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Motorcycling and Attention

Discussion in 'General Motorcycling Discussion' started by mattb, Jul 2, 2009.

  1. G'day All.

    I've started a blog and committed myself to writing a number of essays on motorcycling on it, thought I might share them with you here as I write them. The aim of this and the other essays includes trying to explore aspects of what riding means to me and what I value in it, as well as to communicate that to other riders but also to friends who are non-riders. This one, as with others, is not tightly worked-over and is meant as a more loose easy-going reflection, exploring things as they occur relevant to me....


    This essay is a reflection on motorcycling and the idea and practice or attention, and some associated concepts – lucidity, love. I wrote it after re-reading an essay by the French philosopher Simone Weil, who died at the age of 34 in 1943, and who has influenced my outlook and spirituality very much. Weil was interested in the way that activities, those which demand of us in the way that a craft does, can be a spiritual practice in the way that they are the cultivation of a self-transcendence – a transcendence of the ego – and a practice of attention to the world, one way among others of realising truth, beauty and goodness in the world and our lives. I view my motorcycling as a way of being attentive to such things in the world - this essay is an expression of some things which are dear to my sense of motorcycling and which partly fire my love of it, but which I don’t often talk about.…

    Meaning in our lives has to do with contact; contact with other people, with other things in the world. The condition of such contact is lucidity and attention; and these in turn, it seems to me, are the condition for an important kind of depth that can enter a person’s practice of motorcycling, according to the quality of the attention and the sorts of things to which a rider attends. Of course motorcycling is one part of a bigger life (and is only engaged in by some people) – it could not offer me a meaning on its own, but is part of a web of ways in which I live meaningfully, some of these other ways being much higher or deeper or more meaningful – but nothing can sustain life’s meaning on its own (some people think God can do this; if God exists and has the nature which Christians attribute to ‘Him’ – a supreme intelligent source of all existence and love – then it seems to me ‘He’ has created us as the sorts of creatures who need many particular things out of which to make a meaningful life. ‘His’ distance and silence from the world only confirms this for me). Nevertheless, motorcycling can be an activity or practice of attention which constitutes one kind of lucidity and love of the world, distinct and particular and so preciousness in the unique way it offers this. Motorcycling can be a practice of attention.

    Attention is the root of creativity, of morality and human decency, of beauty, of truth, of deep pleasure and joy. It is a being awake, 'alive to', of true or deep seeing.

    The capacity to give our attention can seem to a person to be a talent; some people just seem alive to things, aware, awake, in the way that some other people seem to have the talent of a vital gracefulness and skill in movement which is incomparable to the way I stumble through life in my awkward uncoordinated flesh. And yet attention is less a talent and rather something to be developed. The lack of aptitude and natural taste in an activity which requires our attention is almost an advantage; the difficulty in being lucid about something uncomfortable or painful, or of paying true attention to another to whom one is inclined to avert serious attention through for instance condescension or fear, is a chance for spiritual and intellectual growth. The work of paying attention always lightens the mind, even if it does not appear to bear any fruit this time; the more we do it the more able at it we become, and its practice in one area of life sharpens increases its presence generally in us. Motorcycling can participate in this growth, can constitute in itself a unique practice of attention, a certain distinctive opportunity for contact with the world and for growth in the capacity to so contact, and one can work at making their riding experience an act of paying ever greater attention.

    People sometimes argue whether life’s meaning, or the things which afford such meaning, are objective, independently out there in the world, or purely subjective, made up by us and in no way real. I think it is neither. Is suffering and pain objective, out there independent of humans? No! Is it therefore purely subjective and not truly real? No! Is genuine beauty or goodness ultimately objective, or ultimately subjective? It is neither. By our bringing a certain meaningfulness into the world, that meaning thereby exists and is real, has depths we can plumb, and corruptions or counterfeits that we can succumb to. A price of our scientific age is that we have often forgotten how to think deeply and intelligently in other ways; hence the superficial arguments over objectivism and subjectivism, and the inability to perceive or feel the force of the reality of things which exist outside such limited conceptual categories. I am a meaning (and moral, and aesthetic, and epistemological) realist, but I am not an objectivist. Simone Weil relates a myth:
    An Eskimo story explains the origin of light as follows: “In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illumined.†If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention.
    It could also be said that there is an effort of attention because there is a real desire. But of course the attention feeds the desire; indeed it is the thing to which we attend which sometimes first introduces the desire: we look at something, and then want or love it. The most important form of desire is love. The act of attention can be an act of love, each one being the cause of the other. An activity which engages us in the world in attention to it can therefore be an act of love of the world. Motorcycling as a practice of attention to the world is an act of love of the world.

