I started riding a bicycle in NYC when I was a wee lad in 1976. It’s a story that evolves for several reasons, not least of which my understanding of the profundity that’s intrinsic to the simplicity ripened over time.
But first, a little background.
I had just finished Bard College, a progressive, liberal arts school in Annandale-on-Hudson, upstate New York. I studied literature and in my senior year, self-designed a major in Comparative Mythology with minors in dance and theater. I was focused on the archetypal psychology of Dr. Carl Jung and the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell. Campbell was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College then, all the while I was co-directing and acting in pieces in traditional and experimental theater playing with archetypal and mythical themes.
A girlfriend at the time was studying at Sarah Lawrence and invited me down from Bard to take a class with Campbell. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t take her up on it and have the chance to meet and sit in on one of Campbell’s classes to meet one of my mentors in person.
It was an intellectually fertile time. I was thriving with the excitement of the burgeoning possibilities life as a college graduate had to offer. And curiously, during this intellectually fertile time, bicycling in NYC and its physical exertion was about to become one of my primary pleasures.
The first thing I did as a graduate fresh from Bard was to travel with a theater group to Baltimore to an Experimental Theater Festival to which we were invited to perform our original piece called The Seabirds of Isabella, based on Bartok’s 4th Quartet. David Schechter was the director and I was the dramaturg. A wild, improvisational piece, it seemed well received.
Parked at the Festival was a large, yellow school bus which, I learned, used chicken dung as its fuel. Really? My open eyes were opening wider. Could it be? It’s true that Nature uses everything as fertilizer or fuel. Are we or are we not, Nature Herself?
At that time, this was an abstract idea to me at best. But I was young and on a learning curve.
Upon returning to my family’s home in Connecticut for a few hours after returning from the Theater Festival, I immediately re-packed my bags, hopped on a train to Grand Central and moved into NYC with my former college roommate into an apartment right across from one of the greatest old, second-hand bookstores in NYC (and perhaps the country), The Strand, where I would find myself working after completing a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology a few short years later.
We moved into this apartment because we had both been accepted into the Summer Latin Institute on at the CUNY Graduate Center on West 42nd St. for an intensive, Army-style program of learning at least three years of Latin in just less than three months. A Herculean effort to say the least. But one that matched my intellectual thirst for knowledge in general and my love affair with language. Greek, Sanskrit and Hebrew—the phonetics of each were more sonorous and were my favorites but Latin was what was offered that summer and I welcomed it.
How would we get to school as poor, just-graduated college students to midtown Manhattan every day? The subway was pretty cheap but not really convenient.
The best-priced method and most time-efficient, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was to bicycle.
But in 1976, a handful of only the hardiest biked in NYC. There were no provisions for bicyclists then either on the streets nor provision in the minds of drivers or cabbies. No driver had even the notion of a bicyclist streaming down the street next to them. We simply weren’t in their purview. What that means is that often, even if we were right next to them, they didn’t see us!
In the 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know?! there’s a scene of a Native American Indian looking on in the distance over the ocean. There was a far-off ship and though gradually moving in the direction of the shore, he couldn’t see it because he had had no idea that a ship beyond a canoe even existed. It just hadn’t (yet) been in his world. As a result of not having even the idea of its existence, it was gaited out of his perception.
So too were bicyclists gaited out of driver’s perception in NYC in 1976.
As a result, we rode at risk. However, this didn’t interfere with the fantastic fun we were able to have, swerving in and around the cars like we were skiers on a slalom course. We just had to be very mindful. This is where the Tao of bicycling really comes in and gets better and sweeter over time.
It’s not horsepower but manpower, generated by the will to move, the power that gets the bicycle petals to turn and the wheels to move. It’s exciting and fast-paced. The agility of the bicycle and its drivers as instruments allows for a full-bodied leaning into a turn and to slalom, just as one would on skis. It’s darn hard to describe but delightfully dynamic to do.
This movement is more akin to dance than it is to say, a run or a jog. Movement, rhythm, syncopation and speed all come into play. There is also the element of risk and danger which amplifies the activity, up-leveling it to a world-class game. One needs to be highly focused and seriously attentive to reduce risk and fully engage the movement.
While dancing in the streets, as Martha and the Vandellas would say, one would have to be centered, focused and attention steadfast to stay safe yet move at the tempo of the traffic.
You’re beginning to see ‘the dance at play’ and how agile, sensitive, resilient and interactive one must be to both stay safe, have fun and to get smoothly from point A to point B.
It is a flow. One must be in utter synch with the movement around oneself, both the vehicular traffic and the other bicyclists. There is a movement of energy forward, a momentum, that feels really good and as with good sailing, the wind is to your back.
Well, most of the time. The wind isn’t always at one’s back in bicycling in NYC or in life. Life, I think we would agree, is a process of overcoming obstacles and resistance, as is riding on streets that are both smooth and with a plethora of potholes all the while enjoying the twists and turns, the successes and the defeats, learning every inch of the ride.
