I was recently reading something by a Sunday newspaper columnist who had, doubtless out of professional desperation to fill her weekly column inches, written a humorous and gently derisory critique of adventure sports enthusiasts.
In this account she appeared to be using the terms ‘seize the day’, ‘live every day as if it were your last’ and ‘live in the now’ interchangeably, as equivalent expressions of a particular kind of hedonistic attitude. I found myself slightly irritated by this, because whatever your views upon seizing your days and living them as if they were your last, I don’t think it’s at all the same as ‘living in the now’.
Many eastern philosophies and spiritual practices make much of the benefits in terms of emotional balance, calmness and contentment that can derive from locating our awareness in the present moment.
So much of our mental life can be characterised by either reflections upon the past or worries and anxieties about the future. More often than not our minds are anywhere but in the here and now – even though, of course, the present is in fact the only place that we ever are. And while this capacity for memory, reflection and imagination is central to what makes us human, it is also clearly responsible for much of the anxiety and stress that we experience on a day-to-day basis.
Placing our awareness and consciousness in the present is a state that’s easiest to achieve when we are actively doing, rather than reflecting – engaged with something that absorbs our attention and fully occupies our senses.
I used to do a lot of scuba diving. And not just gin-clear, warm, tropical holiday stuff either, but most of it diving on shipwrecks in the cold, gloomy and challenging waters around the British coast.
Surprisingly, for all the astonishing things that I’ve been privileged to witness in places like the Red Sea, it’s the memories of all those cold, gloomy dives in the UK that I cherish most. Perhaps it was because of the very challenging nature of those dives, the test of nerve, skill, control and experience that they demanded, that I was most absorbed into the moment by them.
One thing that frequently struck me about the experience of scuba diving was that, no matter what might have been occupying my mind, once I dipped below the water’s surface and started that descent down the shot-line I was always instantly bang in the present moment. After all, you have to be really; entering into an environment such as that, where the tiniest issue or mistake can rapidly escalate into a genuinely life-threatening situation, you need to be operating in a state of complete mental focus, with an acute awareness of your surroundings and giving full, thoughtful consideration to the actions you are taking on a moment-by-moment basis. Indeed if you’re not then you probably have no business being there in the first place.
Mostly I dived because I loved swimming with the fish, and to experience the incomparable joy of graceful weightlessness which made that possible. But there was also something immensely satisfying that was intrinsic to the experience itself. It always ushered in a kind of profound calmness and a heightened awareness of simply being where I was, perceiving my surroundings, my experience and interaction with the environment in a manner almost entirely uncluttered by any of the broader concerns or considerations of my life.
For various reasons, most of them to do with practical opportunity, I’ve not dived for a few years now, but it has often occurred to me how similar in many ways it was to the experience I have now when riding a motorcycle.
Indeed most sports, and certainly the adventure variety, have an element of this about them, but there are plenty of other activities that can have this effect too. Certainly you can get into this ‘zone’ when driving a car, but I think when riding a bike (as with diving) it is the heightened element of personal risk that somehow amplifies the effect, together with the far greater opportunity to slip past the traffic and ‘make progress’. Come to that, and while not even remotely being a gamer myself, I can also imagine that this total sensory immersion is part of the appeal that makes video games so captivating, although wherever possible I prefer to get my sensory input from the real world.
It seems that I can’t help but ride in a state of anything less than full engagement and complete absorption. It’s not uncommon for me to be kitting-up before a ride thinking to myself, ‘Just take it easy; a nice, gentle bimble…’ and yet find that by the time I’m a couple of miles from home I’ll already be locked into it with all the focused commitment of an F-16 pilot in a dogfight. Attacking every bend, running in hard on the brakes, trying to nail the apex and drive out with a hint of shimmy from the rear as it grapples to get the power down. Continuously assessing the threats posed by the traffic around me, while my eyes scan the road’s surface and constantly changing surroundings for any and every little clue that might presage the unexpected. With the engine’s note and wind roar providing their own rich information about velocity, and feeling, through hands and feet and butt, the myriad tiny signals of feedback flooding in every second from the tyres and chassis.
Don’t get me wrong here though; I’m most definitely not talking about going ‘brain-out’ bonkers. In fact safety – both my own and that of others – is always my paramount consideration. But nevertheless I’m still aiming to find the smooth, fluid rhythm that comes from feeling fully in command of the bike and its actions.
And just as it was when diving, this is an activity that necessitates placing all my effort and awareness into existing right in the present moment, leaving no spare capacity to process anything other than what’s going on right there and then. And that’s precisely what I love about it so much, why I find riding a motorcycle so liberating, because it gives me access to a very particular kind of mental freedom and escape from my everyday concerns. I’m absolutely convinced that this sort of thing is good for you; it simply never fails to make me feel happy.
So an experience that to some might seem frantic and intense is, for me, actually the catalyst that transports me to a state of wholly centred calmness and allows me to dwell for a while in a condition of pure, sub-rational awareness of the here and now. And the rich and rewarding personal experience that I gain from this certainly isn’t just some tired cliché, nor is it the practical equivalent of living every day as if it were my last.
This post was previously published on my wordpress.com blog (titaniumparts), which still exists out there, in a place that nobody ever visits!