The Grit in the Grease

For those of you who’ve been wondering where I’m making my connections between cycling, meditation and other Buddhist ideas, here’s a draft of the prologue to my forthcoming travelogue. I’d love to know what you think.

Prologue: The Grit in the Grease

Morpheus: “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
The Matrix.

Dukkha is usually translated from Pali – the language of the Buddha – as ‘suffering’, but it doesn’t have to be as strong as that. It can be just a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that something is not quite right, that things could be better or less painful. Boredom is dukkha. Being skint is dukkha. Feeling trapped or unattractive is dukkha. It’s the grit in the grease in the hub of the wheel of your life, of my life, of everyone’s life. It causes friction. It causes illness. It slows things down. And, if it’s not routinely attended to, eventually the axle seizes and everything becomes stuck.
One trick is to keep moving, because it’s only by being on the move that you know that you aren’t stuck. Another is to be still, because it’s all about balance.
Czech Republic, July 2007.
As I round the shoulder of the hill on the climb up and away from Uhersky Brod, heading South-west towards the Slovakian border, the valley below is green, beautiful and benign. I can see the road to come curve down into the valley towards Starý Hrozenkov and rise again along the banks of a spangly-prince of a river, the Vapanice, to Horná Súča and hills beyond the border. A mile away, the customs shed. A single storey, creamy-coloured concrete block in the melting Sun; a people-petrol station with twenty times the asphalt, and an aluminium canopy you could play tennis on, where logo-spattered, long-haul trucks and men in caps and bomber jackets trade papers and ship shed-loads of sap-wet spruce between sharp white lines.
The sky, blue-glass and clear, holds fresh mountains and warm roads in my eyes. Slovakia graces the horizon with welcome cloud-wisps and the promise of more beyond. Long, dry grasses stand still and untroubled. Forget-me-not and buttercup-peppered pastures roll away south. Bristle-thistles beckon bees, and wildlife goes about its business with the unconcerned and blissful ignorance of the abundant time it always has, and yet people struggle to find. In the woods to my left, sloping northwards up the hillside, the taki-taki buzz-click of a woodpecker’s assault ricochets through crispy, spruce-soaked air as its beak – obsidian black and shockproof – attacks the trees for termites.
An hour before noon, on a July day you’d wish for any friend’s wedding, the road surface is not yet hot enough to soften and cover the tyres with grit, as it will later. I don’t do well over thirty degrees; I’ve been told by Italian’s that I am ‘a man of the North’, all thick hair and Saxon. But my bike is fine and my body feels great. My lungs are clear, nothing hurts and everything is intact. Even without Lou Reed, it’s a perfect day. But I am fuming; I am absolutely bloody furious.
I scan the scene for a reason. Nothing: absolutely no reason at all for any angst of any kind. There is nothing in the world around me to hang my rage on, nothing to blame for the angle-grinder shower zip-sparks snarling in my head, searing from one synapse to the next, listing every slight or insult I’d ever received; every rejection and disappointment; every betrayal and injury and hurt I’d ever known. They were scrolling across the screen of my mind like a catalogue of crimes against my precious humanity. In the air on the Earth where I stand, right there, I am free as I can be; travelling light and alone by bike from Prague to Krakow without obstacle or enemy. I am in a beautiful place on a beautiful day with no stress or pressure of any kind and yet, I’m not happy. Not even close. I have a thunderstorm in my head.

The late meditation teacher, S.N.Goenka, told a tale to illustrate the importance of learning the art of managing your mind.

One day, on board a ship, there was a sailor and a scholar. The scholar looked at the ocean and asked the sailor for the name of the current, its speed and direction. The sailor replied, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know, Sir. It is not my job to know that.’
‘You mean you haven’t studied oceanography?’
‘Oh no, Sir, I have not studied it.’
‘Then you have wasted a quarter of your life! How can you go to sea and not study the currents?’
A while later the scholar looked up at the sky and asked the sailor: ‘What kind of clouds are they, and where do they come from?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know. It is not my job to know that.’
‘You mean you haven’t studied meteorology?’
‘Oh no, Sir, I have not studied it.’
‘Then you have wasted a quarter of your life! How can you be a sailor and not study the weather?’
Later that afternoon, land came into sight and the scholar asked the sailor: ‘What kind of mountains are those? Of which rock are they made?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know. It is not my job to know that.’
‘You mean you haven’t studied geology?’
‘No, Sir. I am so sorry, Sir. I have not studied it.’
‘Then you have wasted a quarter of your life! How can you travel the world and not study geology?’
Feeling despondent and troubled by his own ignorance, the sailor made his way below.
Within an hour, a massive jolt shuddered through the hull of the ship. People started to panic and run around, desperately asking each other what was going on. The sailor came running up the steps and over to the scholar, who was leaning on the rail.
‘Quick, Sir, we have hit a reef. The ship is going to sink. We must swim to the shore. Come on, there is no time to lose!’ The scholar looked aghast and replied: ‘But I am a scholar. I have spent my life in a library; I have had no time for swimming.’
‘You cannot swim, Sir?’
‘No, I can’t.’
‘Oh, Sir, then it is a terrible tragedy. If you cannot swim then you will surely drown. You have wasted your whole life!’

I am an adequate cyclist, a competent mechanic and a reasonable map-reader. I can make camp almost anywhere, and I can usually manage to communicate with most people most of the time in most situations. I have always found cycle-touring uplifting and conducive to my happiness but, even with a good degree in psychology, I was failing to manage my mind, to manage my thinking. And that was why, on this glorious day, I was in a foul mood and furiously unhappy. In that moment, on that hillside, I realised I needed to learn to swim. On a bicycle.

This is the story of two bike rides, along the same road travelled twice, half a lifetime apart. Both were undertaken in order not to get stuck. By paying attention.

About richardthewriter2013

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