The Zen of Learning to Ride a Motorcycle, Part I
Zen Motorcycle Habit #1: Respond to Situations Instead of Reacting
I hate to admit it, but I’ve always tended to be a reactionary person. I am pure emotion, and had often let those emotions control my life.
I remember when I first started to become a reactionary person. I can’t remember if I was in the fourth or fifth grade, and either nine or ten-years-old. But I do remember that it was spring time, around Easter.
My mother would always get depressed around Easter. She had suffered two late-term miscarriages — one when I was three, another when I was five — both around Easter. And every Easter thereafter, she would start acting really weird. She’d be staring off into the distance, not hearing me when I was talking to her, or just staying in bed until the late afternoon. Pretty much every Easter after I was 6 years old, my mother would end up in the hospital psychiatric unit “because she has a chemical imbalance in her brain that causes depression,” I was told.
Once, she was in the hospital on Easter Sunday when I was around 7-years-old, and my father had forgotten it was a holiday. When I woke up to see if the Easter Bunny had left me a basket of candy in the usual spot behind the living room curtains, and it wasn’t there, I immediately thought that I must have been a bad girl and the Easter Bunny skipped my house that year. I ran into my father’s room and woke him up.
I was crying, “The Easter Bunny didn’t come! He doesn’t like me anymore!”
My dad tried to cover. He said, “Oh no, honey! The Easter Bunny didn’t forget you! He is so busy nowadays, he must’ve given money to mommy in advance to buy candy with. Come on, let’s look and see if we can find it.”
We did eventually find the Easter candy on the top shelf of my parent’s closet, still in their packaging and grocery store bags, and not at all pretty or set up in a colorful basket. It was like magic was gone.
“See? I told you that the Easter Bunny didn’t forget you!” My dad said.
But the gig was up. I thought to myself, “Oh My God. There is no such thing as the Easter Bunny, and I bet Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are bullshit, too!”
My mother believed that, because one of her miscarriages had been so close to Good Friday, it meant her failed pregnancies were like a sacrifice to god, or something. It didn’t help that movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “It’s Alive” were super popular right about this time. She would have nightmares that her unborn babies had been demons.
So, it was a school night, around Easter time. I was around 10-years old. I was playing at my friend, Kathy’s house. She wanted me to sleep over her place, but there was no way my parents were going to let me sleep over a friend’s house on a school night. No way. In fact, I was so sure of it, I didn’t even want to ask because I could just hear my parents saying, “You know better than to ask if you can sleep over on a school night! You’re grounded just for asking!”
But, Kathy was persistent.
“The worst they could do is say no! Just ask! Please??” Kathy begged.
She had a point. I called my house and my mother answered, but she sounded weird.
“Mommy, Kathy wants to know if I can sleep over her house tonight. I know it’s a school night, but I’m just asking, okay?”
“Yes, okay…yes, that would be a good idea. You can sleep over.” She responded in a voice so quiet and slow, that almost didn’t sound like her.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I was confused. Not because I didn’t want to sleep over Kathy’s, but because it was really weird that she was saying yes on a school night. And, even weirder that she had said it would be a good idea. Since when is sleeping over a friend’s house on a school night a good idea?
“Yes, you can sleep over Kathy’s house, okay?” Then she mumbled something about having to go far away, so it would be good if I stayed at Kathy’s.
“Bye honey. I love you.”
“What did she say??” Kathy asked, with her hands folded into a prayer, after I hung up.
“Um, she said I could sleep over.”
“Yay!!” Kathy clapped her hands and jumped up and down.
But, I was uneasy.
“Something’s not right, Kathy. I need to call my mom back.”
“Noo!!” Kathy slumped down onto the couch, “What do you mean, something’s not right?”
I had heard my parents arguing from time to time recently. Once or twice I’d heard my mother threaten my father that she was going to leave him and move back in with her mother in Arkansas. But it never happened.
However, I thought I’d heard my mother say something under her breath about “going far away” and was worried that she was going to go to Arkansas without me. So I called her right back.
“Mom, why did you say it would be good for me to stay over at Kathy’s on a school night?”
“Because I have to go away, and it would be better if you’re there.”
“Why?” I asked, “Where are you going? Can I come with you?” assuming she was going to tell me she that was going to go to my Grandmother’s house in Arkansas.
“No, honey, you can’t come with me. I’m going far, far away.”
I started to cry.
“But, why not? I want to come with you! Please don’t leave me!” I begged and sobbed.
“You can’t come with me,” she explained, “because you’d have to…” She paused before finishing.
“You’d have to die.”
I started crying and begging my mother not to die. I pleaded her to get in the car right now and come pick me up.
“Please don’t kill yourself, mommy! Please come pick me up right now!”
“Okay.” She said reluctantly.
I got off the phone, and burst into full blown tears. I fell onto Kathy’s living room couch. I heard my little ten-year-old voice crying and sobbing, “My mom was going to kill herself, but I told her not to and she’s coming to pick me up right now!”
I remember distinctly remember feeling so wrong, a dark feeling of dread came over me. Just the most awful, out of place emotion for ten-year-old. Like, in a split second, I was no longer a child, but specifically, I felt like I was 30-years-old. Like, the age 30 literally came to mind. What does age 30 represent to a 9-year-old child? It’s all responsibility and no fun (of course, when I did actually did turn 30, I realized it was not as old, and way more fun than how I pictured it when I was ten, but I digress).
