Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a three-part series by Ben Marcus exploring the idea of surfing as a religion. A version of this piece also appeared in Brazil’s Alma Surf.
GOD = BRAIN CHEMISTRY
Half a century after Tom Blake wrote his essays Voice of the Atom and Voice of the Wave, Californian Steven Kotler wrote West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief. Kotler was inspired to write the book after contracting lyme disease, which weakened him to a point where he took up surfing to get his strength back. Kotler explored the thin line between the natural sensation of surfing and the spiritual ecstasies of religion.
Kotler believes the connection between surfing, spirituality and religion is founded in nature – specifically, the chemical nature of the brain.
According to Kotler, American president George Bush Sr. declared the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain” which fired a starter’s gun into deeper research into one of the greatest mysteries of the universe: The human brain.
Kotler points to research conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg, head of the department of Nuclear Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Newberg pinpointed a section of the brain called the Orientation Association Area. Brain scans showed that humans involved in meditation or religious concentration will block 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? The question of where am I gets directed to the OAA, but because it is shut down [by meditiation] 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 the self as endless, boundless and “as one with everything.”
Kotler points out that the same focus and concentration needed to meditate is required by action and adventure spots, especially in higher risk situations – which helps explain why surfers, when pulling into a tube, often feel themselves become one with the wave.
So is that it? Does it all come down to brain chemistry? Kotler was interviewed by journalist David Ian Miller for the San Francisco Chronicle and walked the line between the physical and the metaphysical:
What about surfing is spiritual, do you think?
I agree with Andrew Newberg, the head of nuclear medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who says that everything we call spiritual experience is on a continuum that stretches on the low end from the simplest aesthetic experience all the way to the high end, which would be what Christians call unio mystico, or the Buddhists call absolute unitary being — a sense of oneness with everything.
The constant for this spectrum of spiritual experiences is focused attention. Your attention gets focused on something that is very beautiful, like a sunset, and you lose your sense of time and space — you get sucked completely into the moment. And for a moment, you have a feeling of union with that sunset. And that [same process] goes on all the way up the continuum to the kind of absolute feeling of union you get at the high end. In between are a bevy of other things, including the flow-state experiences that athletics, all different guises of athletics, tend to provide.
Now, people don’t want to call these experiences spiritual, partly because there is not a belief system that’s coupled to them. But I’m not sold on the idea that what we believe has anything to do with our spiritual experiences. I think, as people have said before, that all roads lead to Rome. I think you’ve just got to pick a path. And from a biological point of view, and when we understand what goes on in the brain during spiritual experiences, all these paths do go to the same place.
I’ve heard surfers talk about when they’re in the tube, it’s like time stops, and they feel this sort of connection with the cosmos that’s almost unexplainable. Is that what you are talking about?
Yes! Every mystical system on earth, from Sufism to Kabalistic Judaism to Zen, everything pretty much talks about a oneness with everything as the ultimate experience. It’s also an experience that shows up in surfing. People feel at one with the ocean. It’s the same kind of thing.