©David Puu
©David Puu

THAT NIGHT MARKED the beginning of a blizzard of coincidence. There were a few at first and then by the dozen. I would get the notion in my head to call Joe, and the phone would ring and it would be Joe. And then Michael, Micah, Adam, Andrea, Shannon, Sheerly, Terena, Tess, Howard, Kevin, Chad, Jori, and everyone else and over and over. I got very good at thinking of a song and turning on the radio to find it playing; I got better at thinking of someone and running into that person an hour later. These coincidences were the first of a long string of down-the-rabbit-hole experiences too numerous to recount. The novelist Michael Ondaatje once wrote, “The important thing is to be able to live in a place or a situation where you must use your sixth sense all the time,” and I agree completely, but it was starting to feel like I drank the wrong Kool-Aid.

It is not easy to describe the extent of this change. It was a hundred little things; it was nothing big. I realized my feelings quite literally felt different. At first it seemed like I had opened a door somewhere inside myself, that I had access to deeper levels of emotion, but then I realized that it was the emotions themselves that had changed. It was like someone had swapped out my limbic system and given me a brand-new one. All of this might sound like a good thing if you go in for that New Age gadgetry, but really, the rave scene never did it for me, and after all those years of feeling my feelings one way, having them feel radically different was a little like waking up with a new nose.

Then there were the times these new emotions did things I didn’t think emotions could do. I’d be in conversation with someone else, often a stranger, and be completely overtaken by a kind of full-body empathy. I was suddenly feeling not only all of my feelings but also those of the person I was talking to as well—an experience as startling as any I can recall. James Austin, a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Colorado, writes that such expansive empathy is a normal product of spiritual experience. In his exhaustive inquiry into the neuroscience of Buddhism, Zen and the Brain, Austin notes: “Zen meditation has been used to nurture empathy in psychological counselors at the master’s degree level. After only four weeks of regular zazen, these student counselors increased their effective sensitivity and openness to experience.” But I was not meditating; I was just surfing.

A few weeks later I was surfing a Santa Monica beachbreak. The sun was bright, the sky clear. The waves were in the head-high range, the tide heading low. I had been out for almost two hours, no great rides, a few good ones. I decided to catch one last wave and call it quits. My choice wasn’t anything special, a fast right, with maybe just enough shoulder to carry me. I took a few strokes to line up with the peak, a few more to catch the wave, and then everything got quiet, too quiet. Surfing is usually accompanied by a dull roar, the constant thump of a few thousand pounds of water collapsing in on itself, but in those moments I heard nothing. The sound had just cut out. Gone elsewhere, perhaps Tahiti.

The silence caught me unaware. I looked around, trying to figure out what was happening, and suddenly realized that it wasn’t just that the sound had disappeared; it was that my whole world was now moving past in freeze-frame. Time had slowed, somehow, like someone had turned the temporal tap down low. My brain and body, my thoughts and reflexes, seemed wildly accelerated, but everything else had been reduced to a lollygagging crawl. Time was moving so slowly that I could see every inch of the water, every surface nub, every shadowy nuance. It was then that I noticed my peripheral vision was extended, almost panoramic. I had the strange sensation of thinking that I was seeing out of the back of my head. And then the wave, still in slow motion, began to close out.

I watched the wall set up, the water suck off the bottom, the curl begin to pitch. There was nowhere to go, and I was certain to fall. But I didn’t fall. Somehow I sucked my knees toward my chest and floated across the closeout, dropping off the far end and into the next section of wave. I made that section and then strung together a complicated series of maneuvers despite the fact that I had never done any of them before, nor had I any idea how to do them. All of this was just happening. It was clearly impossible. Mine might be a world where I knew who was on the other end of the phone before I answered it or what song was playing on the radio before the radio had been turned on—these, at least, were the kinds of anomalous events familiar to many—but a world where time slowed, where sound vanished, where vision worked in 360 degrees and I could really surf—this was an entirely new species of juju.

Unfortunately, this was not a species of juju that was meant to last. The next time I got back in the water, I had returned to my plebeian ways. Time went back to its traditional second-by-second progression. My vision was no longer panoramic, my aerial assault no longer a part of my skill set. In fact, it seemed that my entire newfound arsenal—the slashes and floaters and whatever—had been lost in the dustbin of memory. Everything had returned to normal, but suddenly normal wasn’t good enough.

From West of Jesus, ©2006 by Steven Kotler. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.