Learning

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Several months after my forty-fourth birthday, I purchased a battered and abused 1982 Yamaha XJ Five-fifty Maxim. While I had previously owned and enjoyed many different cars and trucks, the Maxim was my first motorcycle. So far, it has been my only motorcycle. In part, I acquired the Maxim to fulfill a long-deferred curiosity and ambition. That being, of course, to learn how to ride a motorcycle. I was certainly aware that buying a motorcycle and learning how to ride it could be a significant event or feature of my life. After all, that’s why I was doing it. However, I really had no idea how much of a fundamental change and impact that the experience would have on my relationship to learning and my general approach to day to day life.

At the motorcycle garage and sometime dealer where I found the bike I would eventually buy, there was a small selection of used bikes to choose from. I had originally visited the shop with the intention to look-over a couple of early 1980’s era Honda Magna’s that had been advertised. Alongside the Magna’s however, I found a yellow seven hundred and fifty c.c. Maxim as well as the smaller five-fifty. In fact, the five-fifty was tucked away and not quite forgotten. I could probably have purchased any of the larger displacement bikes without regret. To be honest, the bigger motorcycles even appealed to an immature and egotistical impulse. But something about the five-fifty attracted me. Sitting on the bike felt comfortable and right. The Maxim’s teardrop-shaped fuel tank and side covers were black with purple flames stretching, in that classic hotrod style, toward the back of the bike. Despite such a styling cliché, the flames didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously. I mean really, purple? And the whole paintjob was what may be generously called “tired”. The flames had gone past cliché to quaint. At some point in the decades before I’d owned it, someone had also removed the original curvy chrome handle-bars that the bike had been sold with to a straight, black motocross-style bar. I could hardly have known what a good idea that had been when I bought the bike, but that handlebar set-up gave the bike its own personality and handling that helped to build my confidence as a rider. The bike’s original dual chrome exhaust pipes had also been replaced by a matte black four-into-one design. Inside the cement cinder block walls of the garage, revved to a few thousand r.p.m., the little four-cylinder sounded racy and entertaining. Inviting rather than intimidating. The gauges and instruments didn’t seem to be original to the bike either. Here was a motorcycle that was clearly past prime condition and into a second or third shot at life.

With thirty year-old patina. The purple flames that didn’t take themselves too seriously. The genuine exhaust note. Dropping eight hundred dollars in the middle of February in 2014 meant that the little four-cylinder motorcycle, and all of the possibilities it presented, was mine to be had. I wouldn’t be able to ride it for several months, but I was excited and satisfied to obtain what seemed to be an apt avatar and metaphor of my self.

More recently, as my fiftieth birthday came and went, I approached another long-deferred curiosity and ambition: beginning to learn the martial art called Tai Chi. It might be forgiven if someone were to argue that learning to practice Tai Chi seems rather less exhilarating and significantly less dangerous than learning to ride a motorcycle. After all, isn’t one of the archetypal images of Tai Chi that of grey-haired elders moving slowly, and probably in unison, in a park-like setting? But at fifty I had – and continue to have – expectations that learning Tai Chi would be every bit as enriching an experience as learning to ride a motorcycle had been.

In Zensylvania, it isn’t the riding of a motorcycle or the performance of a particular Tai Chi movement that we are necessarily concerned with. Those experiences are moments in time that can be enjoyed and remembered, for sure. But what we are more concerned with is our relationship to learning how to do these things in the first place. The creation of the state of mind where it is possible to learn a new skill or set of knowledge is itself an achievement that is worthy of consideration.

Aesthetically, learning to ride a motorcycle and learning Tai Chi may seem to be opposing activities which would appeal to very different types of people. Riding a motorcycle can be brazenly loud and smelly, not to mention physically demanding. Riding a motorcycle carries the ever-present threat of injury or death. Riding a motorcycle is potentially the fastest and riskiest iteration of yourself in motion that you can experience. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face the worst (or even the last) day of your life.

