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

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A spiritual and scientific surf quest. After spending two years in bed with Lyme disease, Steven Kotler had lost everything: his health, his job, his girl, and, he was beginning to suspect, his mind. Kotler, not a religious man, suddenly found himself drawn to the sport of surfing as if it were the cornerstone of a new faith. Why, he wondered, when there was nothing left t A spiritual and scientific surf quest. After spending two years in bed with Lyme disease, Steven Kotler had lost everything: his health, his job, his girl, and, he was beginning to suspect, his mind. Kotler, not a religious man, suddenly found himself drawn to the sport of surfing as if it were the cornerstone of a new faith. Why, he wondered, when there was nothing left to believe in, could he begin to believe in something as unlikely as surfing. What was belief anyway? How did it work in the body, the brain, our culture, and human history? Into this mix came a strange story. In 2003, on a surf trip through Mexico, Kotler heard of "the conductor," a mythical surfer who could control the weather. He'd heard this same tale eight years earlier, in Indonesia, but this time something clicked. With the help of everyone from rebel surfers to rocket scientists, Kotler undertakes a three year globetrotting quest for the origins of this legend. The results are a startling mix of big waves and bigger ideas: a surfer's journey into the biological underpinnings of belief itself.


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A spiritual and scientific surf quest. After spending two years in bed with Lyme disease, Steven Kotler had lost everything: his health, his job, his girl, and, he was beginning to suspect, his mind. Kotler, not a religious man, suddenly found himself drawn to the sport of surfing as if it were the cornerstone of a new faith. Why, he wondered, when there was nothing left t A spiritual and scientific surf quest. After spending two years in bed with Lyme disease, Steven Kotler had lost everything: his health, his job, his girl, and, he was beginning to suspect, his mind. Kotler, not a religious man, suddenly found himself drawn to the sport of surfing as if it were the cornerstone of a new faith. Why, he wondered, when there was nothing left to believe in, could he begin to believe in something as unlikely as surfing. What was belief anyway? How did it work in the body, the brain, our culture, and human history? Into this mix came a strange story. In 2003, on a surf trip through Mexico, Kotler heard of "the conductor," a mythical surfer who could control the weather. He'd heard this same tale eight years earlier, in Indonesia, but this time something clicked. With the help of everyone from rebel surfers to rocket scientists, Kotler undertakes a three year globetrotting quest for the origins of this legend. The results are a startling mix of big waves and bigger ideas: a surfer's journey into the biological underpinnings of belief itself.

