I leave Austin early. The sun is not quite out yet and it’s a chilly Saturday morning. I head towards Ranch Road 1431, a great local ride ending in a famous biker hangout called the Blue Bonnett Cafe. As the city sights slowly change into the farms of Hill Country I am thinking about the notion of focusing on the present. There is plenty of scientific evidence from the past few decades showing the benefits of present-oriented states like mindfulness and Flow. Mindfulness is the state of being fully attentive and aware of the details of a present situation. People like Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness meditation into the modern world of psychology, and others like Ellen Langer unlocked the benefits of being mindful in daily life. Flow, a more specific state, is a concept introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is a state of complete absorption in a task, where time “stands still”, characterized by the right balance of challenge and skill level. Buddhist and Hindu principles also tell us to live the now without projecting back or forward. But somehow it seems like the advice is too general. Without the abilities to simulate the future and to analyze the past, we humans could not have found cures for terminal diseases, build jet planes, or fly to the moon. What is the right balance then, and how does one obtain it?
About 150 miles later I am on route 190 going west towards Eldorado. With a name like that, I am thinking it should be quite an interesting town. There are fewer cars on the road now, and the landscape has changed to flat dry sands and yellow grass, polka-dotted with hairy bushes. The sun is high in the sky, and the wind is warm and comforting. Every now and then I pass a bridge stating the name of a river or creek. They are all dry. When I eventually arrive at Eldorado, I am surprised to find nothing but two gas stations and a little park. I stop at one of the gas stations, go inside to get a soda, and ask the cashier about things to do in Eldorado. “Nothing” she says. “Nothing?” I ask “Is there really nothing to do around here?”. She looks at me trying to figure out if I am trying to make fun of her, pauses for a second, and with a Judge Judy verdict kind of face repeats it again. “Nothing”.
I continue west, seeking some belated adventure for the day. The sun is now at its peak, pounding on the helmet. The map showed no towns West of here for quite some time, but I figured there must be something. There’s none. Over a stretch of some 120 miles I am the only one on the road apart from an occasional truck. The road blazes straight into the horizon, embedded in flat, dry, yellow land, spotted with a few trees, and decorated with flat-topped mesas in the distance. Every ten or twenty miles there I pass a ranch, and see clusters of cows crowding underneath a single large tree, seeking shelter from the scorching heat. Buzzards constantly circle above me, and sometimes they stand on the road picking at a dead animal. I remember how in the old Western movies circling birds in the sky meant that someone is about to die. I think how funny it is, and then get worried for a second. The experience is flooding all of my senses, and fills me with thoughts and associations. Riding a motorcycle out here makes one feel like a real cowboy.
Almost out of gas, I eventually arrive at a small town called Iraan. Most of the folks here work at the Yates oil field. The houses and buildings feel like they are shrunk in size in the shadow of the desert around it. There is one motel, and I am debating whether to call it a day and check in. In the meantime, I stop at Godfather Pizza, and have a bite to eat. I was definitely fully there in the moment during that last stretch. All of my thoughts and feelings were tied to the ride, the road, and the scenery. I’m thinking that it’s OK for the mind to roam – as long as you don’t leave the present moment. “Focusing on the present” is probably not the best way to put it. One has to really Be Present. And to me, being present breaks down to three different skills:
- Mindfulness – being attentive and not lose focus of the situation you are in
- Savoring (based on Sonja Lyubomirsky‘s work on positive psychology): being mindful of good things that happen, and of objects of beauty one encounters. And –
- Being actively present – not as an observer looking at the present moment from afar, but also taking action in the moment and affecting the situation instead of simulating the results in your mind and over-thinking.
These seem like good insights, and the Pizza is surprisingly excellent as well. I carry on for one more hour and get to Fort Stockton, where I check in for the night. It has already been more than 3000 miles since I left for the Ride Of Your Life. The motel has a little display outside of two cowboys and two bears. I love Texas.