Rumble. Rattle. Gravel. Whine. Light. Dark. Pothole. Grass. Gas. Wind.
There are those times when you ride a motorcycle and only after you park, or stop that continuous flow, do you realize that you were just living in that zen space; that “eternal now” where you aren’t thinking much about the future, or the past, just that “expanded present” as Alan Watts says. You can’t ever really know at the time, but you do feel connected to all things, and time stretches forward and backward, and you are right there, on your motorcycle, living.
I find it fascinating that few other things can get me into this state so assuredly as a motorcycle ride. So fascinating, in fact, it seemed worth writing this article to examine why this should be so. It occurred to me that the crux of it may be the supreme lack of multi-tasking, or rather the ultimate focus on one thing: staying alive.
The truth is, we are multi-tasking, in a way, when we ride, but I’d say it is better characterized by an integrated effort on the part of our whole being to support that one aforementioned goal. Consider how devoted each of my senses must be:
When I ride, my eyes are fluttering around. Rapid scans across the horizon and forward lanes of traffic. Glances to the side for cars about to crash into my lane. A blip down to the dash to check speed and any warning lights, plus my trip-odometer (I don’t have a gas level). Quickly scanning the road just ahead for potholes that will jerk me around. I haven’t a single second to look at a map, change the radio, glance at my phone, like you might in a car. No one sees me, so I have to see for everybody.
My ears are a key pathway to the performance of my machine. I ride an older bike, and it is sometimes less than reliable. The rattle of the valves, the exhaust note, the squeaks, can all tell me something about how the bike is holding up. I can hear trucks approach. The sound of the tire against the ground tells me about what kind of ground it is and how slippery it might be. This is important data coming in, too valuable to cover up with music or chatter.
Did I just drive past a chicken coop or a cow farm? Smell connects you with your surroundings in a powerful way. I can smell the warm sun-baked fields, or the wet forest dells; sometimes gas wafts up from a leaky carb (not recently, thankfully). The stench of diesel fumes makes me switch lanes. A constantly changing symphony of smells is always updating my mental model of where I am.
Vibrations of the engine and the road tell me about my bike; how it’s operating, what the road is like. I can feel how long I’ve been on by the soreness in certain joints, how the weather is by the way the air cools my fingers and rushes up under my helmet. I feel the acceleration, the braking, the way the wind pushes the bike around, the clunk of a pothole, the resistance of my controls. My hands are ready to clutch in or brake, my feet can brake or change gears; I don’t have the available limbs to hold a coffee or fiddle with my phone.
So, with all this integrated processing of the senses and the controlling of this missile on which I’m sitting, there is not a whole lot of mental capacity for much else. Any attempt to actually muse about some thought is CAR SWERVES INTO LANE AHEAD. MUST BRAKE. POTHOLE IN ROAD. MUST STEER AND BRAKE. CRISIS AVERTED. ACCELERATE.
Ah, you see what I did there? Typically you can’t think about something for very long, because you have to focus on the full act of riding. It is this focus that draws on all your attention, and your higher brain kind of checks out of the whole affair; and when that happens, you get into that flow and the miles just slip away.
It’s wild, I think, that so few things in my life (or I’d imagine most people’s lives) draw on our attention so fully that we can only float in the experience. We don’t check our social networks, we don’t have a conversation, we don’t consume media, we don’t think of our myriad commitments…we just ride.
I think the lesson here is to seek full engagement, regardless of the activity. When you speak with your friends, connect to them with your eyes, feel their presence, understand what they are saying. Perhaps smell their perfume, try to shut down the background chatter of your brain and stop judging. When you work on a task, it should be your only task in that moment; look at it from all angles, feel the keys under your fingers, or the wrench in your hand. Smell the coffee or the oil. Listen to the taps of the keyboard or the ambient noise of your creation. Engage fully with your task.
There’s a zen saying: “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.”
And I should add, when needing to go somewhere, ride.