Zen in the Art of Motorcycling

© Colin Low 2000

"In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality. The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's - eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art. "
Zen in the Art of Archery
, Eugen Herrigel


The state of no-mind kicks in when every cell in my head is drafted. Each neurone turns up with its call-up papers, has its synapses checked, coughs once, and z....i....p, it’s as hairless as Demi Moore.

"But I’m a poet," howls a neocortical pyramidal cell, "I specialise in spoken rhythms, I don’t know anything about motorcycle engines!"

"You’re all scum!" snarls the low-bred neurone from the gutters of the thalamus, waving dendrites like a hydra, "It’s death or glory time now my little aesthetic FRIENDS! And you can shove your iambic pentameters where none of your effete rhyming CHUMS are ever likely to twiddle their AXONS - you’re gonna work like you’ve never worked in your caffeine-soaked lives."

And they do work. They have to. It’s death and glory time.

Death on a Pale Horse
"Behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was death, and Hell followed him ..."

A Honda CBR 900RR Fireblade is a sports motorcycle. It weighs 183 kilograms - 403 pounds  - and my tuned version delivers a measured 120 bhp at the rear wheel. That is a power-to-weight ratio of 666 horsepower to the ton. They are all pale horses, and death rides on every one, flipping from mount to mount like a Mongolian stunt rider on speed.

To put this apocalyptic horsepower in context, the 1999 Porsche Carrera makes 228 horsepower to the ton, and the Dodge Viper, 304 horsepower to the ton. Sure, these cars have Arnie’s muscles, but they are hidden in the body of Orson Welles. And they munch burgers like Honest Bill Clinton. Grinding the point in further, the Mclaren F1, fêted as the ultimate road-legal supercar, weighs just over a ton and makes 627 horsepower, so it doesn't quite cut it either.

A Fireblade accelerates. In the time it takes to say "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Missisi ..." the Blade has reached 60 mph. Or so I am told. I never look at the speedometer during moments of wild acceleration because I feel like I have been fired out of a giant Roman ballista.

Or the replica trebuchet last seen making the round of English country fairs, the main attraction being its ability to hurl pianos from one side of a village common to the other. The Human Cannonball, who refused to change his name despite it being a trebuchet, would sometimes accompany the piano on its parabola and play the opening bars of Clair de Lune, his accelerated tempo briskly anticipating the moment when the piano would go abruptly and terminally out of tune.

Catapult acceleration on a Blade is not a novelty act, something to do on a lonely stretch of country road. At each set of traffic lights I filter to the front of the cars, and when the lights go green it is tyre-torturing time. If the lights go green before I reach the front, I let rip anyway, hurtling past the lead cars like a shoulder-launch missile. I short-shift into second as I hit the power band to keep the front wheel on the ground, and then hang on as the front wheel flaps over bumps in the road, the rubber only barely making contact as the bike tries to rear up on its tail. Cars hundred of yards ahead flinch visibly into the nearside as a multi-coloured apparition with headlights blazing fills the rear-view in an impossibly short period of time, and then I’m gone. I do feel pangs of guilt at the genuine alarm caused. I suppose early motorists must have felt the same, causing horses and riders to bolt into the hedgerows as they flew past at a heady 12 mph.

However, the purpose of this essay isn’t to engage in narrative bravado, or indulge in tales of derring-do and self-promotion. It is to discuss no-mind. A master of Kung-Fu would discuss no-mind in the context of beating the living daylights out of someone. A Samurai archer immersed in the traditions of Kyodo, the Way of the Bow, would go on about the unity of mind and target, and the difference between knowledge and knowing. I do neither Kung Fu or archery. I ride a motorcycle.

It is the view of many mystical systems that the experience of living in the world differs greatly according to our mode of perceiving and comprehending it. The "normal" mode of perception (a gross simplification, like all averages) is characterised by illusion, glamour, and in the gnostic systems, deceipt. There is a veil drawn over reality that leads us into false perception and error. We can look, but we cannot see.

This normal mode of perception, because it is based on illusory or even deceptive truths, is like the shell game where we think we know where the pea is, and always come away losers. In this losing game we value things that have no intrinsic value, pursue goals that can be attained for only a minute span of time, chase after things that can bring no lasting happiness, and when death approaches, find no satisfaction or worth in our lives. It is this selfish, ego-led mode of consciousness, dominated by illusory and worthless goals, that causes pain and suffering to others and ourselves, leading to Gautama Buddha's observation that all existence is sorrow.

It is also a view of many mystical systems that attaining to a mode of perception not dominated by the illusions and fantasies of the ego is difficult. When the ego is set the task of deconstructing itself, it will invariably create a even more exotic fantasy playroom, so that the problem becomes worse, not better. There is nothing the human ego enjoys more than a mystery, a goal, lots of interesting courses to go on, and things to buy. And there is always a guru prepared to make a dishonest living out of fabricating the next set of illusions, weaving a new veil of mystery from the unravelling yarn of the old.