30 review for West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jaimal

    When I saw the title of this book, I thought that Kotler was taking on too much. Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief? Quite a bit to chew on. But then again, Kotler has had a ton of life experience (he describes his recovery from Lime disease in this book), is really smart, and surprisingly, he ties it all together in this book with grace, wit, and some impressive prose. I really enjoyed it, notably his attempt to recreate (through a little-known surf myth) how religions and mythologies When I saw the title of this book, I thought that Kotler was taking on too much. Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief? Quite a bit to chew on. But then again, Kotler has had a ton of life experience (he describes his recovery from Lime disease in this book), is really smart, and surprisingly, he ties it all together in this book with grace, wit, and some impressive prose. I really enjoyed it, notably his attempt to recreate (through a little-known surf myth) how religions and mythologies have probably formed throughout the ages. As Kotler travels about Indonesia, New Zealand and Hawaii, he drops endless interesting factoids, scientific and surf-related, especially the ones about Chinese weather control conspiracy theories (theories that sound scarily true). An outstanding read for a surf trip or just sitting home on a foggy day.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    Kotler covers a lot of ground which was new and interesting in many ways.. I particularly liked getting a sense of the physics of surfing which I still think is somehow not humanly possible. I am intrigued by his explanation of our need for mythos and the startling info on the similarity of our myths v. logos in our dna, I guess. The search for belief to match our needs is kind of disappointing, why is it that we are so blind to this side of us? The evidence- as he details it- is so broad and vi Kotler covers a lot of ground which was new and interesting in many ways.. I particularly liked getting a sense of the physics of surfing which I still think is somehow not humanly possible. I am intrigued by his explanation of our need for mythos and the startling info on the similarity of our myths v. logos in our dna, I guess. The search for belief to match our needs is kind of disappointing, why is it that we are so blind to this side of us? The evidence- as he details it- is so broad and visible to the naked eye that we make up a narrative to suit us and then just stick with it. "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it." Then we go around killing people and conquering lands over the made up story we needed to sooth the savage beast, or in this case, explain why we aren't really responsible for taking the risks of surfing 5000 foot waves, it was the conductor made me do it. Kotler's writing is not fluid, and the ideas are scattered around randomly, but I learned a lot from this book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    I'm certain it has alot to do with where I am in my personal life, but this is one of the best books I've read in a very long time. It takes on the three topics I would never bring up at a dinner table: surfing (at least one person will question your sanity), religion, and science. It is a novel that I would recommend to everyone and anyone. However, if you've spent any extended amount of time on a board (or fighting the forces of nature by any means), this is me :::shoving the book in your face I'm certain it has alot to do with where I am in my personal life, but this is one of the best books I've read in a very long time. It takes on the three topics I would never bring up at a dinner table: surfing (at least one person will question your sanity), religion, and science. It is a novel that I would recommend to everyone and anyone. However, if you've spent any extended amount of time on a board (or fighting the forces of nature by any means), this is me :::shoving the book in your face and forcing you to give it a read:::. I must admit it loses it's memoir like charm about halfway through as he begins to take on the *heavier* stuff, but by that point I was so utterly sucked in, I was ready and willing to jump into the deep stuff with the text. Readers beware: Any small ounce of wanderlust that exists in you will be dug up and force you to do crazy things...like research flights across the world.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ann M

    It's a good book, gets somewhat dry 1/2 way in, but he's done a lot of research and he writes well. The first half had five stars, the second half dropped to four. I'm also not that interested in why surfing (he says) produces more mystical experiences than, say, snowboarding. But those are small complaints. This is a great book, but could have used some better copyediting as well as proofreading. There are sentences in the second half that just do not make sense. It bugs me that for $13.95 they It's a good book, gets somewhat dry 1/2 way in, but he's done a lot of research and he writes well. The first half had five stars, the second half dropped to four. I'm also not that interested in why surfing (he says) produces more mystical experiences than, say, snowboarding. But those are small complaints. This is a great book, but could have used some better copyediting as well as proofreading. There are sentences in the second half that just do not make sense. It bugs me that for $13.95 they can't edit the thing. I found "Mogul" for "Mongol"; "breath" for "breadth." Christ. Is it just the spell checker that we trust to edit books?

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Very esoteric story about a man with lyme disease and his decision to put his life on hold in search of the cultural origins of a mythical being capable of controlling waves. Starts of great as he details his sickness and how surfing has helped him both physically and mentally, but the book really slows down as he starts his search for "the conductor" If you are into the cultural aspects of surfing, and its existence as a lifestyle and a state of mind rather than just a sport, check this book out Very esoteric story about a man with lyme disease and his decision to put his life on hold in search of the cultural origins of a mythical being capable of controlling waves. Starts of great as he details his sickness and how surfing has helped him both physically and mentally, but the book really slows down as he starts his search for "the conductor" If you are into the cultural aspects of surfing, and its existence as a lifestyle and a state of mind rather than just a sport, check this book out.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Beach Bum

    The title has no real basis in the book. After suffering with Lime disease for years the author set out on a quest to find the origin of the surfing legend of the "Conductor" who can control the ocean. While surfing very exotic locations, meeting all sorts of great people, and discovering a lot about himself he writes about the universe, spirituality, and Humanity's place in the greater scheme of all things. No bible thumping ever appears in this book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

    It had its moments, and there are parts that I really agree with, that really inspire me, or at least present ideas I want to explore, but as a whole, it's kind of a pointless book. I wouldn't take that to mean that you, dear reader, shouldn't check it out. It's just that it's like sudoku: it's fun while you do it, but don't expect me to talk about it on Saturday.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Wanda

