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7 March 2016 1 comment

Mind is the Ride

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Mind is the Ride
Cycling and philosophy do not seem like obvious companions. Some would say the only thing that links the two is a preponderance of beards. However, philosophers have always wanted to take things apart to see how they work, much like the budding bike mechanic, and then put them back together again and see how they roll, much like a kid with a new bike. There is something so exhilarating about cycling, sweating up a hill and then racing down again, that it offers an unparalleled insight into the boundaries of human experience. What does it mean to feel pain and pleasure closely aligned? What does it mean to sense the whole extent of your body stretching and easing into the rough tread of a good ride? Can we measure these experiences objectively or are they only in the mind of the rider? What, after all, is the mind? Philosophers love this stuff. It’s like chocolate cake to them. Or croissant if you’re a continental existentialist. There’s a great story about the young Bertrand Russell (some would say the foremost British philosopher of the last hundred years) and the young George Bernard Shaw (big time orator and playwright, massive beard) detailed by Craig Brown in “Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings.”

The two intellectuals go off on their bicycles in mid Wales, George Bernard Shaw stops to read a signpost and Bertrand Russell crashes into him, knocking the playwright twenty feet in the air. George Bernard Shaw gets up, dusts himself off and continues on his way. Bertand Russell on the other hand, with bicycle broken and trousers ripped, has to go back home on the slow train while George Bernard Shaw rides along beside him, stopping at platforms along the way and sticking his head in Russell’s carriage to take the mickey. [caption id="attachment_16067" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="George Bernard Shaw: “A man needs to know how to use his brakes…”"][/caption] I like to think that some higher force (let’s not get into the metaphysical origin of higher forces right now) set these two great thinkers on an irreversible collision course, like a clunky Hadron collider, and from that point on philosophy and bikes were forever melded in an entirely new discipline. Let’s call it velosophy. The streets of Oxford and Cambridge, thronging with undergrads on rusting Raleigh’s, are a continuing experiment in the collision of bicycle mechanics and minds, colliding and multiplying into PhD theses at every junction. Truth, as ever, is stranger than fiction. Here is a video of someone cycling round the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva. Somewhere there must be a video of someone cycling around the CERN generator in the opposite direction. When I set off on a year-long bicycle trip from Bristol to India I slipped two books into my pannier bag, one was a slim volume on bicycle repair called “Simple Bicycle Repair (Fixing Your Bike Made Easy)” by Rob Van der Plas and the other was “The Problems of Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell, equally marginal in size, though with a slightly less appealing cover. Both promised simplicity. Four thousand miles later, both books dog eared and smeared with oil, I wasn’t quite so sure. Bicycle repair was never simple. It became quicker, but never simple; the vagaries of rust, dust, heat, rain, passing juggernauts, dogs trying to steal your bicycle pump, moped drivers offering you boxes of pomegranates, soon made that clear. As for the problems of Philosophy, they remained…problematic. As Russell suggests in a chapter called “The value of Philosophy” it is not that philosophy provides all the answers, more it provides a clearer set of questions. And cycling thousands of miles over the empty scrub of the Middle East, you end up with a lot of questions. Like, is the mind that is riding this bike, having these thoughts right now, an entirely different thing from the body that is riding it? And what is the mind anyway? And do I have to eat pasta for dinner? Again. [caption id="attachment_16061" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption=" Fixing punctures in Turkey"][/caption]