Meanwhile practicing Tai Chi seems to be the epitome of the quiet, the calm and the physically un-intimidating. The greatest danger faced by the person engaged in Tai Chi seems to be that of peacefulness and serenity. But there is a dark side. Tai Chi is potentially the slowest and most connected iteration of yourself in motion that you can experience. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could be faced by your own lack of physical coordination, balance and self-understanding.

For me, these two very different activities appeal to a similar need. That is the need to be a genuine learner or novice with something. Despite the external and overt aesthetic differences, these two activities have some very considerable similarities when it comes to learning and re-setting my understanding of myself.

When I decided that I would finally learn to ride a motorcycle, I was already firmly established in middle age. While the objective to ride had been something I’d carried all the way back from my early-twenties, finally doing it was not some kind of stereo-typical mid-life crisis grab at youth. Nor was it a form of fantasy life-style wish-fulfillment. I had no interest in becoming a wild-life biker, speed-track rider or whatever may come to mind when some middle-aged man buys a new toy. In fact, the idea of riding a motorcycle had always been both attractive and intimidating for me. It had mostly seemed like something that other people did but that I probably wouldn’t. It was the kind of thing that would inspire the thought “Wouldn’t it be great to experience riding a motorcycle”. But that thought was usually followed by ” But that isn’t the kind of thing I’ll really actually do”.

At that time, my family and I were having a tough year. Several things had happened that seemed to be out of our control. Health issues. Career issues. Life issues. Things that I had taken for granted or that I felt that I had achieved – or that I felt were still achievable, had rather suddenly become uncertain. The details of those times are almost wholly irrelevant to the point that I want to make. Most people experience a version of the kind of crisis I’m talking about at some point in their lives. For some people the crisis they experience, the difficulties they encounter may be so enormous and shattering, that anything less dramatic might seem embarrassingly small in comparison. Setting comparisons aside, however, sooner or later life knocks us down.

Suddenly I was in shadows of fear, self-doubt and uncertainty. For me it was a time when when my confidence in myself and in the fundamental rightness of the world had been seriously dinged-up. There were parts of me that were emptied out as they hadn’t been in decades. I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but I needed to take something on that would help me re-build my integrated self from the ground up.

Perhaps through the force of an instinct that I wasn’t aware of, I did it. I tackled something that was almost wholly outside of my character and skill-set. I put myself in the position of a beginner and a learner. I can’t emphasize enough how important this point is. In Zen philosophy, there is a well-known expectation that a person should maintain a “beginner’s mind”. In Zen, there is the word “shoshin” which has this sense that a beginner approaches something without pre-conceptions. Shoshin indicates that the experience, the thing that the person has begun, is fresh, new and not already known. A person who is a beginner is a whole learner. Relative to the thing that is to be learned, the beginner has no status and no standing. Everything is still un-acquired.

But so much of the life, career and society I grew-up with and into had negated the value of a beginner’s mind. Building a career, a family, a home and a sense of self was, for me, the opposite of maintaining a beginner mindset. Building a career or a sense of self is exactly that – building. It’s an additive process. Experience upon experience. Year upon year. Becoming a specialist or an expert in a career of any kind is a process of amassing knowledge, skills, competence over time. You don’t “get ahead” in a career by being a beginner. And being ahead is, by practical application, no longer being a beginner. On the corporate ladder, beginners are at the bottom rung, not at the top.

Similarly having a home with a set of family traditions and memories means adding, day-to-day, night-to-night, year-over-year, occasion after occasion to everything that came before. Birthdays. Holidays. Weekdays. Weekends. Meals. All of the activities that a family encounters are built through a combination of familiarity, repetition and in some cases, improvement. I had spent decades becoming the person I was. I wanted to continue to be better – but my conceptions of better were additive rather than reductive. I wasn’t un-happy with myself. But I was facing situations where I really didn’t know how to continue building in the face of the experiences and difficulties I had recently had. Motorcycling came along as an opportunity to place value in being a ground-up beginner.