    I learned to surf when I was about 10. I've read a lot of books on surfing since then, most of them not much. But this book is really something special. Do yourself a favor and read it, even if you don't surf.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Skostal

    Steven Kotler is a spiritual, surfing Jon Krakauer, meaning that he is not afraid to admit he is at a dead-end, on a precipice, and in need of assistance. Then, generously, he takes us on a journey. Steven's Lymes disease is ultimately his spiritual evolution. Even without the humility of disease, how could one surf and not contemplate the divine? How could one surf and not be led to consideration of the spiritual? Indeed, if we are among those who are daily not hit by buses, by cancer, by hatre Steven Kotler is a spiritual, surfing Jon Krakauer, meaning that he is not afraid to admit he is at a dead-end, on a precipice, and in need of assistance. Then, generously, he takes us on a journey. Steven's Lymes disease is ultimately his spiritual evolution. Even without the humility of disease, how could one surf and not contemplate the divine? How could one surf and not be led to consideration of the spiritual? Indeed, if we are among those who are daily not hit by buses, by cancer, by hatred, how can we not consider some higher power? Whether you pray for surf or other more pedestrian events like good health, we acknowledge our position in the universe when we acknowledge that which is beyond us. Thus, any time we are humbled, by natural forces, by disease, by events, we are at a precipice, and we are obligated, if we are writers, thinkers, seekers, lovers of humanity, to let others know what it is like to be on the brink.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mary Ann

    “West of Jesus” explains the spiritual effects of surfing, bungee jumping and high diving. Does one need to be an athlete? No. One can lose oneself in music, dancing and a hundred other things. Spiritual experiences occur in a variety of ways. Evidence exists that near-death experiences, which, of course, are very spiritual, are similar to GLOC, the 12 to 24 minutes of unconsciousness suffered by jet pilots during acceleration. Kotler begins searching for the origins of a tale about the Conductor “West of Jesus” explains the spiritual effects of surfing, bungee jumping and high diving. Does one need to be an athlete? No. One can lose oneself in music, dancing and a hundred other things. Spiritual experiences occur in a variety of ways. Evidence exists that near-death experiences, which, of course, are very spiritual, are similar to GLOC, the 12 to 24 minutes of unconsciousness suffered by jet pilots during acceleration. Kotler begins searching for the origins of a tale about the Conductor, a mythical searcher who supposedly can control the weather and the waves. Along the way he studies the science of spiritual moments be they on a surf board, in a near death experience or in the magic of a moment when time stops and physical energies increase. Kotler is one of the better non fiction essayist of today, and he is well worth the read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    William

    Read it on a plane trip from Boston to Bahrain. The time in the air was more than enough to complete the book. While I am not a person of faith, the closest I've come to any "spiritual" experience is when I surf, and Kotler attempts to explain this spiritual "state" and the creation of belief systems through science. In the time since reading it I've never taken the time to look into/check the veracity the sciences he uses to explain these, but having "been there" on a board and spending much of Read it on a plane trip from Boston to Bahrain. The time in the air was more than enough to complete the book. While I am not a person of faith, the closest I've come to any "spiritual" experience is when I surf, and Kotler attempts to explain this spiritual "state" and the creation of belief systems through science. In the time since reading it I've never taken the time to look into/check the veracity the sciences he uses to explain these, but having "been there" on a board and spending much of my single life (much less so married w/ kids) riding waves, I found the book very enjoyable.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    Probably one of the most enlightening books I read which in turn opened reading back up to me. I hit a stumbling block in college because of my lack of time to read and I read this to and from my plane ride to Texas to see my mother as well as lying on the beach in Rockport Texas where my mother lives. It really had an effect on me and I think more so because I experienced things in life which if I read this book in HS, I wouldn't have gotten it. I feel this book is a must read for an surfer and m Probably one of the most enlightening books I read which in turn opened reading back up to me. I hit a stumbling block in college because of my lack of time to read and I read this to and from my plane ride to Texas to see my mother as well as lying on the beach in Rockport Texas where my mother lives. It really had an effect on me and I think more so because I experienced things in life which if I read this book in HS, I wouldn't have gotten it. I feel this book is a must read for an surfer and more so every SOUL surfer.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Not just a book for surfers. The author deals with depression and illness and delves into surfing and the quest to discover what about surfing makes it so different. He looks at spirituality in a super interesting way, by researching cool studies and stories and portraying it in a relatively unbiased way. Thanks to Gabe for recommending this and shipping it to me in Zambia.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    I would recommend this book to many people for many different reasons. It's a book about surfing, about the search for spirituality, about the connection between the body and the mind. The author easily walks the line between science and spirituality- very facinating stuff. Truly a great memoir to read. And it added to my long-time desire to become a surfer:)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kerry Brewer

