Motorcycling is Mindfulness

“An hour on the bike is better than an hour with a therapist.”

-Unknown

A lot of us have heard or repeated this quote, but what does it mean? How many of us have actually experienced both the therapist and the knees in the breeze and can talk about the differences? I have, and it took me more than 20 years to figure it out. I’m a slow learner.

An hour on the bike is better, that’s true, but why is it true? We do our thinking on the motorcycle, we feel at peace afterwards, we crave this peace at the first sign of trouble. We miss this peace all winter.

We all kind of know what that quote means. It resonates with us. The simple pleasures of sunshine and the visceral experience of watching the asphalt go by are amazing, the feeling of wind on your body letting you know that time (and miles) have gone by. The feeling of rolling down a street you might have been down a thousand times in your cage, but it’s so much more real and immediate without anything between you and it. The smell of fresh cut grass that you wouldn’t have gotten with the windows rolled up. The sound of people talking on the sidewalk. A feeling of being in the world and not simply going through it.

For some of this, science is starting to come up with “the why”. Humans were meant to see green and blue and brown and thrive in an environment that looks nothing like the cubicles or assembly lines many of us work in; even our houses most likely clash with nature. Why do you think log cabins remain popular? Think about the difference between a primitive shelter or a tepee or a log cabin and your house: when you look around do you see a lot of wood grain and natural colors or a lot of linoleum and carpet and drywall? Why do you think hardwood floors and ceramic tile are so expensive and sought after? Why do you think a log cabin is so romanticized and sought after? We want to be comfortable, but we also want to see the colors and textures and feel the sensations that our ancestors did.

So, no matter what else happens or whatever we figure out about our grey matter, outside-y things are good for us. Still, being on two wheels is unlike anything else and there must be a reason for it.

The reason is that motorcycling is mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Mull that over. Can you drift off into inattention the way you can in a car? No. Are you alone with your own thoughts? Yes. Do you continually feel the wind on your face, the sun on your skin, your knees in the breeze? Yes. Do you notice sensations like smell and sound in ways you would not in a car? Yes. Thoughts and sensations are the contents of consciousness. The simplest action, such as stopping at a stop sign, takes on a significance that’s missing from many of our experiences. You don’t just press the stop button, you coordinate your front and rear brakes, downshift, allow the weight of the bike to lean ever so slightly to the left as your right foot remains on the brake, your left hand pulls the clutch, your left foot holds you up. You are present, moment by moment. The felt presence of immediate experience. Existing “now” in simple actions and the thoughts that gave life to those actions is surprising pleasing.

So why does that basic shit matter? Because it’s your life going by moment by moment, and that used to matter. So many of our experiences in the digitally-assisted world remove us from one, two, or all of the steps and experiences that used to keep us anchored to the moment, to our life. When you ask Alexa to add eggs to your shopping list, your are robbing yourself of context and experience. You perform an action without seeing what else is on your list, without thinking of the meals you’ll make with your family.

In addition to proper mindfulness, this is why the excitement and challenge of packing for a long trip has always made me feel happy and at peace.

When you have to pack your saddlebags and back pack for a 4 day trip, you are forced to remember that Amazon Prime won’t help you on the side of the road if you have to take shelter from a storm.

When you throw some beef jerky in your jacket, you are forced to remember that the things necessary for human life don’t magically appear when needed, and humans took over the planet because of our ability to think ahead and change our environment to suit us. Yet, we did it without a moment-to-moment anxiety storm that rendered us unable to act.

When you have to put on sunscreen at every gas stop, you are reminded that “the Earth” doesn’t give a shit if you live or die and keeping breathing only happens if you are ever vigilant.

When you carry a fix-a-flat kit because you know you’re buddy’s back tire is about to go, you are reminded that humans only took over the planet because we were more powerful in communities.

I have, at various points in my life, been prescribed pharmaceuticals or self-medicated with chemicals. That means: things my doctor prescribed me and over-the-counter drugs like “enough bourbon to not have to feel any emotions tonight”. I have sat with a PhD psychologist who tried to help me figure out my issues. You know what? I will never touch psycho-cocktails again, and I consume in moderation in favor of the only thing that’s actually maintainable and works. There’s a place for the head-shrinkers as we used to call it, but I’ve busted my ass getting to a place where I can look within and find answers on my own.

I meditate every day. Right now I’m on a 420-something day streak. I leave reminders for myself at work in subtle ways. The reminders say “Stop and breathe”. You have to learn the difference between things you think are relaxing and great because they are better than work/chores/screaming kids and the things that are therapeutic because they are allowing you to be mindful.

Mindfulness is Good for You

The health effects of mindfulness are hard to overstate. This is not hippie bullshit, this is what the hard sciences have to say:

  • Reduced rumination ( affects depression and generally stewing on things)
  • Stress reduction
  • Boosts working memory
  • Boosts Focus
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Many other bonuses…

Head on over to a page maintained by the American Psychological Association to read more about the specifics of these benefits. Take a look through that list again. How many people are living on chemical cocktails with the hope of getting some of those benefits?

We all like to read things that we already agree with. Many of us have made the argument to an impatient wife or girlfriend that we had to ride to work through something or quiet our mind to the point where the stress of the work week is no longer haunting us.

This is Two Wheeled Thoughts

Once you understand mindfulness, and how motorcycling is mindfulness, it makes all of your time on two wheels even more valuable. Adding some simple breathing, reflection, visualizations, or resting awareness into a ride amplifies the effects.

You’ll notice that there are experiences that naturally compliment this two-wheeled mindfulness. Experiences like camping, sitting down on a vista and appreciating nature, enjoying primitive cooking. Talking to people all night without iPads or Netflix in sight. Having great moments that you don’t instantly put on social media because you understand breaking out of that flow to get “internet attention” would defile the experience. Simply understanding that a great experience can be cheapened in the rush to instagram it is a huge leap forward.

This is Two Wheeled Thoughts. I rode for 20 years on and off before I began to understand the why of it all. This is what this site is all about. I don’t just throw this shit in people’s faces: a Saturday poker run is not the place to get on a soap box about examining the contents of consciousness and changing our relationship with anxiety or grief.  I am slowly doing the work though, I have a small circle of disciples and like-minded leaders that expands a little bit each year. If you come on a cross country trip or go motorcycle camping with me, you’ll wind up in front of a fire and we’ll be talking about things, getting real. You’ll wind up eating food I cooked over an open fire and taking a hit off my bourbon flask. Every year there’s a couple more people I convince to give me a few days of their time, and afterwards they get it. I hope they go on to show others. I am no guru, just a fellow traveler, and I try to show others that there’s something worth exploring here.

Motorcycling is not a “sport”, or a means of transportation, it’s a brotherhood and a way of life.

– David “Chubby” Charlebois, Executive Director ABATE of Wisconsin

You’ll find yourself at work, months after the trip you took with me, and find that you heart hurts horribly with the need for an experience like this. You’ll look at a calendar, the snow on the ground, and despair at how much calendar-space stands between you and the next chance to taste reality in a different way. To get you through it, practice mindfulness formally.

Motorcycling is mindfulness. You know what to do: go get healthy.

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