With motorcycling, I started with a two-hour long try-it-out course at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. It was the kind of course for people who’ve never been on, or probably near, a motorcycle. People who’d ridden a dirt-bike as a kid, or maybe had a motorbike earlier in life didn’t take this kind of course. This was for genuine, full-on beginners. On the day that I took the course, there were about a dozen students of various ages, but we were all equal in our skill. Essentially none. We needed to show up with a helmet, gloves and other basic gear to allow basic, safety-oriented exposure to motorbikes. Beyond that, the instructors assumed we knew nothing about how to approach and operate a motorcycle. But there was no condescension by the instructors as regards our role as beginners nor was there any apparent assumptions about us as people. Unlike someone who may be starting a new career from scratch or re-building their home finances after a major set-back, the beginner motorcyclist isn’t necessarily faced with anxieties over those really big components of life.

Ironically, this absence of real or perceived social and economic consequences is exactly what makes this kind of activity valuable to developing and maintaining a beginner’s mind.

In that all-too-brief course, we learned where the various controls on the bike were and how they functioned. We learned how to operate the clutch and how to operate the gear selector. We learned about the brakes and where we should be looking while riding. And we started to learn how to put all of these things together while riding. By the end of two hours, the instructors let us putt around in first-gear on the college’s Honda Titan 150 bikes. Riding at less than ten kilometers per hour was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my adult life.

And for me, it was enough to lead to buying that five-fifty Maxim and to signing up for the weekend-long learner course that was designed to help turn beginners like me into competent (if not proficient) street-legal riders. I am not a risk-taking thrill-seeker at heart and was very confident that there was no point in jumping on any motorcycle without expert guidance to help keep my middle-aged skin and bones intact. By the end of the second training course, I had done something that I hadn’t done since I was a kid – I learned the basics of a completely new physical skill.

But I had done another thing that was probably more important to me. I had re-set my ability to be a full and true beginner. I sold the motorcycle after a couple of years. I’d ridden around my county frequently enough to feel confident on the bike but without ever feeling like an expert. I was able to ride. I could now look at a motorcycle and say, “wouldn’t it be nice to experience riding a motorbike” and the second thought was “I know what that’s like” rather than “but that’s not something I’d ever actually do.” Learning to ride was an exciting, dangerous and extremely enriching personal experience. After a couple of seasons exploring Elgin County’s farm-and-Carolinian-forest-lined roads, I sold the bike. At the time, I had other priorities and felt that my curiosity about motorcycles had been satisfied and the ambition fulfilled. I got out without sustaining any injuries and that seemed to be enough at the time.

Being a beginner can be exhilarating but the best thing about being a beginner is that it lets you build or re-build yourself from the ground-up.

The process of building a part of myself from the ground-up helped me to be willing and able to build other parts of myself from the ground-up. In areas of myself where there was more consequence. It enabled me to bring one career to and end that I was satisfied with. And to be prepared to build a new one from the ground-up. It isn’t easy to set aside a couple of decades of progress up one career ladder to start-over down at the bottom rung. I found that I wanted all that previously climbing to matter, to be counted. But that other climbing didn’t really matter all that much. Learning to ride a motorcycle. Learning to be a beginner helped to make the state of mind adjustments I needed to get on with the present.

More recently, the whole world has undergone dramatic and unprecedented changes that has made almost every aspect of our lives uncertain and overshadowed with fears. For many people, myself included, the pandemic brought changes to the pace and presentation of our daily lives. Before the pandemic came, I was working in a large corporate centre alongside hundreds of others. I went about my day-to-day business as a fifty-plus-year-old member of my community in my own way. I shopped for groceries or other goods and services when and how I preferred to. I obtained medical services when needed then – and, unfortunately, this was with increasing frequency. Most things were reasonably convenient.

For me and for everyone else, in March of 2020, however, the reliable and predictable parts of our lives suddenly weren’t.

Health issues. Career Issues. We all had to wear masks and curtail our usual habits of daily living. Living arrangements that had been working just fine suddenly needed to change. Many people lost their jobs, temporarily or permanently. I was extremely fortunate that the pandemic resulted in being newly-established as a home-based worker doing the same work I had already been doing. But that relative good luck didn’t mean that the world and my daily-life wasn’t suddenly very different, very stressful and requiring some different approaches to life. I still needed to do my best to be healthy and happily content in my daily life.

