Friday, December 7, 2007

The Tao of Cycling

This bit of esoteric rambling was inspired by Justin in Buffalo, New York, United States, planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, a fellow seeker, dreamer, a man in love with adventure of the body, mind, and spirit. Ride well, brother!

These are some of my thoughts on the metaphysical aspects of cycling as they pertain to some of the ideas, symbols and metaphors of Taoism and its close relative, Buddhism. I find great pleasure in contemplating how worlds intersect, how we have so much in common even though at first glance all we might see are contrasts. That cycling should lead me to Eastern wisdom isn't so strange. Endless hours in the saddle knock loose all kinds of vagrant ideas, most of which are, thankfully, lost in the crosswinds of the ride. Perhaps you'll wish this line of thinking joined its orphaned siblings on the prairie breezes, so read on at your own risk. While not exhaustive, my informal discussion here might inspire others to look deeper into the implied meaning of what they do. We are, as humans, the symbol makers. Our dreams inspire and enrich our lives, and, as John Muir said, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." In thinking about this singular act of cycling, I find it hooked to much else in the universe, the one place, experience and life.

For me, this silly contraption of tubes and wires serves as more than physical transportation. Two principle schools of Buddhism are Mahayana and Hinayana, translated as "Greater Vehicle" and "Lesser Vehicle" respectively. Hinayana seems to be a term coined by members of the other school to exalt their own position: We are greater; they are lesser. That debate does not concern me. The metaphor of a spiritual practice as a vehicle does. In fact, the word metaphor itself comes from Latin terms that translate roughly as "a carrier of change." The technical explanation of metaphors involves the terms "tenor" and "vehicle" as well: tenor is the subject, vehicle the new image that carries the change of perception. For example: Life is a rat race. Life is the tenor, rat race the vehicle. So all of the terminology is hitched one to the other, all of it tangled up in the ideas of conveying, transporting, accomplishing a purpose, transformation. And the purpose of any meaningful journey is to become other that what we were.

Central to these Eastern schools of thought is the concept of the unity of opposites, the idea that the poles are connected in an intimate, unavoidable, necessary way. Symbolically, this is graphically demonstrated in the Taoist symbol at the top of this post, the Taijitu, or "diagram of the supreme ultimate" wherein the light and dark flow into each other and contained in each is the beginning of what it is to become. This symbol is dynamic, a concept central to the philosophy it signifies. The light moves into the dark as the dark moves into the light. One cannot exist without the other. Indeed, all the universe is an interplay of opposites: light and dark, negative and positive, good and bad, life and death, desire and fulfillment. Each of these concepts is meaningless without its opposite, all expressed in a process, a flow, a wheel of being and non-being.

Here the connection to the act of cycling emerges. The wheel of opposites, the cycle of Samsara (life, death, rebirth) as the Buddha calls it, carries us through many incarnations until we reach Nirvana--if we are doing the work. Nirvana is not a place like Heaven as it might be understood in the Christian sense, no clouds and angels and harps, big white bearded dudes in Lazy-Boys pointing fingers. Nirvana can be achieved here and now. It is a centered place wherein the enlightened one is outside the forces of fear, desire and social pressure. The cycle of Samsara is spinning around the focused, blissful, unmoving being at the center who has found, paradoxically, connection to and separation from the whirling madness around her.

In the notions of movement and stillness, of opposites married we slip into the heart of cycling. To ride a bicycle is to engage in a strange and wonderful dance. We must move but also remain still, and only in finding the proper flow do we make progress. We teeter on a razor's edge between disaster and success (motion), and this point is a blissful stillness that we can master only by shutting off the thinking, conscious mind and attuning ourselves to the wisdom and innate knowledge of the body. This is a rolling meditation. To see a child master a bicycle for the first time is to witness the bliss of being. In the chaos of Samsara, the escape, Nirvana, is found at the center, the still point around which the hurricane of life and death and rebirth rotate, so we need to find the eye of the storm. Fittingly, we can only make progress on a bicycle because we are attached to the hubs at the center of the wheels, the still points. The opposites of movement of the rims and the stillness at the hubs makes the vehicle.

Riding a bicycle, then, becomes not only something fun and practical. The device and the act of riding it are metaphorical for how we should lead our lives. As we balance the bicycle, so too must we find balance in our lives and search out the still places, the eddies outside the turbulence, the Nirvana at the heart of Samsara. As the bicycle is the most efficient mode of transportation ever devised, so too can it lead us to a personal economy of body, mind, and spirit. The spokes of the wheel, the lines of connection to the rim are those lines that link us to the world. Our stillness, our bliss, our sense of fulfillment are built upon these whirling lines. We cannot exist without them. But here is another lesson: If a wheel is quickly spinning, where is the safest place to touch, the spokes and rim, or the axle, the hub?

So the next time you ride your bike, you're not just out for a ride. You're engaging in a spiritual, a metaphysical act. Grin and spin and be one with your Schwinn.