Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cycle-topia: Bicycle Utopia

When I started this blog I was new to bike commuting, and a complete novice at anything cycling related.  I'm a little more experienced in that now, but I am a complete novice at the bicycle universe, or the bike-verse (or cycle-verse, still deciding on a good name); so every once and awhile I will mention some things I notice about this strange and exciting country.  Some thoughts from the bike-verse...


The word utopia comes to us from Sir Thomas More's 1516 work of that name.  It means the ideal place or perfect society, but it comes from the Greek roots for "the place that cannot be", or "no place". Being no place in particular means it cannot be defined or limited, but it also suggests that it cannot ever exist.

In his work, A Modern Utopia (1905), H.G. Wells writes:

"...But the burthen of the minor traffic, if not the whole of it, will certainly be mechanical.  This is what we shall see even while the road is still remote, swift and shapely motor-cars going past, cyclists, and in these agreeable mountain regions there will also be pedestrians upon their way.  Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia, sometimes following beside the great high roads, but oftener taking their own more agreeable line amidst woods and crops and pastures; and there will be a rich variety of footpaths and minor ways..."

A bit more than a century ago one man's ideal society included bicycles, everywhere.  The bicycle was by this point in history a normal part of daily life, and so it would have made plenty of sense to consider that it would continue on in such a fashion.  In the decades prior to the publication of A Modern Utopia bicycle technology had advanced to the point of a freewheel, coaster brakes, the pneumatic tire, and gearing systems (although not widely used); at the rate this technology was advancing it could perhaps have been the common sense of the times to conclude the bicycle would only increase in usefulness and usage.  And surely the bicycle has stayed with us, waxing and waning with the times.

The early '70s saw the only years when bicycle sales have ever exceeded car sales, due to an oil embargo.  These days bicycles are again making their way to the fore.

Do you know what a bicycle utopia looks like?  Do you live there? Can you point out the way?

In this age in which we live we have an abundance of transit options; all manner of ways of crossing water, sky, and land - most involving internal combustion engines - just as Wells presupposed.  We still have bicycles, such a joy!  Does a modern bicycle Utopia exist?  And if so where is it?

Many would point to Copenhagen as the paragon of the modern world for cycling quality.  More than 36% of trips in Copenhagen were taken on bicycles by 2009, with this being reported as high as 50% this year.  Cycling infrastructure abounds, separated cycle tracks, parking, air tanks for use refilling tires, etc.  The land is mostly flat, cycling so common place, and the winters are manageable so cycling has evolved adornment in an internationally recognized and followed Cycle Chic movement.

One of the great things about cycling is it doesn't have to come in any particular form, and bicycles are in their natural environment when they are being ridden, and so that utopia really is no place, as the bicycle is moving. But I digress....

Boston is certainly not a cycling utopia, but it is my cycling country.  There are beautiful paths, some new and some old and in need of better maintenance.  The Dudley White path was my main commute route in the Waltham days.  We have miles of new bike lanes all round the city, and what debuted last week - the North Bank Bridge. (More here)

At last one can cycle from the Esplanade on the Boston side to the Charlestown Navy Yard if one so desires.  I haven't gone over it myself yet, but as soon as I do you'll get a scenic vista shot with Charlie looking snazzy by the Zakim.

Cycling around Boston gets better every day, not just because of Mayor's Menino's pledge that the car is no longer king in Boston, but because every day I realize more and more how much I love this.  

Pedaling to Utopia...?

Thinking about joining a Randonneur event, I'd like to go a long, long way - I have so much more to learn, as the bike-verse teaches me daily, for this I might need gears...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Earthly Desires and such

After having read a few things, about ladies and gentlemen, and the ways things relate between us - and having some conversations (although not with this in mind); some thoughts began to brew.  Ever since I became more active in the cycle-verse; I've noticed some differences, and not just in the dress code.

Here in the cycle-verse, there are a lot fewer ladies.  We seem to be the minority species, from company headquarters, to group rides, to people writing about bikes - there don't seem to be as many ladies.  And the lens through which we are viewed, and view, is quite interesting.

Speaking to one bicycle lady at a lady's ride recently, she remarked that we're more pieces of meat than anything.  Reading comics of the great Bikeyface, we get a poignant and light-hearted perspective.  Following the Lovely Bicycle, one encounters helpful advice and beautiful images.  The voices of the lady cyclist are definitely out there, there just aren't as many of us.

So in an industry dominated by the gentlemen-type half of the species we notice some differences, which I suppose is how the rest of this thought tangent evolved....


Some time ago a friend introduced me to the writings of Yashar Ali, in the Huffington Post.  He primarily writes about gender and gender relations.  I was not a Women's Studies major, although I had plenty of friends who were, and took a few classes - so I am somewhat familiar with the academic approach to this subject. (And this tangent lacks academic rigor!)  In one of his articles about neediness, he takes the stance that women bear the brunt of carrying, what he calls in another article, the stiff upper lip of our relationships.  He writes that women are socially conditioned to put their needs on hold, or just swallow them without ever asking for these needs to be met.