    Anyone who loves surfing knows that there is some great force acting on your out in the water. This book brings together ideas of spirituality, nature, and how we interact with it (through activities such as surfing)

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Jiorle

    This book begins with the author's hearing of a surfer's myth on two separate but eerily similar situations. He embarks on a quest to discover its roots while recovering from Lyme disease. Despite his journalistic and meticulous approach, his illness, combined with the elusiveness of a story no one seems to have heard of, makes for a circuitous journey covering surfing, psychology, neuroscience, and religion. Still, the author makes it accessible to any reader, regardless of background. His writ This book begins with the author's hearing of a surfer's myth on two separate but eerily similar situations. He embarks on a quest to discover its roots while recovering from Lyme disease. Despite his journalistic and meticulous approach, his illness, combined with the elusiveness of a story no one seems to have heard of, makes for a circuitous journey covering surfing, psychology, neuroscience, and religion. Still, the author makes it accessible to any reader, regardless of background. His writing is self-deprecating and, at times, irreverent, making for a fairly easy read of what is often a heavy and exhausting chain of events. If you read this, you will learn a lot and come away with some interesting questions about the human body and our belief systems.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Leon Hermanson

    Awesome book. I was a little put off by the title (the J-word) don't be. When I started reading it, my opinion changed quickly. It is interesting and engaging and gives a view into the authors life, as well as lots of interesting titbits about belief and religion. This is all through the lens of surfing, which we all know heals all and is awesome!

  18. 4 out of 5

    J.B. Siewers

    Really interesting insights, revealing experiments, science, surfing , to the point were I wanted to go back and highlight some passages. But, other parts were lower on the totem pole, not so hard to get past but the string that ran through the whole book tying it together was a bit not realistic. Still short enough and worth the effort.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Katie Hoskins

    “Life is our struggle between the desire for separation and our desire for union. But to ride a wave you have to completely forget yourself; you have to be absorbed in the moment, or you’ll fall off. So every wave is about union, it’s a momentary connection with something far beyond yourself, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

  20. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Bigott

    Captivating, and inspiring, in more than one field.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    "Always for love. Never for money."

