Wednesday, July 12, 2006

West of Jesus

Two friends who happened to be surfers drove their rusted out old car into the outback to chase the rumor of perfect waves on an isolated beach. They rumbled over the bumpy road, turning left, then right, winding around, finally driving off the pavement down pockmarked, dusty lanes, eventually stalling out in a thick muck field just a quarter mile from the ocean. From here they did what any reasonable surfer would do, they untied their boards and started to hike into the beach. Things changed not more than ten feet away from their abandoned car. A blinding light flash and -zap!- a lightning bold charred the car, frying engine and all associated parts.

Miles from civilization, knowing nothing about engines and out of supplies, they did the only sensible thing--they went surfing. When they reached the water they found the surface to be completely flat, no waves to be had. Waiting out most of the afternoon with no change in conditions, they were ready to bail, when again -zap!- another bolt hit the reef and *poof* instant waves. Beautiful surf for hours, they caught waves all day, until suddenly, just as rapidly as they had begun, the waves shut off. Just like that, as sometimes happens.

That's when they saw him. Several hundred yards out was an old man sitting on a surfboard. In his hand was a long white bone. The story is that with this bone he could control the weather, could summon waves, and who knows what other magical stuff.

This is the story of the Conductor. It is the myth who's elusive origins author Steven Kotler seeks in his book "West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief." After hearing the tale of the Conductor years apart in similarly dire circumstances while surfing in Indonesia and later Mexico, Kotler embarks on a journey of the exploration of belief and spirituality. The "logos and "mythos" of human understanding. This is not your average surf book.

Weaving his own personal tale of a struggle with Lyme's Disease and his transformation through a surfing session, he gives us a peepshow look at current scientific thought about the causal reasons behind our spiritual experiences. This is a magical narrative that touches on areas that those of us who explore recognize as familiar. It is a complex, yet simple tale that uses surfing simply as a backdrop, but has relevance to anyone, especially those in love with action sports. Social scientists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and many other scientific sorts weigh in on numerous aspects of belief. We are ushered to all corners of the globe, from California to New Zealand to Hawaii on this quest.

Much is revealed. On the marriage of brain evolution and the construction of mythologies:

"Humans often encounter illness, death, odd coincidences, mysterious circumstances--things that do not allow for easy understanding. Yet human evolution designed the human brain to detect meaning, and this mechanism doesn't just shut down when easy answers aren't readily forthcoming. Hence the need to invent meaning--gods, demons, supernatural forces--mythos is how humankind resolves the irresolvable." It is the how and why of this phenomenon, it is the mystery, that Kotler delves deeply into.

And yet there is a more tactile mystery that can be tasted through physical experience, through exertion, through being "in the zone."--surfing, being in animate motion in whatever form. Mythos has its place, emotions are said to be believed to be constantly filtering our reality--meaning quite literally that what we believe may be what we actually see. The question is then begged: What happens to our reality and to a society's reality when belief in the mythological ceases?

While this is heady stuff and the science fascinating, the author makes his words dance; the interplay being tremendously fun to behold. For those of us runners there is much to be gleaned. Kotler does bring running into the fray, looking at the old idea of the "endorphin high" and relegating it to a "total fantasy of pop culture." The beauty for the runner is in the mystery: "something's happening here; what it is ain't exactly clear."

What is clear is that for those of us who enjoy our laymanly romps with the logos, but whose souls are irretrievably lost to the mythos, this is book is a worthwhile and fantastical journey.


angie's pink fuzzy said...

sounds fascinating.

Ben, aka BadBen said...

I may pick this book up.

dirt_trail_runner said...

it's a good read.

MKM said...

You show me yours; I'll show you mine?