Last week, we announced the kickoff to a blog tour celebrating the fifth anniversary of West of Jesus by Pulitzer-nominated writer Steven Kotler. We invited you to ask Kotler questions regarding surfing, science, or anything, really, and you delivered. Here are a few of the most compelling questions, and Kotler’s responses.
One passage in the book discusses the euphoria of getting barreled paralleling the effects of drug use. How accurate is that analogy? And do you think that makes a compelling case for surfing as an addiction – as in a potentially unhealthy one? I know the general benefits, health and otherwise, of surfing outweigh the drawbacks, but some sacrifice career opportunities, relationships, develop skin cancer, etc… just to get “that feeling” a few more times a week. – Transplant
The analogy is pretty accurate. The same neurochemicals released in the brain while doing drugs are released in the brain during adrenaline sport. There’s literally no difference. Cocaine, for example, releases dopamine into the brain. But dopamine is a naturally occurring performance-enhancing neurochemical released whenever you take a risk. So every time you paddle for a heavy wave and make the drop…yup, same rush. But what makes adrenaline sport actually MORE addictive than drugs is that the brain can actually cocktail neurochemicals better than if you tried to take five or six drugs at once (which would most likely put you in the ER). There seems to be plenty of evidence that when you’re in a “flow state” (or the zone) you’re brain is doing just that. So, yes, surfing is just as potent and addictive as drugs….
Your second question is even more interesting. According to work done by Ronald Seigel at UCLA (among others) every mammal on the planet seeks intoxication. He believes, and I agree, it’s a fundamental drive….like the need for food or sex. The idea is that intoxication promotes lateral thinking…thinking outside the box…. and this is critical for survival. Beyond this, if you look at how the brain and the body work from a chemical standpoint there’s a bunch of semi-proof that we may function by getting addicted to things. Think of anything you’ve ever gotten really good at… did that expertise not come via addiction? I learned to surf because it was addictive and I got addicted, not because of any other reason. Think of it this way…addiction impairs good judgment, puts blinders on us, makes us incredibly devoted to X and makes us take unbelievable risks.
But the real question comes down to an even more metaphysical one… surfing is only a negative addiction if you believe the point of life should include more “pedestrian” pursuits. My own feeling is that one of the points of life is to have adventures…ultimately I think those adventures will drive you inward, deeper into the self, where every religion in the history of the world has pointed out is really where God or Truth or Whatever lies…which may be the point. But in my opinion the only way to answer if surfing is an unhealthy addiction is to be able to answer the bigger “WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE” question….
I consider myself fairly well read on the subject of surfing, and no where else have I come across a reference to “The Conductor” (where virtually all the other surfing/spirituality stuff seems well researched and legit). Was this just something you made up for the book? – Nathan Myers
I often wonder the same thing myself. But no, I heard the story in both Mexico and in Indonesia, just like I wrote it. I will say that after the book came out I got emails from surfers in both Fiji and Tahiti who were familiar with the name “The Conductor” but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to solving that mystery.
Having sat down to reread the book, I still wonder about the Conductor. This past summer in the Maldives I took a serious wipe out. An Aussie on our boat commented that a) “Almost lost the ole wedding tackle there mate!” and b) “He really took ya to the cleaner that time.” When asked who HE was, the Aussie answered “Oh, the landlord.” Hmm? – Chuck
I think I like the “Landlord” better than the “Conductor. If I would have heard that story first I think I might have gone on a quest to meet the Landlord.
Why is your book called West of Jesus? – Dave F.
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 it’s 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 drew you to surfing? – Jessica N.
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. Did it work? Well, it got me surfing and I’ve managed to rides waves on four different continents so far, then again, I could still use a date for prom.
In the book, you used surfing as a vehicle to recover from a debilitating case of Lyme Disease. Did you really surf your way back to health? – Matt B.
My life with Lyme had gotten pretty sparse. I could barely walk, was often too sick to read, and much of television moved too fast for me to follow. I wrote for about an hour every day and took my dog to the park. Then I added in surfing and started getting better. And that didn’t make much sense to me, which is partially what West of Jesus is about—my attempt to figure out what the hell happened.