Mindfulness and Motorcycling

An open road, engine roaring, speed building and scenery melting as miles per hour accelerate. The intensity of the twisting throttle directly correlates with the rate of my heart until I acclimate to the speed. Every time I ride my motorcycle, this occurs. The rev of the engine sparks nervous excitement before I adjust to the mellowing purr of the machine vibrating beneath me. Exposed and all too vulnerable, it is a wonder those of us who ride motorcycles are able to find this blissful medium. But we do, over and over, and it’s what keeps us coming back, placing ourselves in ultimately dangerous situations for personal enjoyment.

With a heightened awareness of the present moment, I release my attachment to outcomes, surrendering myself to what I cannot control, and taking responsibility for what I can- my thoughts, my body, my breath. Think I’m still referring to motorcycles? This is the act of mindful meditation.

As a long time practitioner of mindfulness, I realized the similarities between the two soon after I started riding. Riding a motorcycle is risky. End of story. There is no argument, but interestingly enough when a person indulges in anxious and insecure thoughts, the brain responds with fear and this compromises ability. It is an amygdalic response: the brain activating instinct reactions of fight, flight, or freeze, and in cases where there is a need for focused attention, those fearful instincts can cause slip-ups. Clumsy release of the clutch or a poorly executed turn can result in an accident. In contrast, I am willing to propose that accidents caused by over-confidence in riding are still related to anxiety, or rather obsession. A fixation on appearance to others, or the self, to perform a feat or trick that is not yet within the rider’s ability. The same risks are present, if not greater. Confidence in ability and awareness of limitations maintains the process in making decisions about what to do next.

Similar to everyday life, when we indulge in anxiety we suffer. Fear attaches us to possibilities that may never occur. We do not perform better at work, our thinking is not clear, and we are not happier people when we do this. Rather, we become insecure, guarded, or obsessive about problems that are much smaller than the attention we feed them. We constantly judge or criticize ourselves, worry obsessively about what often results in nothing, or stay overly concerned with how others perceive us. Interestingly enough, the anxiety perpetuates itself when we invest in it, seeming to consume our lives and determine our day. There is an alternative way to think.

Stop. Take a breath. Be mindful.

What the heck does that mean? I bet you are wondering. Observe each moment independently of the rest. Pay attention to the amount of control you have over your thoughts rather than spiraling into the endless infinity that is your anxiety. Let go of thoughts that do not serve you, no matter how much your anxiety insists worry is needed. Return your attention to the breath: inhales and exhales, the sensation of breathing, air coming in and out of your lungs. When your mind wanders (which it will), and the snowball of fretful thoughts exponentially builds again, stop. Take a breath. Be mindful.

Sounds easy, right? I’ll add another challenge: do this without judgment. The mind wanders, anxious thoughts will inevitably return. The key to both successful mindfulness and riding is noticing when this occurs. That’s it; the most important part. When you notice, you have a choice about what to do with those thoughts, to pay attention to what’s going on around you rather than what’s going on in your head. When we judge ourselves, we only substitute one anxious frame of thought with another. The brain learns nothing new.

When practicing mindfulness, we rewire our brains, gradually creating reliable neural networks to the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning, decision-making, and awareness. Instead of the default path to the amygdala where these fear-based thoughts arise, we move to the part of our brain in charge of deciding how to think.

I have explained in a previous article how the brain equates emotional discomfort to danger. The mind will create reasons and ways to avoid uncomfortable situations, attempting to calculate risk based only on the worst-case scenario. Feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, and incompetence are not enjoyable, and when there is a potential for these soul-sucking emotions the brain will become active with reasons and ways to avoid them. When riding a motorcycle, coddling these fears can get a rider killed. The brain goes into panic, interrupting muscle memory. The body overreacts movement and the mind delays response time, compromising the rider’s mind-body balance.  The solution: stop the mental process, and take a breath. Be mindful. Check in with reality instead of the never-ending list of fabricated what-ifs. Right now, whether on a motorcycle or getting through your workday, remember you are alive, breathing, and in this moment, you are okay.

As if you were riding, pay attention.  Listen; notice your thoughts. Are they serving you? Do they reflect reality? Take the opportunity to shift out of the anxious autopilot and into mindful being. Repeatedly and without judgment, practice letting go of the mind’s attachment to arbitrary circumstances and take responsibility for your thoughts right now, in this moment. Stop. Breathe. Be mindful.

Heather Rashal, LMHC
Heather@CenterfortheHealingArts.com
407-657-8555 ext 6
Winter Park, FL

Laughter

Laughter is the best medicine. We have all heard the idiom, but what does it mean? A hearty chuckle will not cure a cold or banish the flu, but I propose laughter has more healing properties than we consider.

In my opinion, some of the best writing for TV and movies comes from productions that bring me to tears, and I find that the best way to make me cry is to make me laugh first. A character in a TV show whose actions provoke giggles is typically more relatable. I’ve noticed when I spend an hour feeling connected to a fictional character through laughter and something bad happens to them, I have stronger sadness as well.

Laughing and crying are not as different as we think. Have you ever laughed so hard you cried? Or noticed that the sound of deep belly laughs is not dissimilar from heartfelt weeping?  Have you ever cried or laughed so hard it hurt? Or found yourself laughing or crying simply at the sight of someone doing the same? The similarities between laughing and crying are not an accident, nor are they the result of the human body’s limiting design. These two seemingly opposite reactions arise from the same place within us for a reason. Humor is an intimate part of a person’s personality and when we open up to others about our sense of humor, however odd, dry, or quirky it is, we show our selves.  Authentic laughter is an act of vulnerability, allowing us to reveal the underbellies of our psyches. It encourages empathy, connection, communication, and promotes safety between individuals. (1)(2)

Most of us hide our true selves behind emotional walls in an effort to keep others out and protect us from harm. Vulnerability is scary and is often equated to weakness, running the risk of rejection, shame, and misunderstanding. Genuine laughter shatters those walls, emitting happiness and a sense of comfort. Joy is as deep an emotion as sadness, and when we can access one, we can access the other.