The tradition of philosophy that Russell helped to found, Analytic Philosophy, is more about understanding how concepts fit together, rather than how they can be applied to the experience of cycling four thousand miles with your life strapped to your bike. Indeed Western Philosophy as a whole, based mainly as it is on the Analytic tradition, doesn’t much help with the actual subjective experience of being on a bike.  Continental philosophy and the existential movement (forever associated with France and Jean-Paul Sartre) is a better bet. Existentialism is built on something called Phenomenology. Another big word in a small coffee cup but basically the study of how we perceive the world. Phenomenology asserts that there is no definitive object “out there” and that we all interpret the world with our own, very personal, perceptive traits. Existentialism claims we are material objects first. We exist first and then we develop a conscious understanding of the world by our individual perception of it, our essence. Existence precedes essence, like coffee granules precede coffee. The net outcome of this is that our lives are not pre-ordained, we map our own paths through life, even if we kid ourselves that we don't and it is fate that is in charge, pulling at our handlebars. [caption id="attachment_16073" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Jean-Paul Sarte riding his bike on the Champs Elysees"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_16064" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Jet McDonald riding his bike on the Champs Elysees (note he his going faster than the Porsche)"][/caption] It's a hard life being Mr or Ms Existentialist but an honest one lived in the moment. In fact, Existentialism has many similarities to philosophies of the East, its focus on the present and its understanding of the nature of consciousness. Eastern philosophies like Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism are bound up with practical exercises in the moment, and were always intended to be a part of everyday living and not a separate academic discipline. [caption id="attachment_16060" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Flying riding in Turkey"][/caption] When you’re on a bike eight hours a day, five days a week, it’s a very physical, outward, experience, and yet, paradoxically, also a very inward one, disappearing into your own thoughts for hours at a time. Making sense of this outward and yet inward journey requires a different approach to the stiff upper lip approach of Analytical philosophy and so when I came back from my long bike ride I became interested in the philosophies of the more distant lands that I travelled through. [caption id="attachment_16062" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Arriving in Iran. Head in the clouds. Body on the road."][/caption] What, I thought, if I did the ride all over again in my head? What if I sat still on my saddle and replayed the events in my mind, using Continental and Eastern philosophy to understand the experiences and Analytical philosophy to understand how they fitted together? That, surely, would be a brave, noble and utterly foolish thing to do. Never having been one to shy away from adventure I am now embarking on this very quest. I am travelling four thousand miles in my head, putting all the elements of the journey back together again like the parts of a bicycle. Indeed so useful is the metaphor of the bicycle (Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw both went on to use it in their writing) that it almost becomes like a language in itself. It feels no different to me now to be talking about Analytical Philosophy and the Bottom Bracket than it does to be flipping through the index of Mr Van der Plas’s volume of bicycle mechanics. [caption id="attachment_16068" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Plan for “Mind is the Ride”"][/caption] There’s a bowdlerised version of a Mark Twain saying that goes; “Travel broadens the mind but stillness deepens it.” Quasi-mystical this may sound but sitting here, itching my beard, going everywhere and nowhere, it makes a lot of sense. Cycling is unique in that it allows cyclists access to a certain kind of stillness whilst actually propelling them forward. Ask anyone who has coasted along the back roads on a sunny day. Of course you don’t need a PhD in Philosophy to enjoy riding a bike. I suspect more philosophers slip on their ankle clips to leave the lecture halls and the cobbled streets than to ride to work. But if you are interested in what makes cycling such a joyous, painful, easy, frustrating, life enhancing experience and therefore by extension what makes your life off the saddle such a ride, then philosophy is a good tool box to reach for. Regardless of the size your beard. [caption id="attachment_16063" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Beard in the Springtime. Italy."][/caption] “Mind is the Ride” by Jet McDonald is a Boneshaker book project being crowdfunded with Unbound publishers. You can find out more and contribute to the crowdfunding campaign by pledging for an advance copy of the book at https://unbound.co.uk/books/mind-is-the-ride  
Nearly 6 years later, after embarking on a two year bicycle tour, I'm currently reading "The Art of Stillness" by Pico Iyer. There are some things that resonate alongside this wonderfully, and quite, accurate piece.

I tell people I'm not a long distance cyclist or an adventurer...I'm just trying to make a career of sitting and thinking. Anyone that's spent years alone traveling, knows those moments looking out into an infinite horizon can bring some of the most intense emotions and life altering realizations about your existence and place in the universe.

The inner journey is as is important, if not more so, than the outer which I think many can agree with Jet McDonald. Thanks for this and looking forward to the publication.
Eleanor Moseman 23 May 2016 at 19:31