02/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Motorcycles, Bicycles, and the Power of Choice

I spent 21 years of my life on a motorcycle. Okay, not exactly on a motorcycle, on many motorcycles. I rode big ones, small ones, green ones and tall ones, and I rode them many miles: hundreds of thousands, actually. I rode up and down mountains, through the desert, the circumference of the country and through its middle, top and bottom. I rode along the seas and oceans, rivers, lakes and bays, occasionally in the company of other riders, but most often alone. I road tested new models for motorcycle magazines and chronicled my travels in print. I read every fan rag printed in the English language and gazed rapturously at the pictures in foreign language editions. The calm meditative state long-distance motorcycle touring brings was a sort of therapy for me. On two wheels I somehow managed to savor the details of the road, not merely the proximity of a truck bumper but the color of wildflowers on the road. I met nice people, too, and saw a side of this country unavailable any other way. Riding and I had a real love affair.

At the same time that I was riding, my study of martial arts, already of long standing, was deepening. I read martial philosophy and practiced with staffs and swords. I built and nurtured my body to be able to do special and unusual things, worked to enhance my skills, and used that work as a laboratory for exploring ideas about life and my role in it. Sharing what I was learned became increasingly meaningful and rewarding, and brought me into contact with more and more like-minded people. My commitment to that particular path of self-realization grew and put a fly in the ointment of my motorcycling life. More and more I worried about getting hurt. I worried about ending up in a wheelchair unable to continue my martial practice. Every day when I mounted my machine I knew it might be my last, and when I got home safely I breathed an enormous sigh of relief that I had lived another day. Riding still gave me a zen-like appreciation for the living in the now, but it also created a very particular and pernicious form of stress, a rising sense of conflict and self-loathing. I found myself taking the car more and more often and leaving the motorcycle in the garage.

In the spring of 2003, a riding friend died on the road. Father of two little girls, he was on the freeway one night minding his own business, in the left lane and at the speed limit. A driver came up behind him and hit him, launching him into the opposing lane where 14 cars ran him over. The driver was not drunk. He was not angry. He claimed he just didn't see the bike. Two weeks later, while on a ride with me, another riding buddy fell off his bike and broke his neck. He isn't sure why he fell. He thinks he may have fallen asleep. I found him on the side of the road, called the paramedics and watched a helicopter airlift him to a nearby hospital. He survived, but endured surgery and for months wore a "halo" around his neck to keep his head on straight.

A week after that, a friend was riding in Japan and was hit, and crippled, by a car that turned left in front of him. I received that news, went in to see my young son sleeping, thought about him visiting my grave marker, and put my motorcycle up for sale. These days I ride a bicycle. It's not completely safe, but nothing is, and while I'm riding I'm conditioning my body, keeping trim, building cardiovascular fitness, burning no fossil fuel, and managing to get most of the same meditative pleasure I did from motorcycling.

I have a student who talks often of all the wrong turns he feels he made in the road of life. As gently as possible I have suggested that such retrospection is not as useful as looking at what's going on right now and asking himself what he is doing that he feels, deep down, is not congruent with the best and highest part of him. I remind him that life is short, and that while we can never eliminate regret we certainly can choose to live life the best way we can. I tell him he is in control of his own choices and urge him to make those that best fit what he really believes and wants. Lately I have noticed he is questioning more about his life right now than his life back when, and looking closely at the assumptions he makes about who and what he. I suspect that he will soon make some changes and be happier for it.

I have another student who has had some serious health scares recently and been really shaken by them. His body bothers him a lot, and his energy is limited. Recently some medical tests revealed some dietary restrictions. He groused about them to me, telling me how much he was going to miss this that and the other food and how perhaps he could still get away with eating them. I sense his unwillingness to grow and change the way the first student is doing. Perhaps it's age, as change is difficult for all of us, yet this man's suffering is largely of his own making.

That's the point. Stress is not something the world does to us, but something we do to ourselves in response to external events. There is much we cannot control out there, but we can control ourselves. I don't think motorcycles are bad or evil. In fact I still think they're wonderful for many people and if I lived in a more rural and reliable environment I might still ride one. But doing something we know isn't right for us is a bad idea. When we act in ways that are contrary to our beliefs we create stress and often don't like ourselves much. Living against our core beliefs really does have a big price tag, and living in accordance with them is correspondingly and consummately empowering. As the year starts, perhaps you might make a list of habits that run contrary to your most deeply held beliefs and jettison them. My guess is that doing so will give you a real boost.