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The Art of Motorcycle Mindfulness

The Honda CB750, Father of the Super Bike Era

Photo by: J W Foster

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
― Robert Persig

For those who are not acquainted with Therapeutic Mindfulness, the heart of our approach to Banxietyfree, I will define it here as, the art of paying attention.  For those who have not read, Robert Persig’s book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, I will summarize the plot as, the art of paying attention. Was Robert Persig an unwitting contributor to this new form of cognitive-behavioral therapy? Is his philosophy the same reason why we’ve discovered travel as a real-life, “Third Option” for reducing anxiety ?

Let’s flesh out some of Persig’s theories with this personal story:

While traveling through Sicily, Elaine and I decided to stay with a 30-something couple named, Antonio and Maria. They live in the scenic mountains of the small town of Cefalu. Antonio is a carabinieri, a member of the Italian paramilitary police. He and I were sitting at the couple’s small kitchen table while Maria was making us another cup of espresso. Antonio and I both had a limited understanding of each other’s language, and it placed Maria in the position of translator. It was early morning and we’d been talking about Sicily, Cefalu, and the Sicilian capital of Palermo. The walls of their kitchen were covered with pictures of the couple’s life together and their motorcycles. Our discussion shifted to Antonio’s love of motorcycles. It was a common interest for both of us. The limitations in our ability to communicate melted away as our vocabulary shifted to makes, models and years of the bikes we’d each owned during our lifetimes. Maria didn’t need to translate for us anymore.

As Antonio and I talked, Maria spoke up (in Italian), “Antonio, you should show Joe the old Honda you have in the garage.”

Antonio’s face lit up as he stood from the table and led me to the back of the house. He lifted the garage door. There, amongst the typical man-cave paraphernalia, was a classic but partially disassembled 1972 Honda CB750. Non-bikers would probably not understand the rise in my heart rate as my eyes fell upon this beauty. The Honda CB750 is considered the first, the father, of the Super Bike era.  It’s sleek, it’s big and it’s powerful in-line 4-cylinder engine can propel it to over 120 mph. That’s fast by 1972 standards.

We wheeled it out into the sunlight as Antonio explained and gestured how he’d had it for two years but has not been able to get it running. He pointed at the original electrical harness with cracked insulation and dead-ended wires. He pointed at the new coils and spark plugs he’d just installed. Antonio then walked back to a corner of the garage. He pulled off a sheet that was covering the fuel tank. The original burnt-orange paint still shone brightly. Wow!

I signed to Antonio that I wanted him to slip the fuel tank back onto the bike. There was no question, no thought of what our plans might be for the day. It was a mutual, unspoken, decision, we were digging in.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.” ~Robert Persig

We installed the tank. Antonio hooked up the charger to the battery. I turned on the fuel supply. First problem: Fuel starts pouring from the bottom of the bike. I pulled the drain hoses from the carbs. Yup! Stuck carburetor floats, typical for a bike that’s been sitting for a while. I drop the four bowls, one at a time, and tap the floats up and down to free the needle valves. It worked, no more leaking fuel. Next, Antonio turned on the ignition switch and the starter immediately engaged (without the starter switch being pushed). This is where he had gotten stuck in the resurrection of the bike. We started troubleshooting. Ignition switch? Starter button? Short in the wiring harness? Stuck solenoid contacts? I grabbed a wrench and banged on the solenoid. No luck. I rocked the ignition switch back and forth. Still no luck.

“Antonio, I need internet and a multimeter” He had neither, the internet was down and he didn’t own a multimeter.

“I’ll be back!” I said.

Antonio and Joe and the Machine

Photo by: J W Foster

“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.” ~Robert Persig

I’d been planning to make the trip into town to go to the grocery store while Elaine was busy writing a story, relaxing in our cottage.  I grabbed the laptop, climbed into our Fiat and headed down the mountainside while thinking, ‘now this is a luxury…all the time in the world to get my hands dirty digging into a classic, antique motorcycle.’

After picking up a multimeter at a local appliance store, I found an outdoor cafe with WiFi. I went straight to the CB750 riders forum. While drinking a cappuccino, I studied the wiring schematic, memorizing the starting circuit as well as the firing order of the cylinders.

Antonio and I were back at the bike an hour later. We traced the starter problem to the starter switch on the handlebar. Several minutes later we found a short at the base of the throttle handle. Dissemble, repair and reassemble. It worked! We turned on the ignition, closed the choke and hit the starter button. The bike started sputtering and spitting and back firing.

