On the Seat & In Your Head

On the Seat & In Your Head

There is something about driving a tractor that is so similar to riding a motorcycle it is uncanny. Obviously it isn’t speed or that feeling of the wind in your hair. Nor is it about the physics of counter steering or leaning into a corner. But there is something there in the “non-thinking” aspect of both endeavors.

In the field: tractor-seat meditationWhen I am running the mower on the tractor, or more recently cultivating the garlic with the 861 a few months ago, I am not actively thinking about anything. I am purely in that moment. I am observing where the front wheels are, glancing over my shoulder to watch the discs cut through the earth, focusing on the end of the row in preparation of raising the implement. But none of this is done with words in my head. There isn’t any sense of anticipation or acceptance; it all just “is.”

My uncle Gerard used to talk about meditating in the tractor seat while plowing snow. There wasn’t a lot to think about, the edge of the driveway, the upcoming obstacle, the dog running out to greet him, but again, these weren’t words in his head. In fact, he would say they weren’t actually thoughts at all. They weren’t even acknowledged in that moment. It wasn’t until afterwards when somone would ask, “What did you think about while working out there?” that he could begin to describe his thoughts. Synthesizing words onto his “non-thoughts” could be roughly equated to concrete poetry or a Zen koan.

Riding a motorcycle can produce a similar experience. Given the need to ride defensively, there might be a higher level of alertness and anticipating, but it doesn’t come through in words. You don’t think, “I am approaching a very tight turn, so I will pick my line and as I enter the corner, I will counter steer and let the bike lean in while preparing to meet the apex and accelerate out the other side.” You just do it.

And I think it is the “just do it” part that makes these two things so similar in my mind. It is the non-thinking aspect where meditation happens. You lose yourself to your interaction with the outside world. You are purely engaged with the machine and how the two of you are interacting.

And both of these examples are different from driving a car where there are many more distractions. The speed limit, the traffic, the radio, the cell phone and of course, other people in the car, are all distractions. And modern cars are the worst of all with their multiple informational instruments, copious switches and overwhelming choices. (I might prefer to pick a new breakfast cereal than negotiate my wife’s new dashboard controls.)

Tractors and motorcycles (and especially tractors and motorcycle from at least 15-20 years ago and farther back) offer perhaps one of the best places to meditate AND get something done at the same time.