December 29, 2013
KRABI. As we think, we are inexorably negotiating our own fragmented consciousness. We live always in two times—the pre-reflective now of experience, and the reflective then-that-is-recalled of possible understanding. Both are always with us, but we tend to give our attention to one or the other in any given moment. Without experience there is no possibility of reflection; without reflection there is no way to give meaning to experience. And all of a sudden, as I write, I’m reflecting on the title of Robert Plant’s album, Now and Zen. It should really be Then and Zen.
Where was I? Ah yes.My friend from Shanghai, Geoff, came to spend about a week in Krabi. My parsimonious tendencies were pushed aside as we dined on excellent food and good drink, talked philosophy and academia, and enjoyed Krabi’s dramatic application of the four fundamental elements. On his last full day, we decided to take motorbikes out to the Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea). I was last there in December 1997, on a drizzly, overcast day, with not another soul in sight except for the monkeys and my buddy Eric. It has since become a well-known and heavily visited spot on the tourist track. The gold Buddha statue at the top of the 2,000 foot mountain can be seen from miles around. The only way to get to it is to climb the 1,272 steps leading straight up.
When I warned Geoff about those 1,272 steps, he shrugged it off. Let’s go, he said. As I was gingerly trudging up these steps, I thought about that number. There are two ways one could think about it. One could choose to reflect on the object of 1,272 steps, to see it as a whole, to assess what that is and then say “Yes, I can do this.” But it’s another thing to see it not as an object, but as 1,272 events, each its own challenge to overcome, each its own individual being that must be addressed before moving on to the next one. It’s only when you get into the journey that you realize it is the latter. The reflective mind is tricky that way. As a residue of then-now that is now-then, it lies to you, seduces you, tells you stories in the way you want to hear them. Only when you engage in the experience do you come to know what it is that you are facing. This, I suppose, is the point of the journey, that its meaning is realized in the action of undertaking it, not reflecting upon it.
A good example of the pre-reflective versus the reflective mind is from a book I’m reading now called The Phenomenological Mind. The authors describe how one might get into a car after a busy day of work, make the long drive home, and finally arrive at home. But then this person may say to himself “I don’t remember the journey.” Their question: how can we be unaware of a conscious activity that just occurred? While they don’t provide a definitive answer, they point to recent cognitive science that suggests that, essentially, we don’t sweat the small stuff. In their words, we can forget what is not immediately pragmatic. And if we didn’t forget, we wouldn’t be able to have these now moments of significance. Returning to their car analogy, driving along a familiar winding road doesn’t remain in our consciousness. But if there is a slow car in front of me, and all of a sudden I have to risk passing him on a blind curve, suddenly my senses come alive and this consciousness is retained, it becomes reflective after it happened.
Riding a motorbike takes this attention—the zen of experience leading to future reflection—to the next level. Driving a motorbike requires constant attention to detail. You are exposed, the air is rushing past your body, the danger is heightened, and there are any number of known and unknown events that could threaten your life at any moment. You must fully live the moment, so you remember the moment. It isn’t just the eventual reflection, though; it is always now, a kind of eternal pre-reflective state. This is that awareness of being “alive” that cannot even be said because of the triteness of such a statement. In this, driving a motorbike has many similarities with playing improvised music, except that improvised music has more possible unknowns and fewer threats to life and limb. This is probably why, for me, listening to music while riding a bike is essential. The two flow together—the experience and the soundtrack of the experience. I move in time, hyper-aware of its passage, and the music becomes a kind of synchronous event, an accompanying layer. Add to this the place: The jungle, the earth jutting straight into the sky, and the coastal drives are breathtaking. It makes for an eventful experience.
I’m seriously considering getting a used motorcycle when I get back to the states. I’ve had this in mind for several years. Now may be the time. I only hope it doesn’t become too familiar.
Zen and the Art of Motorbiking