It took about two years on the Fireblade to reach the state of no-mind. I had been riding motorcycles on a daily basis for thirty-one years, but I had not owned a bike that could accelerate, brake and corner so fast that each cell in my head was needed to make it around the next bend. It took time in boot camp, and time in manoeuvres, to weld my neurons together into a bunch of grizzled veterans capable of sniggering at death. It took time.

I had to learn how much I could trust the bike. Then I had to learn not to panic. Bikes are not forgiving in corners.  Hit the corner too hard, and the bike will flop on the road as the tyres lose adhesion. Panic and apply the brakes without knowing how to counter steer to hold it down, and the bike will rise up and run wide into the nearest hedge, or into oncoming traffic. Or it will low-side as the front wheel realises that it cannot brake and corner at the same time - front wheels have trouble rubbing their tummies and patting their heads. Apply power too soon coming out of a corner and the rear wheel will slip sideways then grip, causing the bike to flip the rider over the top like a rodeo cowboy.

In rural England where I live there is gravel, horse shit, mud from tractors, wet leaves, potholes, corrugations and slippery metal manhole covers, and a spreading canker of shiny white lines, rumble strips and speed bumps. I've seen house bricks lying on the road, lengths of joisting, and even scaffold poles. There are wandering dogs, herds of cattle, fallen branches, and there are lethal diesel spills everywhere - when it rains the roads are a multi-hued kaleidoscope of  slippery hydrocarbons. There are parked cars, road works, slow-moving agricultural vehicles and my favourite, the forty ton articulated truck coming around the corner on the wrong side of a narrow country road. Or even better, a forty-tonner overtaking another forty-tonner through a blind corner on a sleepy country lane.

During the early days of neural boot camp I would find myself thinking Jesus wept as I struggled to do too many things at once. I would misjudge a corner and run wide across the road. I would fly past a sports car on the straight only to find it tailgating me through the corners. I would accelerate into situations I couldn’t brake out of. It is a subtle and profound truth that the cautious and conservative driver obtains no routine experience of hard braking. Braking is the key to travelling like Jehu, and it is a paradoxical truth that maniacal riding is the best way to practice for the day when the road runs out - desperate riding breeds safe reflexes.

A day came when I would go out with guys from the bike club, ride like Jehu, and not at any time find myself checking my nine lives for frayed edges. This was a novel experience. I was in my comfort zone … I had reached a state of effortless effort. Some guys would be ashen-faced. Some never came back. One guy needed counselling in a roadside country pub to get him back on his bike.Each year I found myself taking the same corners 10% faster. A corner I used to take at 80 mph I now take at 110 mph.

The state of no-mind is not literally a state of no mind. It is a state where the normal process of mentation, of rational decision making, of deliberation, even self-observation, stops. Carlos Castaneda describes the condition of "stopping the world", an end to internal dialogue, the constant chatter of the mind as it fabricates reasons and justifications and explanations and reactions and responses.

It is now known that the human brain is limited in how many tasks it can perform simultaneously. Set a complex task, and resources are drawn from other areas of the brain. Set a complex enough task, and resources are drawn from all areas of the brain. Riding a high-performance motorcycle at the limit of its performance on the congested suburban roads of England is such a task. In Zen archery there is a lack of concern about hitting the target. I have no such equanimity about making it around corners. I aim to ride everywhere as fast as I can and arrive. It takes every cell in my head to do that.

It is impossible to "think about" or imagine altered states, usually because it is the "thinking about" and imagining state of consciousness that is the primary barrier to achieving them. That is why so many traditions use meditation to quiet the mind. The state of no-mind is consciousness without self-consciousness, a pure undivided, unreflective awareness. And it is frighteningly quick. Animal quick, snake-strike quick, absorbing huge amounts of information and responding effortlessly before the chattering mind could even begin to formulate a plan of action.

There is a scene towards the end of The Matrix where Keanu Reeves is able to fight the arch-villain casually, effortlessly, without attention. This is the state of effortless effort. No amount of gymnastics, brute force, gritted teeth, or concentration can achieve this state. It isn’t about doing more. It is about doing less. When I am in this state I don’t feel like I am pushing myself or the bike, each corner comes and goes without effort, I have no near encounters with death. I arrive relaxed and exhilarated. Objectively, I am travelling very quickly. Some motorcycle riders call this experience "getting into the flow".

There is an important factor in achieving this state. It is familiarity. Constant, daily, unremitting practice. Riding a motorcycle is dangerous. Many sports are dangerous only when carried out without proper equipment and training. With good equipment and training, parachuting is not dangerous.