So I decided to tackle another long-standing ambition. I decided to begin learning Tai Chi.

Deciding to learn Tai Chi during the social distancing social and regulatory environment of 2020 and 2021 have meant that the only viable sources of expert guidance were to be found via the internet. And there’s no shortage of potential experts to choose from. Frankly, I was quite pleased to learn in the seclusion of my own home. Compared to the possibility of

dropping a motorcycle or launching myself into some unforgiving obstacle amid a group of peers, waving my limbs around with a group of strangers in a group class is the more intimidating idea. At least motorcycle gear provides a degree of anonymity. Self-conscious to a state of mortification? Strap a motorcycle helmet (preferably with a tinted visor) to your head. Problem solved.

Which brings up the matter of “gear”. With a motorcycle, the requisite gear includes protective equipment from head to toe. Helmet. Gloves. Sturdy Leather jacket and boots. Etcetera. Riding without the gear is dumb. The idea is to reduce one’s risk and vulnerability during an inherently vulnerable and dangerous activity. Meanwhile, with Tai Chi, I seem to get away with loose, light clothing such as a pair of baggy sweat pants and a t-shirt plus a pair of moccasins or socks. My Tai Chi gear isn’t designed to provide protection in the event of an eighty kilometer per hour crash. It is designed to allow movement and flexibility. My motorcycle gear hid and protected my frail forty plus year old body. My tai chi gear un-inhibits and connects me with my my even more frail fifty year old body.

Thanks to the generosity of Youtube’s community of content providers and potential Tai Chi experts I was able to find a few teachers who were offering free, reasonably detailed and easy to follow instructions on how to get started with the one hundred and eight movements contained within the martial art known as Tai Chi.

One hundred and eight movements!

It seems to be an established perception that the physics of motorcycling is like life itself -a complex and imperfectly understood thing. I’m not certain if anyone has taken the trouble to catalog the number of critical motions and combinations of motions that are required for riding. A dozen? Two dozen? Whatever the exact number may be – it surely pales compared to Tai Chi’s one hundred and eight.

After a little more than a year of practicing Tai Chi, I am still an utter beginner. I rely on about a dozen movements that I enjoy. I no longer feel a nagging, hurky-jerky impulse to correct myself or remind myself how to move. I still move far more quickly than I think that I should and I don’t quite feel that I’m able to extend my range of motion much over what I had twelve or fifteen months earlier. But I feel that I have taken control over my own process of learning.

Whether riding a motorcycle or learning to waggle my limbs in something that approaches a synchronized and intentional way, I am learning a new physical ability. Let’s not call it a skill yet. With the motorcycle, I was tremendously satisfied with the confidence and courage that I acquired as I learned. Learning something new, something with its own immediate risk but not with potentially dire life consequences, is a terrific way to relearn who you are physically, intellectually and emotionally. With Tai Chi, I am experiencing the same learning and self-connection.

There is a maxim that is recited in any number of training environments that goes something like… “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. While learning these activities, the good sense of the phrase emerges in different ways. With the bike, taking time to learn how to operate the clutch; how to smoothly change gears, how to be in control and attentive without being over-stimulated is a better done at slow speeds…and over time. With Tai Chi, learning to move slowly, how to be in control of my breathing and movements without over-stimulating is just as challenging.

I don’t regret deferring the experience of riding a motorcycle until I was in my mid-forties. I’d long out-grown any dangerously immature cravings for speed that I may have had as a younger person. And I now know that I needed the opportunity to step out of a state of mind that didn’t leave room for me to be an eager and joyful beginner. In a way, deferring the pleasure of riding until my forties and the pleasure of learning tai chi until my fifties have been much-needed opportunities to rearrange and enhance my sense of identity and my ability to cope with significant forces and events in my life over which I have little to no control.

Deciding to be a beginner is what has allowed a Zensylvania state of mind to exist.

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