The world, even the motorcycling world, is full of fads. Ranging from the abysmal, like movie star cosmetics, to the possibly useful like various diets, they confront us everywhere. Many are nonsense, some might be the dinkum* goods and offer us a way to better physical or mental health, or even improve our riding.
In recent times I have been seeing the word “mindfulness” quite a lot. Originally, I associated it with Marie Kondo and her suggested attitude to our cluttered lives. It turned out to be something a bit less concrete but a lot more wide-reaching. Mind you, even the experts – what there is in the way of experts on this topic – aren’t sure what it is.
“We still don’t have a scientific definition of what mindfulness is, or a way to measure when people are in a mindful state,” writes researcher Jo Marchant in ‘New Scientist’ magazine. That is despite, as she admits, “Mindfulness [training] is now prescribed by doctors, taught in schools, provided by employers and is readily available to download.”
The practice of mindfulness is often linked to Buddhist meditation, but a working definition seems to be “paying attention to our experience in a non-judgmental, accepting way”. I wondered whether that could be a useful idea for motorcyclists.
When I started thinking about it, it occurred to me that there are riders who already use a form of mindfulness. They are mostly long-term, experienced people with a lot of different kinds of riding, various motorcycles and often wildly varying roads and other conditions under their belts. They have been through the desert on a bike with no name, and while it may have felt good to be out of the rain, they have ridden through that as well.
These are the people who don’t swear about storms and snow flurries, who simply cope with the most appalling road conditions, balky bikes and lack of fuel. Who arrive wherever they are going, relaxed and with their sense of humour intact. They might be aboard an old and battered bike, but it will be modified and equipped to suit their style of riding and the environment. They might say with a shrug of their shoulders and Jimmy Durante, that “dese are de conditions dat prevail”. It would not occur to them to criticise your choice of bike, although they might give you some considered, thoughtful advice.
How are they practicing mindfulness? By paying attention to their motorcycle, to the road, to the weather, to the traffic, but in a “non-judgmental, accepting way”. They swing with the roundabouts, and they roll with the rocks. Science suggests that they might also be experiencing a genuine, physical relief from unpleasantness such as being hot, cold or wet.
Neuroscientist Fadel Zeidan who heads the Center for Mindfulness at UC San Diego induces pain in volunteers while scanning their brain activity using fMRI. Some are taught mindfulness and practice it during the session, and Zeidan says that their reported pain is eased by 45 per cent which he estimates is double the effect of a clinical dose of morphine.
While I am pleased that I don’t know Zeidan and have therefore never been tapped for one of these sessions, I am impressed. The important thing here is that a reduction in pain (for which motorcyclists might read ‘stinging cold’, say) means not only that the subject (in our example, the rider) is less uncomfortable and also less distracted and therefore safer. On top of that, mindfulness studies have concluded that it even offers small improvements in executive function, meaning the ability to control and monitor behaviour directed towards a goal. It may even ease fear and emotional pain, by reducing connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
The kinds of riders I have been referring to are not necessarily familiar with their amygdala or have even heard of Buddhist meditation or mindfulness training. They would probably be surprised if you mentioned them. Instead they have come to their mindfulness progressively and naturally, without trying. Which is the best way: ask any Zen monk. That doesn’t mean that you need to spend decades riding cobbled-up bikes through foul weather to achieve mindfulness yourself. Although you could. Each to their own, I always say.
A lot of mindfulness training is available from various sources, and Marchant suggests that the easiest way to get some is via phone apps. However, she also says that a 2015 review found that of the many apps available, “fewer than 5 per cent offered good-quality training”. Effective ones as of 2021, according to her, are Headspace, Insight Timer and Calm.
But you know something? I think that any rider can get a taste of the positive effects of mindfulness by one thing: feel the joy of riding, whether things are going well or not. Just feel the joy, and stay with it.
(Photos The Bear)
*dinkum: Australian intensifying word meaning real, genuine.