Danger!

Aren't motorcycles dangerous?  I don't know how many times I have been asked this.  My best short answer is, "Only during the brief periods of time when you are hitting something.  So the game is not to hit anything."  Not bad.  But I think the issue of danger as it relates to us and to motorcycles deserves more attention, if you'll bear with me.

 So, how about motorcycles?  Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death in the United States, and motorcycle crashes have a higher lethality than car crashes. 

Let's get one thing straight right now.  We are pretty vulnerable to injury by impact.  People have broken their necks on bicycles without doing stunts.  My father broke his right arm and leg on his bike, just riding down a bike path, and he doesn't even understand what happened.  He just fell badly.  So we are proposing to increase the collision force envelope by thousands of times, by going highway speeds on motorcycles.  Yes, it's dangerous.  OK.  Let's move on.

I don't think that we have a broad enough vision of what is dangerous.  There is more danger than just the danger of physical injury.  People who think motorcycles are "dangerous," meaning unacceptably so, often do not understand this.  Broadly, the danger I am talking about is the danger of living an unengaging, fear-constricted, emotionally impoverished life.  We must face up to a confusing fact about the human condition; we are not happy when we get everything we want, and we become weaker when we do not have to try.  Ultimately, this will amount to physical danger anyway, as well as spiritual danger.

A great deal has been written about this.  It's a notorious phenomenon.  We are all driven to accumulate wealth, power, reputation and influence, if only for our own safety.  Yet those among us who are most successful in these ways, are not typically the happiest, nor are they typically in the best mood, nor are they the sweetest people to be around.  Yet, from the motorcycle travelers I have read, it appears that if you are a stranger in a strange land, the poorer everybody is, the more friendly they are, and the more likely they are to help you if you need it.  What does this mean? 

It means that our survival instincts, if successfully and completely followed, do not lead to the best life.  The modern world of plenty and safety and hurry has us off kilter.  We were not meant to have it this easy.  Motorcycles are one way to straighten this situation out.

You can see the signs of the mismatch between our actual, prosperous situation and the recipe for human happiness everywhere.  On the one hand, there are the risk-takers.  Mountain climbers, explorers, stunt riders, and soldiers.  What are they doing?  They may mention, "adrenaline."  They may say they love the focus it gives to their attention, to be navigating a truly challenging and dangerous situation, though most soldiers will tell you that killing and suffering injury at the hands of others gets pretty old.  It seems that many of us do not feel proper unless we experience an important level of risk.  We were built to strive, and to navigate around mortal danger.  That is our animal heritage, and our internal systems and psychology remain optimized to that situation.

On the other hand, the majority remains convinced that they want maximum safety.  But I can see, even though they can't, that they suffer side effects.  One is fear of the unknown.  As we live, we hear stories.  We are hard-wired to listen more carefully to stories of danger.  They come to fill our awareness, though the danger of the four homicides out of a million people last year, say,  means we are individually very unlikely to be murdered.  We then tend to feel that anything outside our own lifestyle is dangerous, because we have heard the stories.  "Beyond here there be monsters," it said 400 years ago on maps of the world, over the uncharted waters.   What we say may sound more like, "everyone inside the 494/694 beltway should be nuked," or, "Going out on the road alone is nothing for a woman to do." 

But I can see in many of those people a sickness, expressed as a dark view of the world, and a very restricted vision of their life.  It ends poorly, too.  We need to stretch, to strive, to improve.  This is taken care of for us when we are young, by our growing bodies, instincts and lack of responsibility as children.  As adults, we must make time for it, alongside the roles that have accumulated in our lives.  If we don't, we start to die.  Unused muscles atrophy.  Unused bones decalcify.  Unused neurons die.  Unused skills fade.  Unused friendships grow thin.  Arteries with slow-running blood collect debris.  Let me ask you something:  How safe is it to reach old age having spent 50 years not stretching or striving or dreaming with hope that one might achieve it, and having no practice beating back the unknown, to call upon in the endgame, when our bodies and minds start to pack up?  So often people walk into the endgame with no fitness, no skills, no strategy.  We MUST strive and grow.  It is what we were meant to do.  We are only in proper condition when we have sweat on our brow, and are facing the fear in our hearts.