Pause:  Taking a moment to talk about the difference between having needs and neediness.  Some of this is reflections from another article on A New Mode by Eric Charles.  Having needs, e.g. food, air, water, a place to live; these being some of the most basic and obvious needs shared across our species.  Although, depending upon who you talk to many more things are necessary on the most basic level (e..g. a bicycle, love, chocolate?). Neediness, something you're allowed as a child, but not as an adult in an ideal world. Neediness (as I use it here): inability or unwillingness to self-validate, seek worth and identity outside one's self, judge value from external sources, define self by an outside source (e.g., one's partner).  

Press play button: What Eric Charles points to in his advice column is building a self that is strong and confident, that does not require another person for identity and sense of value, a stand alone spirit, if you will.  What Yashar Ali observes occurring with women, is that they (we) don't want to be seen as needy and so they remain silent, devaluing themselves in the process.  He points out his impression that men ask for what they need, straight and simple; yet somehow the equivalent for women makes them needy...

In recent conversations with ladies in my life on relationships, especially those that have come to an end recently - I've seen some common trends; a pattern in my generation?  Putting them all together we notice a feeling of onesided-ness, that the one doing the breaking up had extended comfort, understanding, and met every need and want of the other - often being shook off, or ignored when presenting a completely understandable need to be met in the relationship.  (And in case you're wondering I'm drawing on conversations undertaken with folks in all sorts of relationships, not just heterosexual ones, although those have been the majority.)  

Earthly Desires are Enlightenment

There is an idea in Buddhism compressed into "earthly desires are enlightenment".
Simplified and yet somehow long explanation: Early Buddhist teachings sought to eliminate all desire, primarily through ascetic practice - as desire was understood to be the root of all pain and suffering.  Over the course of time the Buddha's teachings evolved, from a simple "just get rid of it", to something deeper.  In short and simple terms, we need desire - it drives us to eat, sleep, procreate; the species wouldn't survive without it.  It's rather necessary; but what do we do about it, because honestly it is a rather unruly thing and makes us do all sorts of things that are rather not that good for us (and that is of course, putting it extremely gently).  So another idea out of the later Buddhist teachings (Mahayana), is that each and every life, regardless of our circumstances, has within it the inherent, completely endowed, capacity for Buddhahood, i.e. the equivalent capacity to be a Buddha as the Buddha (see also: mutual possession of the Ten Worlds).  It's frequently dormant and has to be activated or awakened ("Buddhanature, activate!"?), that's were a practice comes in but that's a different story.  The idea goes, because of this fundamental Buddha capacity, i.e. Buddhanature, each and every part of our lives, even the gristly, yucky parts - even pesky desire- has an enlightened capacity to it.  That doesn't mean we run rampant across the known world justifying crappy behavior.  There's a lot of self discipline and introspection here, its tough.  (But I suppose anything really worthwhile requires a bit of work.)  We learn through going through life, making mistakes, introspecting and challenging ourselves to grow fundamentally as people to be aware, truly awake to the nature of our lives; and to cultivate those better desires, and when we do completely mess it up, to find the enlightened capacity of our desires; and so our lives grow.

Press play button: So we need our desires, they drive us to do the necessary life stuff, to keep on living, to maintain our species - on the most basic level.  They make us try to improve our circumstances, strive to better ourselves.  Our needs have an enlightened capacity, especially when we are aware, and not just reactive.  When your partner is needy (be it true neediness or just presenting a need), there are many possible replies; which are often reflective of  how things are with you (i.e., your life-conditition).  We can be, perhaps we have been, perhaps we are - the sort of partner that cannot self-validate, that requires another to have an identity, who's needs must be met before the other person's can even be heard, who cannot or will not face the difficult things head on.  (Or been with this sort of person.)

Needs to do mean neediness, there's a difference.  As women (and men too I suppose, but I'm not going to be presumptuous to claim to know what it is to be a man, as I am female.) we must express our needs and not fall silent due to fear.  If you are strong in your own existence, not an island, but have a stand alone spirit to know yourself without depending on others -  know that if that person cannot hear you, or will not hear you, when you state your needs, then this is not the right person.  Yashar Ali points out that some relationships go on for years because one party is just waiting for the other to become the person who can give back, it is a rare change to encounter.  Many of these ladies I have spoken to ended relationships where that was just the case, and for many of us it didn't take quite as long to catch on as before, we're learning.  And that person will be alright, there are plenty of people in the world who will wait for them to become a giver, and sometimes the role reverses (see How I Met Your Mother episode about being kept on a hook).  Not settling for less is constantly driven home in Eric Charles' columns.