Motorcycling is objectively and statistically dangerous at all times. Insurance premiums for younger riders on powerful bikes are set at a level that assumes the bike will be written off. Heavy traffic, like the sea, is an elemental force and there is a level of external danger that is irreducible, that cannot be factored out. Cautious riding doesn't help. It is like telling a sailor in a huge sea to "take care", as if the sea respected caution. Riding a bike and staying alive is a Zen koan, a statement that appears to have a logical form but lacks an answer that can be beaten out of it by logical analysis.

In the beginning, riding a motorcycle is an idea, a collection of abstractions, do’s and don’ts, rules and procedures, but few brain cells know what to do. After some months, a few cells have learned the drill, but it is still the chattering mind that is riding the bike. It is aware of all the procedures as abstractions, but it rides at the speed of the chattering mind, which is to say, slowly and cautiously. Or it tries to emulate a rider in the no-mind state, and it crashes. The experience of the flow, of no-mind, occurs when the experience of riding has been so internalised that the whole mind is able to join in. To make an analogy, it doesn’t help to have a huge mob of people at a barn-raising if they don’t know carpentry.

I ride the Blade 40 miles every day through heavy traffic and I ride as hard as I can get away with at all times, usually in the 90-120 mph zone, and full-blast acceleration. It took two years before I became aware that something had changed, that I could go faster without effort, that I was hurtling into corners at suicidal speeds, that I was travelling 40 mph faster than cars around the same corners, that the traffic seemed to be stationary and I rode around it. The rational part of me screams "hubris", but it also acknowledges the truth - I have fewer near misses than at any time in thirty-one years of motorcycling. I drive through the traffic rather than in the traffic, a surfer skimming down the crests of congestion (like the mystic who was supposedly in the world, but not of it). The endless, crawling rivers of cars are the Absolute, the Tao, the Way; my Blade is the arrow that finds the target. The articulate part of me continues to observe, provides occasional strategic advice  but is reduced to the role of a secretary at a board meeting. In the quieter moments, it observes, records, takes minutes. When things speed up, its brain cells are marched off to the front line and it has to shut up.

Motorcyclists are competitive on the road. It is difficult to overtake another motorcyclist without initiating a leap-frogging game of "so you think you're fast eh?". The state of no-mind cannot be competitive. It can be quick, but not competitive. It has no goals, no objectives, no needs. Travelling is the only reality, the road and traffic the Absolute. The only subject for awareness is the undivided, being-at-one with the bike as it moves with the road and traffic. Competing is an intrusion, an eruption of ego into the rhythm of the flow. Going fast is a dangerous goal, a ego goal that pits me against the flow, a loss of natural harmony with what is. Anyone who thinks "I bet I could ride faster than Colin" is probably right; this isn't a paeon of justification for riding like a hoon. When I ride fast it is not because I set out to ride fast; it is because I have no awareness of speed. Eugen Herrigel describes this state in Zen and the Art of Archery:

Zen is the "everyday mind" . . . This "everyday mind" is no more than "sleeping when tired, eating when hungry." As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. We no longer eat while eating, we no longer sleep while sleeping. The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation which is miscalculation sets in. The whole business of archery goes the wrong way. The archer's confused mind betrays itself in every direction and every field of activity.

I believe animals live in a similar timeless state of undivided awareness, superbly competent at doing what they do, reacting at the speed of reflex, and dangerous because of it. I have learned to trust this state of holistic pre-verbal decision making. It knows how to do a lot more than ride motorcycles, and it does it very quickly. Its downfall is that it is pre-verbal: it can act, but it cannot explain. It can be at the right place at the right time, but it cannot engage the support of other people. It sits outside the verbal social structure. Like the priestess Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, it is cursed to know the truth and never be believed … and not because of a failure of articulation - it was never capable of articulating in the first place.

Man is a thinking reed but his great works are when he is not calculating and thinking. "Childlikeness" has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He thinks like the showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze. Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage.

I will conclude with the necessary caveat. I don't ride hard to prove anything. I ride hard because there is a natural exhiliration, a tautness of reflex, an almost psychic connection with other road users, that happens when I reach a certain level of involvement. Riding like Jehu in relative safety is not something I aspire to. It is not a goal, it is not something one can copy. It is something that happens when I am not trying, and it happens because I have paid my dues by spending lots of time riding by the book. What might appear to be dangerous, even undisciplined, is the result of using a motorcycle as my main daily transport for thirty-one years. Riding a sports motorcycle through heavy traffic is a physical discipline as complex as any martial art, and it requires similar levels of constant practice in order to internalise the lessons. I don't feel invulnerable, and I commute to work in race leathers with integral body armour. Race boots, gloves, full-face helmet.

Mess around, play games, and you will kill yourself or injure yourself seriously. And it isn't a remote possibility.

Pictures of some of my motorcycles and various anecdotes in Colin's Bikes.

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