Every motorcycle mechanic knows; the spark plugs and the exhaust pipes tell the story. Two pipes are getting hot, two are cold. We pulled the plugs; two wet, two dry.  I pulled the fuel tank and started troubleshooting the coils mounted underneath. Another hour later and we’d found the problem, mis-connected wiring to the coils and the wrong plugs (the motorcycle shop had given him resistor plugs, not great for older bikes). We put the old plugs in, rewired the coils, checked the firing order and replaced the fuel tank.

The bike came to life with a roar!!! The straight, 4-1 high performance exhaust pipes screamed the pedigree of this machine across the mountains. Antonio hit the throttle hard, over and over. We both had huge grins on our faces. This was the first time it had run in over 7 years.

We reassembled everything on the 750, rolled it out to the the narrow mountain road and Antonio climbed on. He hit the throttle and let out the clutch. It died. He tried again. It died again. No matter what we did; as soon as it started moving the engine died. We both tried. Hi revs, low revs, rolling start, nothing worked.  We pushed it back into the garage.

It was 8:00 at night. Antonio had gotten the internet working. I’d worn a trail between the computer in the kitchen and the bike in the garage. I was following the schematics through the ignition system. We’d been having trouble shooting this afternoon while the bike was running. Antonio had turned the handlebars to the right so I could have better access and the engine died.

“Do that again!” I’d said.

He straightened the handlebars, started the bike and then turned them to the right. It died again.

“It’s an intermittent in the wiring!” I announced.

I was afraid of what I’d see when I pulled the headlight off.  This is where every older bike hides the rats nest of interconnecting wires. It was dark out and Antonio held the lamp close so I could trace the circuits. It was a mess of tangled, grimy wires and old electrical tape.

There it was! A slight narrowing of the black and white wire coming from the kill switch. I felt it as I was running my fingers across the wire. I pulled hard on it. The insulation pulled apart easily. The wire had corroded on the inside where there had been some slight crack in the insulation, where water could intrude. We quickly repaired the break and fired up the bike one more time. It ran even better than before. We reassembled everything and rolled her back out to the street.

“The solutions all are simple – after you have arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you know already what they are.” ~Robert Persig

Antonio has no fear! The spinning tire spitted gravel at my legs as he took off like a rocket. He banked the Super Bike into the first curve and for the next 20 minutes I could hear the high pitched reverberation of the exhaust as he shifted through the gears, up and down and across the narrow roads that ran along the ridge line at the top of the mountain.  He was in heaven.

Antonio pulled the bike back into the driveway. “Yoe! Go!” he yelled as he dismounted. I climbed on and within seconds I was off into the moonlight. I didn’t know the roads like Antonio so I was a lot more conservative as I headed up into the hills. The cold mountain air rushing by, the feel of the responsive bike, the thrill of narrow, dark, winding roads…this is why I travel.

“The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” ~Robert Persig

I returned 10 minutes later with a ringing in my ears and a grin permanently attached to my face. All I could pick out from Antonio’s words were “Cigar”, “Dominican Republic Reserve”, and “Lemonchello”. I knew exactly what he meant.

Elaine was already asleep when I returned to the cottage around midnight. As I laid in bed, I thought about my favorite all time book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. One of the discussions in the book involves the exploration of the relationship between the rider and the machine. There has to be an understanding between them, a coming together of the art and the science behind the machine as well as the attitude of the operator responsible for keeping the machine in good running order. Without that understanding the machine just becomes an external object, absent of all feeling and the relationship breaks down. What feeling you may ask? It’s the feeling of raw power that you hold tightly to as you accelerate through the gears. It’s the feeling of a cold wind that chills your cheeks and makes you huddle down towards the warmth of the engine. It’s the rush of scenery flying by, the scent of trees, the vibration, the fear of the next curve fast approaching as you bank hard and shift to a lower gear.  And, then you accelerate again.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”
~Robert Persig

I had made the time to just “be” with the bike, to work on it, to understand it, to learn from it instead of just adding it’s problems to the long list of problems I already wanted to get to work on. The unstructured time is what makes the difference. It’s the idea behind a human “being” instead of a human “doing”. Antonio and I took our time, enjoyed the work, solved the problems, reveled in our success and became close friends in the process.

When taken to an extreme, doesn’t anxiety come down to a fear of dying? That’s why the Banxietyfree’s Third Option makes sense. There are two choices. You can either write this on your tombstone:

“Here lies ____(insert your name). S/He had no friends, avoided leaving the house and stayed away from new places. Refused to travel more than a few miles from home. Feared rejection so much she didn’t make friends, missed out on the beauty of a mountain, a waterfall, a magnificent sunset. Spent all of her/her energy avoiding rather than embracing life.”

Or this:

“I really don’t mind dying because I figure I haven’t wasted this life.” ~Robert Persig




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