    I hope my reader does not misunderstand what I am saying, and fail to realise that I am referring to everyday activities and experiences. There is nothing pseudo-mystical about this (though it is also the ground of true mysticism, but not of that posturing which is so often called “mysticism†but which strikes me as rather a psychological technique for avoiding the world). It is the activity of trying to appreciate: of realising when I am being driven by now useless goals – to get to this destination no matter what! – which is now spoiling the present moment of riding; it is the activity of being aware of my ego and the way I am letting peer pressure influence my riding; of being aware when I am wandering mentally into anxieties and frustrations rather than being present in this moment of riding, in this experience offered to me right now and never again. The more I practice being aware, attentive, lucid, the more I come to do it; the more I become aware when I am not being so. The practice becomes a habit, and not a tortured posture of mind; it becomes natural. In a sense it is the act of becoming more natural: more attuned to the natural things around me, more naturally able to see and experience them and to enter into the flow of experience and what it has to offer.

    Simone Weil wrote that:
    Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: ‘Now you must pay attention,’ one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have been concentrating on nothing. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles.
    The attention I am talking about is not something that distracts us from riding, not a thing that comes between me and the natural play and joy of riding as some unnatural ideal or mantra we need to practice in a mental-muscular effort. The mind when it is led to meaningful things or experiences is done so by desire, and that means there must be pleasure and joy in the activity. Attention is lead by love. When riding is an act of love of things, of seeing and experiencing the world as a love of it, then your attention follows naturally. The cultivation of it is really the desire to fully experience that which gives you pleasure and joy. That is why motorcycling conceived of as an act of attention, to be cultivated as such, is an act of love of the world: it deepens or heightens our capacity to see: we see more, in greater detail, with the capacity to make connections with other things and so to enrichen our experience and sense of them. If the act of attention is an effort, it is a negative effort, a becoming receptive rather than active.

    Attention to the world around us can be difficult in motorcycling. It is difficult because the objects of attention which are deepest are not always those I can attend to if I am to be safe. Often I have to ride in pure survival mode, as though in a video-game: I am purely absorbed in avoiding and predicting hazards. This is especially the case when I am exiting and later re-entering the city on my weekly rides out into the country. But there is always an element of danger no matter how empty and quiet the space I am riding through, and so I am always in this mode: in readiness for a kangaroo to jump out of the scrub on a straight road at dusk, or for a vehicle to be foolishly stopped in my path around a blind corner. I must always give a certain part of my attention to this survival activity, whose main task is calculation and potential-hazard prediction.

    Again attention is difficult because riding is a physically demanding activity: the long hours, the exposure to harsh weather, the cold, the heat, the dangerously strong winds. A motorcycle is ridden with one’s body. Our front wheel is essentially straight whenever travelling at speed, and unlike a car whose wheels turn, we turn by angling our body and shifting our weight. When I get home I am sometimes exhausted; I am too tired to do any intellectual work, and in winter I am very cold by the time I return.

