth bag under the lifeguard stand while he's out on a wave hanging ten, his long beard blowing in the spray. The Surfing Rabbi believes that surfing is an act of prayer, and he's not alone.

In his memoir, West of Jesus, Steven Kotler sets out to find the origins of a very particular surf legend about a surfer called "the conductor" who can control the weather with a human bone. In doing so, Kotler ends up exploring why surfing - not tennis, archery, softball, or NASCAR - is unique in the sense of spiritual fulfillment it provides the practitioner.

"There have been many theories about the spiritual nature of this sport, and most involve some form of watery communion. At the far end of this spectrum are the surfers who believe that since the ocean was the place where life began on this planet, the act of riding on a wave allows the surfer to momentarily connect with this living memory. In Jungian terms, surfing gives the surfer access to the collective unconscious of the planet."
Kotler delves deeply into the origins of belief - Jung's collective unconscious, Levi Strauss's deep structures, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's flow states are all pieces in a puzzle that Kotler travels the globe to piece together.

The author's quest takes him from his California home to waves in Mexico, New Zealand, and finally Hawaii. Whether or not he solves the mystery of the conductor becomes insignificant because Kotler, in a short 266 pages, has by then taken the reader on a survey course in spiritual thought that ranges from neuro-chemical theories of how humans are hard-wired for mystical experiences to Taoist thought and why over 70,000 Australians polled list their religion as Jedi.

A surfer himself, Kotler crafts brilliant descriptions of waves and explanations of the mechanics of surfing. In the following passage, he gives the reader a brief lesson in wave anatomy:
"The water that was roaring toward me was quite literally a memory. It started out in some other part of the world, forming when a change in temperature produced a change in pressure. Air's natural tendency is to move from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. We call this movement wind. When wind flickers across the ocean's surface, it produces small ripples which provide a greater surface area that can then catch more of that blowing wind. Eventually these ripples become larger and larger until they cohere into wavelets and eventually waves, attaining their greatest size when the come closest to matching the wind's speed. What makes this whole chain of events slightly stranger is that it is not the water itself traveling across the ocean as a wave, but merely the memory of the original wind's energy being constantly transferred as vibration from one neighboring water molecule to the next. What I heard the roar of that wave behind me at Nusa Dua, what I was actually hearing was the sound of the past arriving in the present with me directly in its path."
A freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, National Geographic, and Wired, Kotler plumbs the depths of mystical experience with enthusiasm for his subject and a keen sense of humor, never taking himself too seriously.

West of Jesus is a book about surfing in the same way that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book about motorcycles. If you liked the latter, I'd highly recommend the former for the way Steven Kotler explores questions of belief from a nontraditional stance and provides the reader with plenty of source material for further investigation.
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