How do we differentiate between authentic laughter and defensive laughter? Defensive laughter strengthens walls, keeping us apart from others. Humor derived from discomfort or judgment and insults to the self or others is not genuine and is not vulnerable. It protects us from vulnerability. However, someone else’s defensiveness does not have to impede empathy for that person. We are also not obligated to laugh along and if we do, we can be aware this laughter does not serve the same purpose. It does not foster vulnerability or promote the healthy delving into deep emotion.

If laughing and crying are two sides of the same coin, why do we stigmatize one so much more than the other? What makes laughter better received than tears? Though both can be relieving and allow us to be authentic, sad tears tend to make other people and ourselves more uncomfortable. The reason is reflective of our childhoods.

When we laugh with real, heartfelt mirth, it exposes our pasts, illuminating the bright places of our childhoods where we felt safe, warm, and loved. Even if the subject of laughter is mature, the state of mind is the same: unadulterated bliss.  But sadness is the opposite. When we are sad, we expose shadows of our pasts. The unhealed wounds rooted deep within our childhoods, yet to be healed, or still tender even after years of mending. It is uncomfortable to imagine children unhappy and hurt, instigating unconscious reminders of when we were unhappy and hurt as kids. When we witness the modernized reflection of childhood pain in adults, we empathize and it does not feel good. (3)(4)

Enduring joy and sorrow encourages healing. Both standing witness and being seen during intense states of emotion fosters growth, reinforcing the places in our past where we were safe, and correcting the moments we felt helpless and alone. Equal balances in these healing opportunities are required.

My suggestion?


Be real. Be authentic. The reckless abandon of both untamed laughter and heavy-hearted tears permit release when they occur with authenticity. Let’s make safe spaces for our emotions with one another. Let’s heal.

Heather Rashal, LMHC
Heather@CenterfortheHealingArts.com
407-657-8555 ext 6
Winter Park, FL

For more reading on the healing properties of laughter and crying on the brain, as well as the effects childhood emotion as adults:

  1. Why grown-ups cry by Efran and Spangler. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00994161?LI=true
  2. The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity by Bennet, Zeller, Rosenberg and McCann. http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=nurs_fac_pub
  3. The Role of Childhood Trauma in the Neurobiology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Preclinical and Clinical Studies by Heim and Nemeroff https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Charles_Nemeroff/publication/11909727_The_role_of_childhood_trauma_in_the_neurobiology_of_mood_and_anxiety_disorders_Preclinical_and_clinical_studies/links/02bfe50f180210c406000000.pdf
  4. Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix

Connection

I have been overwhelmed by the massive disconnect I am witnessing around me lately. Tensions are high, opposing views have been identified, highlighted, and wedged between individuals and groups. Particularly I refer to the internet, which seems to be a war zone of people out to prove others wrong for their opinions and beliefs. Please do not think for once that I am at all innocent.  I have come to a fork in the road and chosen the dark path of dispute, investing my time and energy arguing values on more than one occasion. I find it interesting that opinions and beliefs are topics of discourse when at their most fundamental level- by definition- they cannot be disproven. When we separate from others, we harm our mental health.

I’m sure most people can relate to scrolling through Facebook or Twitter and noticing an outrageous post or comment. You start typing your response; your head becomes hot while you expel all your fury into this reply debunking the claims of the article or commenter. Then you wait. For a few minutes you might believe you were victorious, successfully proving your point and negating the other. But then the replies start to trickle in, your phone or computer pings alerts of others’ retorts to your argument. The heated rush comes back to your head and you continue the disagreement. You might even lose hours to this endeavor. Surprisingly, even those who post agreement with you only seem to fuel the fire rather than quell it.

What drives people to stand behind their views so vehemently at the expense of human connection? Something vital to our survival, in my opinion, when you consider each of us is conceived from connection, developed by connection, and raised through connection. Why would we fight so adamantly to disconnect?

Since what we do outwardly is reflective of our own inner struggle, I propose this disconnect is rooted somewhere deeper than external stressors, far more complicated than a heated debate with an online acquaintance. When we feel disconnected within ourselves, it translates into our actions. Some may disagree with my theory, but I challenge them to look inward.

The constant undercurrent of all negative emotions is fear. In an irrational logic of the unconscious mind, any negative emotion has the potential to be life threatening. It sparks fear and drives us to distance ourselves from the source of the discomfort. The most interesting part is that the distance from others only rationalizes the reaction. Validating our irrational and unconscious logic only strengthens the negative emotions. In short, if we feel bad and act on it by avoiding human connection we only feel worse.

The solution?

My challenge to everyone, myself included, is to choose to connect anyway. Even when unconscious panic is suggesting us to attack or hide from any theoretical foe (online behind the safety of a computer or cell phone) stand against it. If a calm discussion is not available, choose a healthy conversation elsewhere for no one’s interest but your own and contradict your fears. If each of us continues to choose to connect instead of creating distance, we foster solidarity. Right now, we all need it.

If you are also feeling this socio-cultural disconnect, join me. Let’s stop arguing online or avoiding contact. Let’s communicate and connect anyway, in spite of our unfounded fears. Contradicting the unconscious logic gives freedom to live in action rather than reaction. We get to make choices to better ourselves, cultivating a healthy mind and ideally that will trickle into the rest of our lives.

Heather Rashal, LMHC
Heather@CenterfortheHealingArts.com
407-657-8555 ext 6
Winter Park, FL