April 1, 2007

Locomotion as a form of meditation

I don't consume alcohol, "illegal" substances, or cigarettes. I do get a kick out of the ocassional hit of nitrous oxide at the dentist's office, I like my teas caffeinated, and I enjoy a daily piece or two of fine dark chocolate, but otherwise I'm fairly abstinent. Past experience indicates that I could probably develop an addiction to sex, but current lifestyle choices have caused me to abstain from that, too. The one and only craving I fully indulge is an addiction to fast driving.

I'm fortunate to live in a region with some pretty good roads for driving at speed, somewhat close to areas of transition between suburban and rural. That, combined with the rolling hills of the piedmont region, means that curvy, relatively low-traffic country roads are in easy access. When I first moved to this locale back in my mid-20's, I began to explore just to familiarize myself with the area. As I started to discover the back-country roads nearby, I quickly realized how much fun they could be. I also learned that driving fast gave me an unexpected respite from the cyclothymic depression I had been sunk in for a handful of years. When I found myself sitting agitated and restless in my apartment in the evening, I'd grab my keys and head out for a drive. To this day, nothing calms my nerves and relaxes me like pushing the speedometer on an open road.

The thing about driving is the focus it requires. When you drive fast on country roads, you quickly learn that you have to maintain awareness and a constant anticipation that something (an animal, a pedestrian, another car) could be in the middle of the road as you crest that next hill or swing around that upcoming curve. The focus required pushes all other thoughts out of your head and leaves you in a very Zen-like state. I've intentionally described this state as "focused" and not "concentrated". Concentration implies a tunnel-visioned rigidity and that's sure to lead to a crash. What's necessary to drive fast is a relaxed, wide-spread, yet focused, awareness. Peripheral vision is key, as is being relaxed enough to respond instead of react. Chris Cornell is apparently also a speed-freak and describes it similarly:

"Speed is true escapism. When you're going really fast you have no opportunity to think about anything else in your life. Stuff that might bug you gets forced out of your brain. When I want to clear out my mind, I'll usually go driving late at night on roads where I know there are no police..."

My chiropractor (Dr. Joe) and I have discussed this. Dr. Joe is a motorcycle afficionado, specifically racing bikes. He and his buddies frequent many of the same roads I do, and several of my chiro appointments have ended with us comparing notes on current road conditions, favorite curves, etc. In one of these conversations, Dr. Joe described the exhilaration of of entering a curve and feeling that point when it's time to accelerate to sling your vehicle around the apex and out the other side. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Whether it's a car or a motorcycle, there's a thrill in feeling that no-mind, totally instinctual one-ness with vehicle and pavement.

Another great description of driving fast that mirror my sentiments is from a January 1999 National Geographic article about T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). Lawrence was apparently a motorcycle buff and spent the years of his retirement tearing around the English country-side on a pretty cool-looking Brough Superior SS1000, before an unfortunately fatal crash on that same bike. The Nat'l Geo writer had the opportunity of driving the Brough:

"...blasting down the narrow roads of Dorset that day, I did get a taste of what Lawrence found on this bike at the end. It was a kind of surrender, I think-- a speed-induced state of bliss in which things go empty and white, as they sometimes do in the desert, and where... struggle might be briefly forgotten, or somehow resolved, and penance seems no longer necessary."

To a lesser degree, my bicycle induces this same bliss. As I mentioned in another recent post, I'm no speed-demon on the bike. I just don't have the watts for it (yet...?). I've gone as fast as 30mph downhill, but I slow down like a granny going into turns. And I'm just not powerful enough for sustained speed on a straightaway. But there's a similar relaxed focus required in cycling. To maintain a steady cadence on flats or rolling hills demands attention to breathing, gearing, pedal stroke, and any upcoming obstacles that will affect that ideal combination of rpm/mph. Obviously, there's a necessary amount of knowledge of these various elements required, but at a certain point that knowledge becomes muscle-memory and thought exits the equation. Again, it's body, machine and surface congealing into a harmonious state of mindful-yet-mindless freedom from care.

Getting back to the car: Most people would probably not consider me to be a "good" driver, but I'd like to think of myself as at least a skillful one. Yes, I'm aggressive behind the wheel, but I honestly believe that I might be a tad more aware and attentive than the average cell-phone afflicted motorist. I try to be realistic, though. I tend to attribute my lack of accidents (beyond a handful of weather-related incidents in my early 20's) to a smidgen of skill in handling the car, a teensy bit to my awareness of what's going on and what could happen at any moment around me, and a whole lot to just plain dumb luck. Of course, now that I've written those words, I'll probably go out tomorrow and have a tremendous wreck. Unless it leaves me maimed or dead, though, it probably wouldn't be enough to curb my addiction.

Anyone know of a local chapter of Speed-Demon's Anonymous...?

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