Bicycles and Life

As lady cyclists we don't have to dress-wearing, dutch bike riding, basket wielding, high-heel donning riders if we don't want to, or we can be.  Ride your bike, that's what matters - and here I'm using this as simile for life.  You cannot be told who and how to be, it is ultimately your life - and yes there are many, many places in the world where women have little to no say in their lives, that's for another post altogether - stand tall, be yourself.  Needs have an inherently enlightened aspect, dare to know yourself, dare to move beyond fear and say it like it is.  (Even wear cowboy boots if you want.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Shouting for Humanism

This comes to mind in regard to a few articles:
Boston based cyclist blogger on cycling in suburbs:
Video interview with London mayor on the cycling in London:
Report by British Medical Association on transit:

One thing becomes abundantly clear - there are people shouting for humanism, and it's happening to the tune of bicycles.


As one proceeds to listen to the interview with London mayor, Mr. Boris Johnson, one hears him speak about the future of cities.  The Economist, and others reported this spring that for the first time in human history, more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas. And this is expected to increase in the coming decades.  We'll be stacked nearer each other than we have ever been.

To paraphrase some history: It's been the trend for many a decade to put industry and economics first when planning any sort of domestic policy for building projects and civic development.  So much so that for a long time cities were dying, at the time of the rise of the suburb.    But as the times change we are seeing a different sort of cry.

The British Medical Association (BMA) published a report (over 100 pages!) on how national policies have hurt the health of the nation - particularly in regards to transit policies.  The physicians argue that the vast majority of policy decisions have been made for the benefit of the automotive industry, and at the cost of the nation's health.  They said something similar back in 1997 and nobody listened, and yet somehow the same problems still exist, and in many cases have been exacerbated.

The UK, as well as the United States, has been undergoing intense debates over the exorbitant cost of health care.  The UK's system has historically been more "socialist" or "universal" (pick your description based on your ideology~) than that of the United States, and the government has been seeing the rising costs put to the national treasury in a very serious way for quite some time now.  The BMA posits that making civic decisions based on the health of the nation as first concern is the only way to proceed.

In the interview with Mr. Johnson, we see him making the point that cities must be more mindful of their occupants and design "villages" within a city.  Clean, green, and enjoyable public spaces must become the to-go logic.  Local Massachusetts based blogger IsolateCyclist asks for common sense in the suburbs.

What we see coming from these places, on both sides of the Atlantic, this cry to pay attention to the future.  There are entire movements devoted to this, such as the Boston area's own Liveable Streets.


One way to look at all this is a shift in ideology.  Rather than bigger is better, faster is better, industry wins - we see a shift in concern in toward the human being.  Let's bike to be healthier, let's make decisions to benefit people's daily lives, let's make beautiful cities.  Human beings as primary concern instead of economic afterthought.

And one great way to achieve all this is with bicycles.  Who would have ever thought?

And check it out - making humanistic decisions can be economical too:

"Active forms of transport, such as cycling and walking, are highly cost effective forms of transport. To the individual, walking has few costs associated with it, while the costs associated with cycling are minimal compared to those of motorised transportation. Active travel contributes savings to healthcare budgets, in terms of savings on treating chronic illness. Transport-related physical inactivity in England is estimated to cost £9.8 billion per year to the economy. This figure is in addition to the £2.5 billion in healthcare costs spent annually on treating obesity. "A 2007 Cycling England report that estimated the economic value of cycling, found that the health benefits could be valued at £87-300 per cyclist per year, depending on their age, fitness level, and neighbourhood. This did not account for the substantial social benefits of cycling, which include offering more independence to children, improving the quality of life for communities and, in some areas, supporting tourism. "A 50 per cent increase [in cycling] could lead to health savings of £1.3 billion…All [international] studies reported highly significant economic benefits of walking and cycling interventions. The median result for all data identified was a benefit to cost ratio of 13:1 and for the UK, the figure was higher at 19:1." -from the BMA article

So perhaps, by making humanism the common sense of the nation, our economies can prosper as well.  I may not live long enough to see the long term effects of all this, but I certainly would love to hear more folks joining in on this chorus of humanism.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Raw, uncut, uncouth
devoid of filters
the earth and sky complete and whole
the road is full of holes
shaky trespass across uncertain darkness
we fly through the night
twinkling like stars

new connections born of
an unspoken solidarity
drawn from many places
and yet no place

the sea calls
the sky erupts
we cavort in the night with explosions of light
the adventure continues into the small hours
lost but not alone
the horizon beckons from the promontory
the city a halo of light around the harbor

she stands shining in the night
surrounded by a fence we climb
to navigate around locked gates
the wind a sweet melody
on our faces after the swift climb

we descend with gravity
back through the labyrinthine streets
some parting here and there
the tenuous connections split asunder
this was a brief encounter
in the hidden night

but it is not the last or the only
a melancholy parting
but it fades with the dawn
refreshed and new

welcome to the full moon ride

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Tour de What You Will by Jessie Calkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License