Einstein & the Art of Mindful Cycling

15 May 2015

Developing mindfulness is like developing any skill, such as playing a musical instrument, performing surgery, or flying a lunar module – the idea is to build and consolidate our capabilities in a controlled environment before applying our learning to real-life situations.

When we cultivate a sense of curiosity in meditation, we are hoping the effects will apply throughout the day and beyond. Alas, the bedlam of modern life sometimes overwhelms us and dulls our senses. Even people who regularly meditate may find it hard to stay mindful all the time.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually live more meditatively – practising as we go, on the hoof, with no distinction between the rehearsal and the performance?

This is where the bicycle comes in – a dream machine that blends meditation with movement; curiosity with velocity; mindfulness with mudguards. On a bicycle, you can achieve in a few weeks an art that Buddhist monks spend decades learning, and which the great Einstein encapsulated effortlessly: mindful living. No wonder the bicycle is often called the best invention in history – it’s a simple, easy-to-use device that can inspire us to wonderful psychological heights. Now that’s what I call a miracle.

The Reach of Cycling

There’s only one thing wrong with bikes, and it’s the one thing they have in common with Daleks – they can’t go upstairs. So, alas, we can’t be on bikes all the time. But we can ride to work and back, to the shops, to the seaside, to see friends, to take the kids to school, or even to the ends of the earth. Thanks to all these bicycle journeys and more, the modern world is richer in mindfulness.

And that’s not the limit of cycling’s positive influence. Not only do bikes enable us to combine mindfulness with living, they have the same spillover effect as conventional meditation. In other words, cycling makes us feel mindful throughout the day, even after we’ve hopped off our bikes. Any cyclist will tell you how alert yet calm, and energized yet relaxed they feel after cycling, and how much easier it is to concentrate. They’ll also tell you how much happier cycling makes them feel in general, and better connected with their communities.

With all these benefits to share, devout cyclists can sometimes sound a little bit evangelical about their passion, and come across as annoying, or even patronizing. But you can hardly blame them for their keenness to let others in on the secret. Often the cynicism directed at cyclists says more about others’ disillusionment, or even resentment – an exhilarated grin might look like a smirk if you’re stuck in traffic.

Or maybe people get irked because not all cyclists are saintly. There are plenty of mindless ways to cycle – on the pavement, the wrong way up a one-way street, without lights at night, through a stop sign, drunk, distracted by an iPod, in a blustering hurry, talking on a mobile phone, or with total ignorance of the rules of the road. When I talk about mindful cycling, I’m not talking about these inconsiderate cyclists.

Such people are, in a way, squandering an opportunity. Fostering mindfulness, I would say, is a bicycle’s true calling, its métier. Consider, for instance, how a hammock is perfectly designed for dozing in, and how any other use of it is either non-optimal (say, using it as a swing), or foolhardy (say, using it as a trampoline). Just as a bicycle can bring out the best in a person, mindful cycling brings out the best in a bike.

The Four Attitudes

Every cyclist knows that leaning too far in any direction upsets a natural balance. Using the human brain as a metaphor, we can think of each direction as representing one of the four attitudes. The left side of the brain specializes in understanding mechanisms, rules and artificial systems – so we can think of the practical attitude as left-leaning. The right side of the brain specializes in creativity, self-awareness and imagination – so the individual attitude can be considered as right-leaning. At the back of the brain are areas specializing in basic emotions and needs – so we can construe the local attitude as backward-leaning. Finally, the distinctively human frontal regions of the brain enable us see our lives in the context of a wider perspective – so the global attitude can be thought of as forward-leaning.

On a bicycle we remain centred – we manage not to lean too far forward or backward, left or right – in more ways than one. This is the art of mindful cycling – and the key to achieving balance in the modern world.