Riding west, the wind is most always blowing against you and pedaling is really challenging due to the aerodynamic resistance. Yet if one is returning “home” and that is southerly and easterly, one gets the joy of the wind to the back and one is ‘back’ to the flow once again.
The wind dynamics are probably is determined by the fact that Manhattan is flanked by two rivers and the sea breezes coming off of them as they do. I’m not sure of the geomantic implications here but I am sure that they are there!
The centered skier
Many years ago, I was asked to design a program based on the principles described in a wonderful book called The Centered Skier. A colleague and I were flown out to the Colorado Rockies to “meet and greet the slope” as preparation for merging with the mountain’s ‘chi’, a pre-cursor to moving and flowing down it and with it.
The program I designed used hypnosis, guided imagery and principles found in psycho-cybernetics. We were using the idea that when one watches a fine skier (or athlete of any type), through the watching them on a big screen in a dark room, the student, hovering between alpha and theta brainwave states, embodies the imagery, the movement and literally feels the twists and turns, swerves and slaloms in his own body.
One is learning bio-mimetically. While one watches the skier in the film, through vicarious experience, the nervous system, muscles, skeletal system, are moving right along with what is being watched. This was the psycho-physiological basis of the program. Add to this, centering, grounding and neuro-chemically flying! This is Super-learning.
This is the idea of entering “The Zone”, a euphoric, “bliss” state. As one skis and dances down the mountain, breathing in the deliciously fresh air, the blood vessels blossom, the chi is flowing and the endorphins are reproducing like rabbits.
Mind clear, heart expanding, Spirit calm.
It’s hard to describe and so hard to convey the experience that the Sufis say, “It’s like sending a kiss by messenger.”
For tennis, there are several more books outlining similar principles of sports theory along with those of ancient wisdom traditions from the East. A couple of those popular books are The Inner Game of Tennis and The Zen of Tennis.
I do not ride motorcycles but the few times I have, there is certainly an exhilaration while blowing in the wind and banking turns so one is close to ‘hugging earth’ yet maintaining a level of balance on the wheels and simultaneously one’s own center of gravity.
I’ve experienced this more on scooters and yes, of course, on bikes. To further corroborate the contagion of fun involved in this “art of sport”, the once very popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, yet again makes clear the relationship between mind, body & vehicle, moving as One through space and time as One Being.
My bike often feels like an extension of my own body, another limb.
There’s another important point for learning while touring on a bike in NYC or anywhere else really.
Courtesy, kindness and respect. Looking out for another’s safety, ease and well-being is critically important for healthy, happy, effective bike-riding. If one doesn’t practice these more than swerving around cars, one has missed the point and has to go back to the beginning.
This is a perfect place to learn courtesy and look out for fellow bicyclists, drivers and pedestrians. Going behind all of them instead of in front of them is very courteous and respectful. Slowing down at the right moment and exercising patience is of highest importance. If someone gets hurt, go help them. There is a rich nomenclature of non-verbal cues between the parties.
If one gets nothing else from bicycling than this, even short of the “joy of slalom”, one has learned something of lasting value through the art of bicycling.
These cultivated virtues are applicable to riding bikes and every bit in riding the wave of life.
The Tao of bicycling includes how we relate to and show respect for others. Just as I learned about chicken dung powering a school bus at the Theater Festival when I was in my early 20’s, even though my primary career was humanistic psychology, the environment and Earth Herself were always vital to me. I found myself evolving a psychological purview that had not our personal, “local” mother at its center (though highly important) but Mother Earth at the center, and how we relate to both as both archetypal and material.
As a consequence of my protective, restorative tendencies, my feelings toward and for Pachamama (the Quechua language of the Andes for Mother Earth), I engaged in several eco-entrepreneurial projects aimed at reducing the carbon footprint, regenerative practices and zero-waste. One project, you won’t be surprised to hear, is ‘waste to-energy’ in which human “waste” is converted to bio-fuel, very akin to chicken dung-to-bio-fuel.
On the psychology side, I developed a modality I call Therapeutic Theater, which gives one an experience of empathy and understanding, standing in another’s shoes. On the environmental side, I promote zero-waste and eco-projects designed to mimic Mother Nature and to align ourselves with her incredible, invincible intelligence.
Those intellectually fertile years ‘back then’ fertilized who I have become, both in my future and now my present.
Bicycling in NYC is just this kind of thing. Transportation with zero-waste, no toxic emissions and low carbon footprint on one hand and developing a centered, balanced character on the other.
The Tao of bicycling goes further and inwardly deeper. The maintenance of center, of ground, of one mind one with the environment, of connectedness to all while swooshing with the swerves, slaloms, fast, slow, twists, turning on a dime, risk avoidance and both play and joy are what it’s all about. Funny as it sounds, it sure looks like life itself.
In short, the Tao of bicycling (anywhere) allows for the confluence of someone who is Mother Nature-sensitive, spiritually alive and movement- attuned.
So what may look like a ride in the park to others out there, inwardly is actually a moment of mindfulness and Enlightened Play with aligned mind-body-spirit with a bicycle as one’s partner in a dance.