Badass Will Gadd says your job as an athlete is simple: keep moving. Vivian, who is maybe somewhere between 60 and 90 (a gentleman never asks), tells me she needs a hip replacement so she’s making sure she’s “good and ready” for it. “I used to go to the gym and run and, well (shrug) now this is just what it is”. We talk about the trail, getting out side, staying active and sharp and witty. I can tell she’s a tough nut and is none too sure of me, but we ride bikes and she gets it. Relentless forward progress.
I love this story and don’t really care if it’s not true. In Plum Village, apparently one of Thich Naht Hanh’s favourite funny tricks was to walk up behind someone who was washing the dishes (or whatever mundane task), touch them on the shoulder and say, “what are you doing?” Ha! Man, that makes me laugh! And here’s also why it doesn’t matter if that is factually true or not: because it is a beautiful, gentle, funny illustration of us every single day. As Yoda says, while poking an impetuous Luke with his little meditation stick — “All his life he has looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmmm? What he was doing!” Luke looked pretty surprised when he realized that Yoda was right (as a matter of fact, that THAT was what he was doing AT THAT MOMENT! Ha!); just as surprised as the unsuspecting monk or nun that ol Thich was giving the not-so-subtle reminder to. Hilarious.
But what were the two of them trying to remind their students of? What was Buddha doing when he raised the single flower, saying nothing and the novice Mahakasyapa cracked a smile and our man Guatama was like “Aha! See? He gets it!”? In a cool story I read not so long ago, a group of monks were asked which of their senses was most significant to theirpractice and they all said it was their hearing, that when they started not pay attention, to be distracted into following their thoughts down the proverbial rabbit hole instead of just letting them be and letting them go, it was their hearing – the snap, crackle, pop of daily life – that brought them back to their senses. That delivered them from reveries and guilts and worries to the here and now.
In Marina Abramovic’s final work of performance art in 2010, The Artist is Present, she embodied this experiment as such: “The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”(https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/marina-abramovic-marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present-2010/) And that’s all: she sat, they looked at each other. Period. When asked what she thought would happen when she did this she admitted that she was unsure; but when asked further why she thought some people cried she simply said that she doubted many people had really been looked at for a long, long time. Such is the state of our human being: we are all in a hurry, we do not see each other, we barely see ourselves. We are always going to a meeting or coming from one that we’ve left but are still thinking about. We are, quite simply, not here.
I’m shifting gears and lanes at the same time; my attention flips quick over my shoulder to the traffic and I adjust for a car coming that doesn’t quite see me, I skip in behind and almost skid out on the corner. My thoughts and emotions are never more than 3 seconds ahead of me and never behind. I swerve a pothole and right the balance of my bike; feather the brake, take in the corner coming, push a little harder on the pedals, round the street, take in the new scene, slow my ragged breath, listen to my heart lower itself from my ears.
On the wooded trail I am adjusting my weight to get over this root and then around the rock right beside it; I subtly shift my weight to the left and push almost imperceptibly on the pedals to shimmy the rear wheel and then give it some gas to get going again. I press into the handlebars and glance 5 feet forward, acknowledging somewhere deep back in my brain that there is a feature on the trail I’ve not done before but feel I can: I lean back, bring my centre of gravity away from the front tyre and pop it over the rock, a new line carving itself across my neurons; I see a branch and duck, I push harder, listening for my heart beats – I’ll need a lot of energy to make it the next 20 feet or so and adjust my breathing to make it. To my right a branch snaps up and hits my leg, I counterbalance to keep going. I breathe, I struggle, I push, rest, swerve, push, always on point; if attention lags for a minute you can fully expect the ground, asserting itself as only gravity can, to punch you right in the kisser.
The past, they say, is history and the future is a mystery, but what we have right here is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.
Yeah, Buddha woulda rode bikes fer sure.