    But there is another way in which attention is difficult, and it is universal to all humans and all their activities. There is something within us which has an almost repugnance of attention and lucidity; something which would rather slumber, turn away, avoid truth, experience and reality. While I do not think this is the source of all suffering and such other things, I actually think this is the source of a lot of human suffering, of human acts of evil, and of superficiality and meaninglessness. We often suffer because we cannot face our feelings and their meanings, and the meaning(s) of what we have done and what has been done to us. We often do harm or even evil blindly; much racism is not hate but rather the failure of the other to fully exist in our minds, as sharing our uniqueness and our depths of love, need and ability. In so many ways we live a less meaningful life because of these avoidances and evils, because of our failure to contact deeply with the realities which are out there for us to experience. This seems to be the dark side of human nature. It is attention which is the bright side – attention brings light. Every time we pay attention we diminish something of this evil and unreality in ourselves. So the act of attention in motorcycling enrichens our life more broadly. The act, the experience, the reflection on these things, in all their diversity (I have not explored that – there are so many sides to riding, for instance the friendships, the community, the involvement in the pain and death of riders and of those who love them) constitute the paying of attention, of living genuine forms of love and lucidity, which become such capacities in us more generally.

    Simone Weil wrote that:
    Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object, it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not quite in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.
    I referred earlier of ‘the capacity to make connections with other things and so to enrichen our experience and sense of them’. Attention allows a meaningful experience because of its dual character: it is an open space which allows the object to enter as it is in itself, but it is a space which reads that presence also in terms of other knowledge, which is at the ready to connect with and inform our understanding and experience of that object. In this sense as I ride along, my imagination, my knowledge of history, the sensibilities I develop reading literature (in my case I am quite a fan for instance of David Malouf, whose writing guides my eyes to see aspects of the Australian landscape I might otherwise miss) , and so many other ‘learnings and experiences’ inform my current experience. I carry with me the depth and richness which I have managed to gleen, from within my dull room of a mind, from so much of the reading and conversations I have enjoyed and experiences I have had, good and bad, which now sit within me and help me to see things I might not otherwise have seen. Attention as a deeper experience of things when riding involves bringing light to what I see, but I would not see it, in its details and the things of itself it wants to show me, were I not paying attention. This of course goes for the knowledge and sensibilities I bring to bear in this experience, and so once again, as in the case of attention and love, the two things – in this case attention and the already developed interpretative mind I bring in my attentive receptiveness – are interdependent, growing upon one another. So it is also an act of attention to reflect, to imagine, to write both about riding and when I am out riding. But it is definitely an attention, a waiting on things rather than an imposing of something as in the case of the subjectivist who thinks there is nothing for us to see except that which we impose by interpretation. So riding is an experience of truth, it is an act where there is something I can rise to or fall short of to greater and lesser degrees. It is therefore also an activity connected with goodness. Again, Weil wrote:
    In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous stone vessel which satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralysed by the most painful wound: ‘What are you going through?’
    The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’ It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category ‘unfortunate’, but as a man, exactly like we are, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.
    I want to ride as I want to live – and one day the two might end together in the one act and at the same moment! – as a kind of experiment of the fact that something fundamental about the meaning, the goodness and beauty and truth, in life, is to be found through the act of greater attention and lucidity. Riding this way can be a part, a form, of living this way, a contact with particular moments in existence and in terms of those qualities.

  2. The word 'flesh' reminds me of finger nails scraping chalk boards.

    I wish I could pay attention while riding all the time (those damn thoughts keep me inattentive!), when I do it is much more enjoyable.
  3. Is it ironic that an article about attention failed to hold mine? I am sure this a great article but it is written in a way that only someone who likes to read philosophical articles could really understand.

    Don't get me wrong, not saying it is bad, I am in fact feeling quite stupid that I don't understand half of what you say there. :(

    Maybe someone could translate this into simple terms for me?

  4. I sure can!!.......when the rider of the bike loses their attention....the rider and the pillion passanger both Sh*t themselves and await the most probable outcome!! :shock:
  5. TLDR.

    Sorry :p
  6. Excellent Matt.

    Blog is bookmarked and I eagerly await more. Exactly what motorcycling is about for me.

    I find when I am really paying attention when riding, I don't feel discomfort nearly so much. The freezing wind becomes 'bracing' or 'invigorating', and my aching body simply serves as a reminder that I'm alive. It's only when I'm running late and concentrating on my destination that these things bother me.

    PS: From where did you source the second image in your blog (that you've called 'night+danger')? It's brilliant.
  7. That was very Buddhist of you mattb! Which only goes to show, there are many paths but they often lead to the same place...