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How I Found Mindfulness Through Riding And Restoring Vintage Motorcycles

Repairing a vintage motorcycle fosters a zen-like state of mind, as one writer discovers.

Earlier this year the American philosopher Robert M. Pirsig passed away, age 88.

Pirsig was best known for his fictionalised autobiography Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974. Set over the course of a 17-day motorcycle journey across the US, the book uses anecdotes about motorcycle maintenance as an analogy for various spiritual and philosophical discussions.

It was always one of those iconic books that I’d heard about plenty of times but never got around to reading. The title just turned me off. What could motorcycles ever have to do with meditation and Zen Buddhist philosophy?

Well after spending the last couple of years getting a lot more hands on with both motorcycles and meditation, turns out the answer is… a lot.

Mindfulness and motorcycles

A motorcycle is guaranteed to speed up your morning commute.

The idea behind mindfulness is to use techniques like meditation to ground yourself in the present moment, as opposed to dwelling on the past or analysing the potential future. It’s rooted in Buddhist philosophy but more recently has been commonly used to help alleviate conditions like depression and anxiety.

The hyperactive brain activity, such as over-analysis, that goes along with stress and anxiety, can be countered by mindfulness. Essentially, it’s the act of focusing on the present moment; the only thing you can actually control. There are different ways of doing it, including breathing exercises and meditation.

But as I’ve learnt, and as Pirsig discovered before me, there’s another one: motorcycles.

It might sound strange, but after experimenting with different forms of meditation to try and help myself de-stress, I’ve found riding and maintaining motorcycles is one of the best.

How riding and repairing affects the brain

Triumph’s classic Bonneville model. Photo: Triumph Motorcycles

I didn’t get into riding because I thought it would be a fun and easy way to meditate, but it’s become an added bonus.

My father has already ridden motorcycles and convinced me it was the best way to get around Sydney. They’re cheaper than cars, easier to drive around in the city and much easier to find a parking spot for. They’re also very, very fun to ride.

I own a Honda GB400 from 1987 and a 2013 Triumph T100 Bonneville. Not only do they ride splendidly and look beautiful, they’re very easy to modify. Silencers, seats, custom tanks, as long as you can find the parts you can do it all yourself.

But what does this all have to do with meditation and mindfulness?

When you’re riding a motorcycle there’s really no opportunity for overthinking, analysing and stressing about life. Being on the road requires a lot of focus, even if you’re in a car, but when there’s nothing separating you from the road or another vehicle besides your jacket and pants, you’re forced to focus a lot more.

The end result? Accidental mindfulness; the sound of the engine, feeling the wind on your face, all of these things ground you in the moment – which is what mindfulness and meditation is all about.

And even when you’re not riding, motorcycles can still be a source of relaxation.

There’s something incredibly therapeutic about working on your motorcycle. Turns out spanners and wrenches can be deeply relaxing, and the satisfaction you get from small things like changing the oil or scraping off rust, all the way through the changing the way your bike looks and sounds, is very rewarding.

Even if you’re not a particularly stressed or anxious person, it’s hard to say no to an accidental form of relaxation and meditation. Plus, it’s also just a great way to get from A to B.

Published 21 July, 2017