I rode by once; rang the bell, “on your left”, four riders just chugging along and at the front this sweet whip. I pointed on my way by, “cool bike” and kept going. At the coffee shop, a student of mine and I chat – the kid is on a ride with the family from Nova Scotia, we shoot the breeze, go to mount up and… whoa! The bike again! It’s dad’s – I get the story: brought here when they moved from Sweden, “in true Ikea fashion it came in a flat box”, he dug the colour because his folks had a Saab the same mocha shade when he was a kid. It’s fully tricked out with a butt buster for a saddle (“they told me after 2000 km it’ll start to mould to the shape of my rear!”) and vintage looking front and back carriers. What seems to be wood burnt into the front picnic box is the kind of bike it is: Stalhasten. “Steel horse” he says. I raise my fist and YES! He smiles at me from under his handlebar moustache: better than any fistbump.
I’m with Brad Warner on this one: Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy of action. Religions are filled with musts and gods, they talk of the ‘other’ world and generally ask for agreement amongst the adherents. Art, on the other hand, is something practiced, something we believe makes our lives more beautiful, though not necessarily easier; art, from both the perspective of the creator and the one who enjoys it, brings us into the present moment and strongly suggests we take note. We don’t really get better at our art, but it does change in our making and changes us as well.
Folks often think Buddhism nihilistic too, that it teaches that life is valueless (the art is quite the opposite) and dwells on suffering. While that’s not quite true (Buddhists definitely do not go around all like “life stinks dude”), the awareness that WE suffer is of central import; in fact, it makes up two of the four noble truths: in life we suffer and there’s a way out. And that, friends is not nihilism, which simply states that, yup, life in fact does suck/ is meaningless and tough tooties for you. Buddhism, on the other hand, takes a really optimistic view that’s more like, yeah, things suck sometimes, but that’s largely because you see it that way and, hey hey, you can practice an art that will fix that!
Folks aren’t wrong, however, when they say that Buddhism is kind of like psychology, because it really is about the way we see things, our perceptions. So, we suffer, quite simply, because we spend so much frigging time and energy either wanting what we don’t have (that chick, that job, that cool new carbon bike, those big quads, more money, a trip to the ocean, better grades) or not wanting we do have (this moment). We complain about not having this and wanting that instead and, poof, we SUFFER, MAAAAN. This is not to be misread for pain though – some things really do suck: broken legs, broken hearts, dying friends and family, getting fired, your house burning down, war and famine and all that other horrible shit. However, while something may hurt (pain), you aren’t suffering until you start to dwell on wanting it to go away (or wanting to feel another way); and THAT’S something you can help.
It sounds stupid, but you manage suffering by sitting with it. Yup, the art is just this: sit on a cushion and breath, let the thoughts come and go, don’t hold onto them, acknowledge them, say hi, shake the demon’s hand, and come back to the breath. Not every itch, physical or psychological, needs to be scratched. You learn that on the cushion. In your discomfort, thinking you should be doing something else, while your foot goes to sleep – you come back to the breath, be in the moment, and watch suffering separate from pain and then evaporate.
The bike is the same. I love me some trainer rides – where there’s no pretty landscape, no cool conversations with your homies, no dogs to outride, no coffee stops, just you and your bike and a whole lot of pain and sweat and heavy breathing. Honestly, it really is meditation on a different cushion – I close my eyes and focus on the body, listen to my heart, discern pain from suffering. I remember that I’m there by choice; I don’t want to be elsewhere, I don’t want this to stop, even though it does kinda suck. Suffering is something I am investigating – I paint with it, sing along, write stories with it.
And when I get off the bike, like when I stand from the cushion, I’m just a little better at being human. Just a little more kind and compassionate towards myself and others and this because I understand suffering just a tad more. Yeah man, Buddha woulda rode a bike.
There comes a point in every ride, no matter the length or strength, when the numbers fall away and it’s just me and the trees and the streams, clouds and curves of each road and every thought that doesn’t have the legs to keep up with me.
I call this ‘exercising the demons’.
This guy that I hang out with, whom we call The Mighty Fack, gave me a cool print one time created by musician, poet and bicyclist Ben Weaver that says “If there is a corrective action/ it is to always ride a bike,/ breathe more fresh air,/ use your hands to make things,/ go wandering,/ then come home & tell about it.” This strikes me as solid advice, mostly because it’s all too human and we could all use a little more human in our lives. So, let me tell you about demons.