How I lost and regained my balance

When I was a teenager, I aspired to be a great thinker, a maverick – someone just like Einstein. I read avidly and kept a diary of theories, lyrics and philosophical thoughts. They were juvenile musings, of course. But the great thing about getting your inspiration from historical figures is that you don’t care what anyone else thinks.

I didn't care, for instance, that cycling in those days was considered unfashionable. I figured that getting to college in ten minutes on a bike was better than spending half an hour on a bus, even if I had to put up with my brother calling me a geek. As it turns out, he’s a keen cyclist these days (a fact I never tire of pointing out to him). But I suppose he was right about me being a geek. I ended up going to university where I lived up to my epithet and completed a PhD in philosophy.

Losing my Way

But throughout my education – I don’t know why – I gradually lost my balance. It wasn’t just that I stopped cycling (although it’s true, I did). It was that my life stopped going smoothly.

The standard things went wrong: my friendships, romances, family, health, career and lifestyle. While these problems were racking up, I wasn’t helped by my chosen vocation. Most philosophizing involves seeking out life’s dilemmas, paradoxes and puzzles; never accepting situations with all their conflicts and absurdities. I used to veer between extremes, either pushing too far in one direction, or pushing something important away in another. Even my ambition became a curse. I was focusing on the achievements of people like Einstein, but not on what I could learn from their journeys. I was never in the moment; never relaxed; never comfortable with the status quo; never really happy.

The Turning Point

And then I hit rock bottom. It was five o’clock in the morning, in December 2009, when I woke up face-down on the pavement somewhere in London, my head spinning, tears in my eyes, alone. I didn’t know what had happened, except that I’d been drinking. Cars were revving past, strangers were stepping over me. I had no money and there was no one I could phone. The wheels had well and truly come off my life.

It was not long after this that I took up cycling again. I’m not really sure why, but I started making the same kinds of local cycle trips I’d made as a boy – to the shops, friends’ houses, out and about in the evenings – and soon I was riding for the hell of it, exploring a side of London unknown to me even when I was growing up: peaceful canals, gorgeous city parks, intriguing backstreets and alleys.

So much beauty and possibility! And for so long it had been hiding behind a facade of shouty high streets and grimy windowpanes – that distracting veneer of familiarity which you never think to question.

Feeling Better

I was soon experiencing something different in myself: a nostalgic feeling that I can only describe as joy. Sometimes it would happen halfway down a freewheeling descent, or, with a touch of Schadenfreude, as I wove my way through a traffic jam, past grumpy-looking car drivers.

Other times it would happen for no obvious reason; maybe it was the wind ruffling the back of my hair; the glittering cityscape dancing from side to side in my vision like a grinning gospel choir; or a few friendly words exchanged with a fellow cyclist at the lights. I soon realized that this nostalgic feeling was also becoming a hopeful one. I began to look to the future from a place of happiness.

And so it was that I changed as a person, and gradually repaired the things that had gone wrong in my past. I’m not saying that cycling was the solution to all my problems; it’s just that being on a bike gave me a break from the rest of my life, a quiet place to draw inspiration from. Cycling helped me to think up solutions, and I soon found myself making constructive decisions off the bike too. It’s funny how these things snowball. That joyful cyclist cruising equably through the wilderness of life became the real me.

Moving on

I’m telling you this because it’s a journey anyone can make. The global economy hit rock bottom at around the same time I did. It seems that the whole damn system is a mess – with governments, the media, businesses and banks in collusion, and everyone pointing the finger at everyone else.

Amid the bedlam of claim and counterclaim it can be hard to imagine a way out. But some people have made it, just like Einstein did in his life, slipping quietly away from familiar distractions, and into those forgotten byways where wellbeing dwells and the chaos of modern life is balanced and becalmed.

If you haven’t made it yet, then this book is about how to cycle there. It’s easier than you might think. You never forget how to ride a bike.

Ben Irvine is a writer, entrepreneur and campaigner. He is the author of Einstein & The Art of Mindful Cycling, published by Leaping Hare Press.