Mindful cycling: staying alert, staying alive

A representation of the Dharmachakra or Buddhist eight-spoked wheel
The Dharmachakra or Buddhist eight-spoked wheel, representing the Noble Eightfold Path, from the Konârak Sun temple in Odisha, India. One of the spokes of this bicycle-like wheel is for mindfulness. Photograph: Saamiblog/Flickr

Mindfulness training courses and books will usually recommend everyday activities such as taking a shower or doing the washing-up as opportunities to exercise your powers of concentration. The idea is that by focusing on these simple, routine tasks – paying attention to what your body is doing and what your senses are telling you – you can calm the wayward thoughts that for the rest of the day chase each other through the corridors of your mind like overexcited children.

Humdrum activities that don’t require much brainpower, such as washing the dishes and showering, are perfectly good ways to practise your mind-taming skills, but their very ordinariness can make them a challenge. It’s a struggle to stay focused.

I know, that’s the idea – to be mindful even of the mundane – but for a novice like me, how much easier it would be to apply mindfulness to an everyday task that involves a more stimulating visual scene, loud noises, physical exertion and the ever present threat of injury?

Like cycling in the city. Urban streets are a rich source of interest, an ever-changing theatre for the senses: there are the cooking and coffee smells from restaurants and cafes you pass by, the million leafy greens of trees to note, the roar of the traffic in your ears and the infinite variety of pedestrians to observe as they go about their lives.

I’ve been cycling to and from work in London for the past six years, but despite this succession of sense impressions, I have usually arrived at my destination without taking much in. My journey has often been an almost unbroken train of angry thoughts about work, occasionally interrupted by angry thoughts about other road users. As for the small matter of cycling – turning the pedals and steering a safe course between the speeding cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes – that has been almost entirely automatic.

I’m an experienced cyclist so my autopilot is perfectly competent, but I realise I’ve been lucky all this time. I know that constant vigilance is the secret of staying safe when cycling in the city: you must operate on the assumption that you are invisible to other road users. Drivers will cut you up or pull out in front of you, usually because they haven’t seen you, but sometimes because as the master of a four-wheel-drive top-of-the-range motor vehicle they unconsciously assume that they have precedence over a mere push bike. You must therefore be ready at all times to brake, get out of their way, or risk a collision. In London, buses and lorries are particularly hazardous for cyclists who don’t keep their wits about them.

So that’s one very good reason to remain mindfully vigilant while out and about on your bike. Another is that there is something about cycling on busy streets that brings out the beast in men (it’s always men). Angry confrontations between drivers and cyclists are commonplace, perhaps because of the considerations of road safety mentioned above.

The foolishness of pedestrians stepping into the road without looking can also shred the nerves of an unwary cyclist and fire up the temper of the most passive secular Buddhist. Uniquely on my own route to and from work – uniquely in the whole world in fact – there is the Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles, where pedestrians step into the road and freeze in mid-stride while their friends on the pavement, or standing in the middle of the road, photograph them. In their excitement at emulating their idols crossing the road outside Abbey Road Studios on that famous album cover, they’re oblivious to the traffic. This always infuriates me, and I’m liable to bear down on the fans furiously ringing my bell.

I’m not proud of this “unskillful” behaviour. Anger, no matter how righteous, is one of the three defilements that cause so much suffering. I might also declare here my envy of the aforementioned drivers in their expensive cars, which is a manifestation of greed, and my self-centered impatience in heavy traffic, which is a product of delusion.

These wayward thoughts and emotions are worthy focuses for mindfulness for the urban cyclist.

So there’s plenty here to stop my mind from wandering and keep me safe as I’m on my way to and from work, quite apart from the pressure of the pedals on the soles of feet and the rhythmic straining of leg muscles. Mindful dish-washing isn’t half as engaging.

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