Monday December 3, 2012

About every three years, I try to take some kind of safety course. The last one was a combo of class and parking lot, and was taught by a retired racer. One result: I can lean way off a motorcycle improving my clearance on a sharp corner, all the while looking like a dork in search of a racetrack.

This next one will be quite different. It’s called Stayin’ Safe, and involves students and coaches actually riding on real roads, with the instructor’s talking to the students via radios. The coaches alternately demonstrate and then critique each student’s technique. In this case, the four (!) of us will spend all day, riding over hill and dale, covering about 170 miles on each of two days. Rain or shine. Apparently, there are also frequent "chalk talks" on the side of the road. The curriculum is the brainchild of Larry Grodsky, beloved safely guru, who died about seven years ago in a collision with a deer while riding at night.

Oops! But his colleagues have soldiered on. We will not be riding at night; the deer can rest easy.

The underlying concept is that 90 percent of motorcycling is mental. This boils down to a biker’s paying scrupulous attention to the ride, ever alert to a huge bag of potential dangers, and placing him or herself in the safest possible place every minute while on the road. The other outcome is that one gets much better at something as basic as taking a corner as it is meant to be ridden.

I say motorcycling is 90 percent mental because some physical capability is also necessary. Further, perhaps no amount of anticipation prepares one for someone who abruptly veers into opposing traffic (as happened this summer to a large group of motorcyclists).

OK, it’s at this point that my Buddhist friends start looking for a figurine of the angry Buddha.

One of the most integral parts of a Buddhist’s life revolves around the concept of "Mindfulness." When most of us hear this, we might think of small statues of the Buddha sitting in a cramped position with a knowing smile on his face. Nope, not quite. Mindfulness is a really simple concept, though not so simple to achieve. Just erase all the extraneous thoughts that barge (often uninvited) into your head, and concentrate completely on what you’re doing. It is true that sitting meditation is one effective route to mindfulness - just sit there, eyes open or closed, maybe focus on your breathing, and push those extraneous thoughts away. I did it while waiting in my doctor’s office the other day. It helps with the terror I experience every time I see a white coat. But one can be mindful about almost anything, walking, eating, and, yes, even motorcycling.

And since I’m out there on the end of that limb, why not extend the notion to the operation of any moving vehicle. That way, maybe we wouldn’t have so many crashes, or letters to this newspaper from outraged citizens watching "mindless" drivers texting, talking on phones, unwrapping food, and blathering away to someone in the next seat.

So what’s involved? As I said, it’s simple. When you get on the bike, or get into your car, or put on your rollerblades, put your mind into your trip and keep it there. Don’t leave point A until your mind is clear and focused. En route, there is no planning the dinner menu, no daydreaming about your new love interest, no agitated conversations with your boss, no lighting a cigarette, and DEFINITELY, no electronics. Just get the thing rolling and think only about that. Study the road, the side streets, the signage, any pedestrians, the other vehicles, and focus on just exactly what they’re doing. When you start thinking about something else, push that thought away and return your mind to the road. And just keep it there -- right there -- until you get to point B. Simple, right? Well, try it and see.

I rode to Manchester today and I kept my mind glued to the road the whole time. And, yes, I’ll admit to having to reroute some annoying loose thoughts that tried to hijack my brain. It helped me twice. I don’t know what it was about Townshend today, but two separate construction trucks just had to get across my lane into the other one. Doesn’t matter that they were trying to slip across possible on-coming traffic. The first guy finally saw me and lurched to a stop. I barely had to swerve. We exchanged waves. The second guy just blindly went for it. He couldn’t have seen me. There was no resulting cleanup because I had gotten a glimpse of a reflection from what might have been a moving windshield down a side street. Had I been thinking about Mitt Romney’s gushing acceptance speech, or Mallory’s critique of the glass I "washed" this morning, I might not have had the chance to be mindful ever again.

So I’m a Buddhist on a bike, I focus on the road, and nothing but the road. I invite you to do the same in your car. We will all be safer.

I also tried to get some eggplant Parmesan in Manchester today. No luck, fresh out, but when I came out of the deli, I groaned when I noticed all the road crud on my beautiful motorcycle. That’s another, even more central theme of Buddhism, suffering, but that’s for another time.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife and cat.