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rob Mills

    A friend of mine told me this was his favourite book, so the bar was a bit high going in! The author had gone through a very tough medical battle and has essentially travelled the world hoping that his surf board will help him find the meaning for life (hint: it's 42). Anyway, a quick read with skeptical mysticism and fun science tidbits. Seemed ok but wouldn't recommend it really, unless you're into surfing big time.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    I made my first attempt at surfing during our recent vacation to Hawaii, so I thought this book might be a good beach read. Boy - what a mistake it was to spend any time with this book. First of all - the writing is just terrible. This point alone should explain why the author Steven Kotler has repeatedly failed in his career attempts as an independent journalist. As a foundation for the book, Kotler begins by describing how he has washed-out from society, and how he uses surfing as a self-rehabil I made my first attempt at surfing during our recent vacation to Hawaii, so I thought this book might be a good beach read. Boy - what a mistake it was to spend any time with this book. First of all - the writing is just terrible. This point alone should explain why the author Steven Kotler has repeatedly failed in his career attempts as an independent journalist. As a foundation for the book, Kotler begins by describing how he has washed-out from society, and how he uses surfing as a self-rehabilitation vehicle. Fair enough. But where this book goes off the cliff is with all the blabber about mystical religious undercurrents that he associates with surfing. From the first page of the book, Kotler displays his close-minded bigotry with condescending insults toward traditional Judeo-Christian religion. But then he hypocritically declares himself to be an open-minded person because he can explore and embrace every whacked-out mystical idea on the planet (including a surfing Deity "The Conductor" who controls the weather and waves to bless surfers with the perfect ride). I can fully accept that surfing has benefits beyond just recreational sport. But the time I spent reading this book were wasted hours in my life that I will never reclaim. Just think ... I could have been watching sitcom re-runs instead.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I am still reading this! (I tried putting it on my currently reading list, not sure how to do that. apparently!) But I have been reading it slowly in bits because I enjoy it and don't want it to end. In a paragraph describing how air pressure makes wind, and then wind creates waves, and then waves ripple and catch more wind and become bigger and travel across the ocean's surface, he finally ends with this thought: "When I heard the roar of that wave behind me at Nusa Dua, what I was actually hear I am still reading this! (I tried putting it on my currently reading list, not sure how to do that. apparently!) But I have been reading it slowly in bits because I enjoy it and don't want it to end. In a paragraph describing how air pressure makes wind, and then wind creates waves, and then waves ripple and catch more wind and become bigger and travel across the ocean's surface, he finally ends with this thought: "When 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." Also loved this line from another chapter: "It was even odds that the thing I was the most afraid of didn't actually exist at all."

  25. 4 out of 5

    Joell

    Being a person that dreams of spending more time on a board in the water but lacking the time and the skills, I approached this book hoping to be coaxed into finding the time to develop the skills and just get in the water. Instead, I found an interesting book about the neuroscience of "being in the zone" that moment when you are completely enveloped in a dangerous activity where "now" is all there is. He explains why it's addicting and why it's been a part of human spirituality since time began Being a person that dreams of spending more time on a board in the water but lacking the time and the skills, I approached this book hoping to be coaxed into finding the time to develop the skills and just get in the water. Instead, I found an interesting book about the neuroscience of "being in the zone" that moment when you are completely enveloped in a dangerous activity where "now" is all there is. He explains why it's addicting and why it's been a part of human spirituality since time began. The story wanders and the quest for the origin of the "Conductor" story isn't terribly compelling. But what is compelling is the story of a lonely, edgy guy who finds life and health and friendship in his quest to connect to himself and nature. I hear you brah.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    Most certainly if you are a surfer you will enjoy the descriptions and story parts of this book. I suppose someone more attuned to "riding the waves" than I would have appreciated the authors attempt to connect to a belief system, however.....for me it was a boring and ill-fated try. I did like learning about what makes a wave one that people travel the world to surf. That has always been a curiosity to me having a brother-in-law who is one such person.

  27. 4 out of 5

    lisa church

    don't let jesus in the title scare you away. very interesting story about guy who loses everything after a long battle with lyme disease and finds his way through surfing. it's really not a surf story, either. he searches for three years for legendary Conductor (legend is this man controls the surf with a baton made of bone. smart, well written. history, philosophy, a little of a lot of things.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    This book is a little scattered, but there's some interesting stuff in there. The best info is about biological explanations for why people consider surfing (and other nature/action/danger sports) a spiritual experience. He does a good job of not using science to dismiss the spiritual aspect, but rather to give it a physical basis. Not the best-organized book and I was definitely frustrated with it at times, but if you're interested in the subject it's worth a quick read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Luca Rossetto

    An exciting journey through the best spots in the world in search of the mystical roots of surfing. Like every mystical search, the book becomes deeper the closer it come to the answer of the quest, what is the origin of belief? Kotler's powerful narration leaves with you an incredible desire to take a surfboard and to throw into the waves, even if you live near a hopeless-flat-part of the Mediterranean sea!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris Cusick

    Possibly the most anti-climactic travel story ever written. I get that this is a journey of discovery, and for the better part of the book, I was right there with the author, his highs, his lows, and philosophical musings. It all seemed to work... initially. But when it became evident that the discovery on which the story depends would not be made, I couldn't help but feel cheated. I'm never getting those hours of my life back...

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