Books Worth Reading – Steven Kotler’s “West of Jesus”

West of Jesus is an examination of why surfers treat their sport as a quasi-religion, but also deals, peripherally, with flow states, one of my favorite topics, and how we search for meaning in what we do. It’s a personal narrative and an anthropological treatise and pop-science book all wrapped up in one, and even if you’re not a surfer, you will enjoy it and relate to its core quest.

Why am I writing about a book published 15 years ago? Glad you asked. First, I just read it after years of having it recommended to me. Second, it’s really about how we come to believe what we believe, and coming out of the Trump-era, when the truth got fucked with at an atomic level, I’m hopeful we can come back to believing in things that are true, or at the very least examining what we believe more carefully.

I had previously read and reviewed one of Kottler’s other books, The Rise of Superman, which gets into the neuro-chemical nitty-gritty of flow states and the peak performance necessary in “extreme” sports. In retrospect, and particularly if you’re new to flow state science, the books are best read in the other order, WoJ first, RoS second.

Kotler’s super-power, as a writer, seems to be synthesizing literature and research from a million different sources and coalescing the whole into a compelling story that is personal and relatable. Such is the ease with which he zig-zags from science to memoir to mythos that I had a hard time keeping track of where we were. In the end, I felt I was just along for a ride that served up surprise after surprise, and only after closing the book and sitting back to think about what it meant, that it made its most striking impact.

Kotler is a bit like me (I’m flattering myself) in that he’s a humanities guy, a writer, who wants to legitimize his intuition with science> And he’s good at it (better than I am). But what underlies all of this is a deep desire to do things soulfully, whether that’s surfing or riding bikes or running. A major ingredient in the recipe seems to be getting outside, connecting with nature in the purest forms we can find, and the rest is about focusing on the experience in the moment, rather than doing things performatively or in the name of compiling statistics. Those things might be gratifying unto themselves, but they aren’t part of the big picture, connect-with-the-universe project directly.

And that’s why this book is worth reading, because it offers a template and some justification for that project, the one you’re working on already, but might benefit from understanding more deeply.