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 an 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 of 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 a 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.