In a nutshell: they want to undo you, subdue you; they are both the agents of Chaos as Destruction and the Tyrants of Order, they wish to unbalance you, destabilize the front wheel and chuck you ass-for-kettle into the ditch. Paradoxically enough, their impetus is to preserve you, to protect you against all of the seemingly malicious things and people and circumstances in the world. I didn’t say it is a good approach, it’s just what they do.
Here’s the real catch though – these demons are you: sure as the twist in your back, your preponderance for headaches, your inability to sleep more than four or five hours at a time, or your desire to flame out at every shittycomment on Facebook is definitely YOU. Demons are the manifestations of our worst selves, all the stuff that leads to poor life decisions, keeps you stuck in crummy relationships, keeps you regimented to the point of paralysis and seems to cause good things to burn up in your hands. You.
Chances are also good that while you see how they manifest in your life, you see the havoc they cause, youdon’t really know what they look like. If you’re like me, you really REALLY want to see them. For the longest time I wanted to kill them – and why not? They seemed to be the main cause of all the terrible things that happened to me.That’s the trouble though – see above: they aren’t the cause, you are, because you ARE the demons. You destroy and stifle your own life: with habits formed because you thought they were protecting you – yup, your anxiety, anger, anal ordering of your stuff, mistrust of others, inability to commit, which manifest as everything from generalized angst to back pain and insomnia to being a big shit all come from your tricks to cope with stuff; that is, to bury the pain instead of getting to the root cause. And those skills, those habits? Those are demons. Real ones – strong, persistent, self justifying, monsters of the mind and heart.
Know how I know? Because I have lots.
But here’s the thing: I don’t try to kill them anymore – first, because I discovered that they’re hydra, cut one head off and two more grow, and, second, because they are me and, quite honestly, I’m not interested in killing myself.
Buddha teaches compassion – kindness like a concerned parent gives to a hurt child. Not just to others, but to ourselves as well. Killing demons? Not so kind. So?
Things have been tough lately – lots of family things linked to the difficulties of age and sickness, lots of personal things surrounding art and feelings of what it is to be successful. And I built demons long ago to cope with these things, to scurry me into a protected tower while they raged in the wild against an unfair world. ‘I’m not understood’ and ‘It’s not fair’ are classics and really very powerful. But they also cause resentment, doubt, anger. Sound familiar?
Here’s the ticket: life, in no way or shape or form adheres to these feelings. On the other hand, life, actually IS thesethree things: impermanent, imperfect and impersonal. That is – things will change, things will never match your idealized view of how things ought to be (because goDAMNit you deserve health wealth AND power!), and that has nothing whatsoever to do with you.
And so, have a cup of coffee with your demons: go for a bike ride and listen to them – like a parent listens to a child though, don’t let them just rage, but reel them in. Tell them you care, that you understand they are hurt and then, in an act of real compassion, ask them what they want. Know what? Chances are they just wanted to be heard. Then they take a deep breath, sigh and say ‘thanks, I feel better’.
Are they gone? Hell no. They’ll be back, but maybe you’ll be better at not letting them throw you in the tower while they either destroy the world with chaos or tyrannize it with order. Demand balance. Ride your bike. Think and breathe. Let the demons rage and try to keep up – they need that. See the trees. Be there. Just for a bit. Meditation comes in all forms.
I like this bike; it’s not mine (maybe it’s yours), but it embodies its own story. Parked and locked behind an office building it whispers that it’s someone’s commute, that it sees regular trips to the grocery store and market, that while it is often left alone it is never lonely, knowing full well that the rider is close, coming back. Ready to roll. I love the colour and that, while the cranks are a bit rusty, the paint job is clean – she’s a bike that is stored inside when not here or maybe outside the record store/coffee shop/flower store on a Saturday morning. The rider never calls it a single speed, but prefers ‘Step through’. They watch good rom coms and have cool friends. Maybe they ride it wearing a skirt, or khakies and a suit jacket. Yeah, this bike is all chique.