Surfing a way to spiritual fulfillment

Author uses surfing hobby as a way to combat chronic disease.

By Elizabeth Arnold / Special to the Malibu Times

After contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite in 2000, author Steven Kotler lost everything-his health, his dream job and his girl. After spending two years in bed contemplating suicide and feeling ready to give up, Kotler rediscovered surfing and he said it saved his life.

Kotler had initially learned to surf in the early 1990s, but stopped for a while after his beloved surfing mentor died. As a freelance writer for Wired Magazine, he was sent to Malaysia to cover a story in 1995. While on the assignment, he found himself surfing again. After getting beaten up by the powerful waves he almost drowned. One of his surfing companions remarked that the “conductor” had just had his way with him. His friend went on to tell him about an epic surf quest to meet a man who conducts the waves from a wand made from human bones. This marked the beginning of Kotler’s own quest to find out the origin of the conductor myth.

However a decade passed, and Kotler, who hadn’t done much surfing after his trip to Malaysia, found himself depressed and suffering the painful effects of Lyme disease. He had all the classic symptoms of the autoimmune disease, from joint pain to exhaustion, and said his doctors didn’t know how or when he would get better.

When a friend of Kotler’s asked him to go surfing in Los Angeles, he summoned all his strength and went. He waded into the ocean with his board, and as soon as he hit a wave, Kotler said his muscle memory came back. He said the rush he felt was overwhelming, and that he felt time and space drop away, and oneness with everything.


“It was the first time in years that I wanted to be alive,” Kotler said.

That intense surfing experience took its toll on his body, and Kotler found himself in bed for two weeks afterward. On the 15th day, he got up and went surfing again. He then started to surf on a regular basis.

“After starting to surf again, I went from deathly ill and unable to move to very robust,” Kotler said.

Kotler said he started to think of surfing as his religion, and was enthralled as to why it was making him feel so much better, when so many of the traditional medicines he tried hadn’t. During a surfing trip to Mexico in 2003, Kotler heard the “conductor” story again, and vowed to uncover the magic and mystery of this surf story. He wanted to explore why surfing provided him with such a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

“What started as the search for the origin of the conductor myth,” Kotler said, “ended up being a profound look at the intersection of sports, science and spirituality.”

In his book “West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief,” which was published this year, Kotler makes the premise that action sports, such as surfing, produce the same reverie as meditation and religion, and can indeed cure disease. Kotler, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, GQ, National Geographic and Wired, said his book is an exploration into the science of spirituality and is a surfer’s journey into the biology of belief. While writing his book, he researched with top neuroscientists, who made themselves available to him. Scientists, psychologists and anthropologists proofed the book before it went to print. The book was given favorable reviews by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

When asked how surfing helped him conquer Lyme disease, which had affected his short-term memory and concentration, he said that surfing mimics the intense focus of meditation, and meditation boosts learning, memory and concentration. As for the physical benefits of surfing, Kotler said the sport produces a host of neuro-chemicals that are good for your health.

Kotler said he highly believes in the mind/body connection and said that everything we encounter in this world is first filtered through the mind. He continues to surf three to four times a week, and said it has brought him from about 10 percent functionality up to 70 percent.

Kotler will appear at Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Rd., Malibu, on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. for a signing of his book “West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief.” He will also read from the book and talking about his experiences.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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