Even my friend Kathy, who couldn’t have been older than eleven or twelve, looked traumatized by what I had just told her. Absolutely stunned. She ran out of the living room and came back with a glass of water and a box of tissues, not knowing what else to do. I drank the water wondering if it would somehow make me feel better. Then her mother came into room to find out what was wrong.
I repeated to her mother what I had just told Kathy. Through tears and sobs I said, “My mommy said she was going to kill herself but I told her not to, and so she’s coming to pick me up right now!”
Kathy’s mother looked stunned as well, and didn’t know what to say. The two of them just sat on the couch with me silent, Kathy’s arm around my shoulders, while I cried until my mother arrived 10 minutes later.
I was done crying and was mad now. How could my mom even think of leaving me? She would rather die than be my mother? That’s all I could think. I scolded her as if I was the parent and she was the child the entire 10 minute ride home.
When we got home, I told her to call her best friend, Francis, and ask her to come over. I needed to go to sleep because it was a school night, but was afraid if I fell asleep, my mom would be gone when I woke up. When Francis showed up, I asked her to call my dad who was at a neighbor’s, and to tell him what happened. She and my mother sat down at the kitchen table, and started talking.
Then I announced that I was going to bed because I had school in the morning.
My father had been down the street at a neighbor’s house working on their motorcycles while this was going on, and missed the whole thing. When he came home and found out what had happened, he gave my mother an ultimatum. If she ever tried to commit suicide again, he would leave her.
After that night, whenever I’d get off of the school bus, I’d run home, instead of walking. I was terrified I’d come home one day and find my mother dead. I’d skip over the cracks in the sidewalk, making sure not to step directly on them, because I couldn’t afford to “step on a crack and break my mother’s back” when she was already suicidal.
That’s around the time in my life when being in a constant state of panic became my baseline normal. Everything changed for me after that. I could no longer just “be”.
I had reacted to something I didn’t understand, and inadvertently saved my mother’s life. This reinforced a false belief in myself that I was responsible for her actions, and needed to react accordingly. I could no longer afford to relax and just take things in life at face value anymore. The world became a scary, uncertain place, where if I didn’t read between the lines and do something about it immediately, someone could die.
All my decisions in life after that, were based on my emotions and impulses. I avoided resistance. If I didn’t understand something right away, I assumed it wasn’t for me. I pigeon-holed myself into a very small corner, because I didn’t understand the process of learning how to overcome a struggle. There were no processes in place in my life anymore. Nothing was grounded. There was no time to think or learn. It was all “life or death” and “fight or flight”. I became hyper-vigilant and began reading too much into things, because, again, if I missed something, and if I didn’t listen to my gut reactions, someone could die, and I’d feel like it was my fault.
After stopping my mother from committing suicide that night at age ten, my life became one big reaction. There was no more responding to life. It became difficult to process new things. There was no conscious living. Just emotional reactions.
So, what is the difference between reacting and responding?
Reacting is impulsive, instinctual, and spontaneous. Reacting is not a cultivated skill, nor is it well thought out.
Reacting was important for our survival back in the days when we were living in trees and caves. Our instinctual reactions kept us from getting eaten alive by lions or other beasts. Reactions kept us alive when we were at the bottom of the food chain. But, reacting, particularly in the modern world, can be reckless.
Those reactions in the modern world, triggered by modern stress, are not always appropriate. When we experience anxiety in a stressful situation in the modern world, such as being reprimanded by one’s boss, we are not in immediate threat of physical harm or death. But, the unconscious, reptilian part of the brain may still react as if we are facing an immediate physical threat.
Instead, of reacting, we want to respond.
Responding is related to the word responsible. It means we take the time to cultivate skills and learn a process. It means we aren’t jumping to conclusions during a conversation, which can lead to hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Responding is a well thought out, conscious, mindful action.
However, when a child suffers emotional trauma before their brain is even done developing yet, it is very difficult for them to learn how to create healthy responses to challenging situations. Children are still learning how to develop skills and habits that aren’t reactionary and instinctual.
Even into my adulthood, my triggers for fear were so strong, that I’d run away from situations instead of learning skills to manage them. I’d end relationships that I really didn’t want to end, I’d quit jobs as soon as I felt insecure, I’d sabotage opportunities because I didn’t think I could handle them.
This is how I lived a reactionary life.
But, what the motorcycle taught me, was how to respond. I realized, when I was learning to ride, that I was going to have to find a way to override and overcome that part of my reptilian brain that was reactionary.
My instincts would have me grab the front brake on the motorcycle when I thought I was in danger of hitting something, only to skid and drop the bike. The correct response is to stay on the throttle and swerve out of the way. However, going faster when you are afraid of hitting something is in direct conflict with our instincts to hit the brakes. But, the correct response is to swerve out of the way or stay on the throttle to make a tight turn, is not our immediate reaction until we’ve really practiced those skills.
Motorcyclists are constantly trying to build skills into their muscle-memory that will over ride their reactions. Because reactions that are not learned skills on a motorcycle are all wrong.
Likewise, reacting in real life, just like on a motorcycle, can cause us harm, injury, and unnecessary pain. I found myself reacting during a couple conversations the other day. I heard something, it triggered me, and I reacted. Then, I had to apologize later for reacting after my reaction hurt myself and the person I was reacting to.
When we learn to respond to situations in life instead of reacting to them, we begin to create conscious habits which will actually serve us. Instead of making fearful reactions, we allow our wisdom and intellect guide us. We consciously want to work the right responses to life, into our habits. This is just one way to practice Zen.