Friday, November 09, 2007

What Riding a Bike in the City Can Teach You

One of my favorite things about living in Japan is not needing a car. I have never been interested in cars, and I don't really enjoy driving. Sometimes Japanese people will tell me that one of their hobbies is "driving", but for me speeding down an asphalt road in a big hunk of metal with other bigger hunks of metal just inches away also moving at high speeds, it's just not my idea of relaxing.

Instead, I ride my bicycle just about every day of the year. I can get to any part of the city in under a half hour on my bike, often faster than a car. And over time I've learned a lot from riding a bike. These lessons also apply to a well-lived life, and so I'll share them with you now!

Lesson 1: Get off the rails! Back in the early 90's when video games didn't have a lot of processing power, there was a genre called "Rail Shooters." In these games you had a spaceship or a dragon or something, and you were traveling along a path through a stage, shooting at the bad guys. You could move up and down, and strafe to the left or right, but these only gave the illusion of freedom. In reality, you were just on a rail, like a Disney world ride. Here's one of the more egregious examples, StarFox.

Needless to say, these games sucked, and were eventually replaced by games in which you could fly any direction you wanted.

Driving in a car is very much the same experience for me. You're stuck on a track, looking through a big sheet of glass, watching the world go by like so much background scenery in one of those rail shooters. And you can't even shoot anything. Well, you could, but it would end up being a short trip.

On the other hand, on a bicycle the city becomes your playground. Everything is open to you... One-Way streets, red lights, back alleys, jogging paths, shopping streets, these all add to the fun. There is room for variation and creative solutions. I'm sure everyone has had the experience of driving, slipping into a kind of hypnosis, and snapping out of it, finding you have arrived at your destination without even remembering the trip. This has never happened to me on a bicycle. The mind is alert, working, and solving problems.

I think some people kind of have a life on rails. They've locked themselves into situations at work or at home where variation is impossible. Starting the studio was one way we tried to bring more freedom into our lives. Maybe for you the solution doesn't have to be as drastic as opening your own business, maybe just starting a new hobby, going to a place you never thought you'd like, or just putting the left sock on first will be enough to get the brain juices flowing again?

Lesson 2 : When seeking a goal, be flexible and keep the overall picture in mind. Let's say I want to ride my bike to Yokohama station. I always have in mind the arrival point of Yokohama station, but how I get there is not set in stone. For example, if I hit a red light (that I can't blaze through) I'll happily take a left or right and cross the street at another point when the light goes my way. Or sometimes it's just the opposite. The light will be green and it will look like a good chance to get closer to my goal, but by taking the light at that point I'll hit a mass of businessmen getting off the subway which will ultimately take longer than passing on the green and using another route. I've found that what looks like the most direct route on a map is often not the fastest.

When you have a goal, it will rarely turn out that everything goes your way and you can zip right to it. Be ready to take some right turns. Just because your not moving directly towards it doesn't mean that you're not still moving towards it! And also be wary of easy chances for quick gain at the expense of the overall destination point.

And lastly, speed isn't everything. Sometimes I will choose a longer route because it goes down a tree-lined street, a lively part of Chinatown, or past some graffiti I like. Enjoying your life is the ultimate goal after all!
Lesson 3 : Not being attached doesn't mean you don't try. I have written a lot in this blog about the Buddhist idea of "non-attachment" as the key to lasting happiness. But sometimes people take this to mean a laissez-faire approach to life in which you just float along in a kind of haze. That's absolutely the wrong way to approach this, and I've found a great illustration of this on my bicycle which I've been eager to share with people.

On one of my usual bike routes, there is a long street from which you can see the traffic light at the end from really far away. This happens to be a long light without any of those options to zig-zag that I discussed above. So, I can see from a few hundred yards that the light is green. I know that if I pedal hard I have a chance to get across, which will really help me out, as I can get to my destination faster and get on with my day.

So I dig in and go for it, weaving through pedestrians and narrow street like an X-wing through the Death Star. And sometimes I make it through just as the light turns yellow, but often the light turns red before I reach it, and I'm stuck at the corner.

Now here is where the attachment comes in. If I've really built up the idea that I'm going to make the light, get to where I'm going early, have more time to do my stuff, and therefore have a more fulfilling and relaxing day, when I hit the red it's a little upsetting, I might even curse under my breath. On days when my mindfulness isn't really engaged this often happens. But, on a more mindful day, I'll miss the light, and just let it go, coming back to the present moment (as opposed to that fantasy where I got there early and had a more relaxing day) and enjoy the sun, look at the things in the window of the corner shop, and watch the people on the other side of the street going about their day. Much healthier!

But you'll notice that in both situations, I still pedal hard to make the light. Being non-attached to outcomes doesn't mean you just throw in the towel and meander through the streets. Go for it! But if it doesn't go your way let it go just as easily as if you had made it. This is really tough and if you're like me you'll often find yourself almost faking non-attachment, saying to yourself "I didn't really care anyway" when inside you're still churning about the incident. Those times when you honestly and completely let go of attachment are so wonderful and good signs of progress!

Lesson 4 : Don't invest too much in the vehicle. I've never spent more than 120 dollars on a bicycle. Bikes get stolen, run over, and break down, especially the way I ride them. A bicycle or a car is just a way to get somewhere. Maintain them, be good to them, but don't cling to them.

Of course this is also a Buddhist idea, often formulated as "Leave the raft behind." The Buddha didn't want his followers to be attached to him or his practice too much. He compared the Buddhist path to a raft you use to cross to the far shore of a river. When you get there, you would be crazy to pick up and and start carrying the raft! You leave it behind, for it has served it's purpose and is no longer useful. This same light touch should be applied to our spiritual path, whatever it may be. As we can see any day from reading the international headlines, investing too much in your particular religion leads to violence and bloodshed.

However, some people take this to mean that their bodies are also just another vehicle that we shouldn't spend too much time on. Ascetic philosophies stresses this point a lot, with the idea being to transcend the impure, worldly body in favor of the pure mind.

For me, this is a serious mistake. You aren't a little person inside your head "driving" your body around, able to transcend it if you try hard enough. You are your body. I'll say that again, You Are Your Body. Your brain and the rest of you are completely interdependent. Taking care of your mind/body is the single most important thing you can do in your life. Part of this means exercise, part of it meditation, healthy diet, stress reduction, good sleep, and surrounding yourself with a good community of people.

A great way to get a headstart on all of those things is getting out of the hunk of metal with wheels and into the open air on a bicycle! So, see you on the roads, I'll be the one pedaling past you as you wait in traffic!


Yoga Garden


MahaMondo said...

Namaskar Patrick,
I've posted your vids on my blog,
Please keep them coming.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Anonymous said...

I love riding a bike too you know. almost every guys ride a car I mean need it for live here. however I'm riding my yokohama bike in snow everyday now. I loved to go to china town,yamashita park,yokohama station by bike. I can feel wind,sun and can be "Mu".
I'll be back to Yokohama by my sweet bike!

Julie said...

my bf loved riding mikes.... but he doesnt anymore...
when he was young he crached into a cement pire (hidden by grass)
broke his wrist

and 2 summers ago a van hit him, broke the other wrist and cracked an elbow...