So now let's talk about motorcycles.  Motorcycles are pretty special.  To ride a motorcycle is to face mortality.  You really could die, just like that.  But that is the optimal condition of our beings.  Acceptance of the possibility of death now, and development of the ability to face it and manage it without denying it or wimping out and yelling for mommy to make it go away, is as important to the soul as good nutrition is to the body.  It is also the foundation for all courage, which is clearly in short supply, and which I am coming to believe is the root cause of all corruption and most violence. 

Motorcycling is also good for the soul on the bright side, relating to hope, skill, joy, and unity with all things.  Motorcycles are connected to us in dozens of ways.  Everything you do causes a response in the motorcycle, and manifests in the real world.  Just a few examples:

If your faith that you can go around the corner falters, you go wide. 

If you ride pulling on the bars, bumps can cause the bike to wobble. 

If you are not prepared to put all your weight on the pegs, temporary loss of traction is far more dangerous. 

If you have an emotion or mood that is too strong, your awareness of your situation fades, and you let danger in closer before seeing it. 

If you ride with a vertical back, it hurts a lot more to go over a monster bump, and you are more likely to be thrown off or lose control than if you are leaned forward.

If you hold on tight and micromanage the motorcycle, your ability to corner and handle road irregularities goes way down, and you tire very quickly.

Motorcycles are what, in electronics, they call a "transducer."  In electronics, they mean a device that converts some property of the world, like pressure, temperature, light, etc.  into a voltage, to inform the operation of a circuit. 

What I mean is that what the motorcycle does, taken in detail, reflects everything about your being, mental, physical and spiritual, and lays it bare in an amplified form.  It telegraphs your efforts and ambitions.  It broadcasts your faults, so you and others can see them.  It speaks of your struggles and your pain. 

When you feel aggressive, the motorcycle is aggressive.  When you are exuberant, the motorcycle shows it.  When your confidence wavers, your motorcycle wavers.   When you are patient and precise and skilled and aware, the motorcycle moves with grace.  When you are distracted, unskilled, and impatient, the motorcycle moves with dis-grace.  When your skills and attention are shallow, your zone of grace is shallow.  When your skills and attention are deep, your zone of grace is deep.  The motorcycle is the ultimate in biofeedback.  The motorcycle is a window into the soul.  Motorcyclists are blessed with the opportunity to peer within their own soul, by paying attention to their riding.

Motorcycling is a practice, much like Yoga.  Your whole life you just do the basics, over and over.  If you do it with love and attention to yourself and the practice, and always strive for more grace, more harmony with your situation, your level of understanding of and connection with your world increases.   If you have gone down this path a ways, in Yoga, a martial art, or a sport, you know what I'm talking about.  To the rest of you, let me tell you, it's the way to go.  There is joy and peace of mind in the sense of flow that only comes as you strive with full attention and patience.

Motorcycles are a way we can strive forever, grow forever, and be handsomely rewarded for our success.  Many of us already know the thrill of handling a patch of sand on a turn in a way that really worked, or just going through a turn with the tires walking just a little, and ending up exactly the way we had in mind.  In this striving and this accomplishment, as well as in the ability to escape the familiar and see things and people, there is joy.  As with all true joy, it is earned.  It is earned by the practice.  It is earned by the mental discipline of improvement.  It is earned by making peace with mortality and facing it down each time we ride.  It is earned by gaining skill in making new friends, learning how to give and receive from the people we meet on the way.

As we engage in the dangerous practice of motorcycling, we are also getting our houses in order in another way.  We are clearing away the fear of the unknown that is piled up on every unused surface like junk mail, restricting our freedom of movement in life.  We are out there in the wind, bashing into the bees and the flying gravel, and getting through ok.  We are out there among the semis, dancing in their huge windblasts, dodging through them unseen, and getting through ok.  We are out there among the strangers in the strange places, finding that almost everybody out there is friendly, caring and helpful.  As we do, the unknown becomes known, and the monsters in our mind are chased further afield.  And the world brightens, isolation grows less, and the siege laid in our souls by the subtle trap of prosperity and modernity grows weaker.

Can you see there is danger caused as well by not doing dangerous things like motorcycling?  Yes, we might die; we all do, you know.  But until then, we are alive, paying life the respect and sacrifice it deserves, and cultivating our ability to live it well.

 

Paul Ashman

 

 

 

 

 

 

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