Thursday, July 28, 2011

It's Like Riding a Bicycle: Balance and Motion

It is said that our greatest joys reside in our simplest pleasures, and there are few pleasures simpler than riding a bike. The action is smooth, elegant, and repetitive, the connection to the world profound, the thrill of utter self direction - of pedalling under no fuel save your own motive power, unrivalled. It's a wonderful feeling post-adolescence when something that has eluded you all your life suddenly clicks into place; finally comprehending a new language, discovering new social rhythms, or in my case balancing my torso over a $25 street bike along the meridians of New York City, all without the use of handlebars.

Now, it must be said that my childhood was a mess of bike accidents and careless slip ups from the moment my father removed my training wheels. My mother dubebd me the 'absent minded professor' for my propensity to focus on one problem or idea to the point of distraction at best and obsession at worst, and I devoured math problems, video games, and adult literature with a single - minded devotion. Though these efforts were understandably applauded in school, at home they had their own unique consequences. My mother's favorite refrain to me was "Al-ways be a-ware of your sur-ROUN-dings" - spoken in a metronomic rhythm which can only be derived from extreme repetition. And its true - all too often as a child I was off in my own little world, which is great when you're devouring advanced math workbooks or inventing stories and poems, but has unintended costs when behind the wheel Of a bike. I ran straight into mailboxes, vaulted over friends who braked too suddenly for my delayed reaction, chipped a tooth when my upper body failed to sync up with my lower and I slammed into the unyeilding pavement below.

This mind/body disconnect, a malaise unnaturally common in the members of my generation, did not just extend to my performance behind the wheel. While dancing as a child, my shoulders shrugged up like Lurch from the Addams Family. At little league, or any other sport demanding advanced hand/eye coordination, the only compliment I recieved from my coaches was 'good eye,' which was my reward for not swinging at a baseball which I had never even seen. If moving my body or tracking a ball were too much for my adolescent psyche, riding a bicycle hands free was never a remotely attainable goal for me - it wasn't even within the scope of my ambition. Perhaps this is why, at the ripe old age of 24, it came as such a welcome surprise that hands free biking, along with dancing, tracking moving objects, and meditation, have slowly been added to my repertoire.

Our most meaningful changes tend to be our most gradual ones, and in truth these innovations didn't come out of the blue. For the past year I have been developing some basic skill at yoga and meditation in an attempt to become more rooted in my body, an effort to make reparations for my largely cerebral larval state. I've been working to improve my balance, groundedness, and footing, and the side effect is that, though it was never my conscious intention, I can now look cooler than I ever have in my life astride two wheels. At the rate I am developing, perhaps even unicycling will be in my future - yet I cannot imagine myself looking freer than I do with my spine balanced straight above an elevated seat, my legs pedalling freely, my arms akimbo in the summer wind.

But this evocation brings me to my first point: any progress in life can be reduced down to how well it unites two seemingly disparate forces: that of balance and that of motion. Motion without balance results in an erratic trajectory in any endeavor - when power comes suddenly, without proper guidance or foresight an irreprable tragedy can result, as happened in a macrocosmic sense in Germany in the 1930s or on a smaller scale, in the life and unfortunate passing of Amy Winehouse. Balance without motion is less visible but also unfortunate, and seen in cloisters everywhere. The spiritual seer who can concieve of the perfect unity of the cosmos, the unity of reality, and the oneness of all things yet still has severe problems communicating his vision to those around him, sharing his love with the larger world, or translating his beautiful ideas and incorruptible ideals into action in the physical world.

Fluently mounting a bicycle with no handlebars is a prime example of these two traits in cohesion. It is also a failsafe and necessarily effective method of meditation - lose focis on your all - important internal balance and WHAM! You're plunged into an intimate dialogue with incoming traffic. This aggressive solo meditation transforms a force of nature - in this case the flow of traffic - into a vector for self development. An inatimite object - in this case, a bicicle - becomes an angry Zen master, whacking the student over the head (or into an incoming Prius) when they lose sight of the greater goal.

Now, when meditation crosses over into the physical world as such it does not do so without a corresponding degree of physical danger. However, it is through the threat of these dangers that the meditation's very effectiveness lies. Discipline is developed throughprocessing, understanding, and internalizing the consequences of one's actions. This is best accomplished in a scientific manner through reducing all variables, ideally to a repetitive motion with predictable effects, the better to record accurate observations. This process can happen through the isolation of thoughts a private meditation, physically through the development of balance in bodily exertion, or emotionally through the transformation of mundane activities into vessels of personal development, like the wax on/wax off of karatae kid fame. The applications of such methods could concievably extend to every corner of our daily existence, drastically extending our experience of the world.

This brngs me to my second point. Our approach to our tasks determines not only our attitude towards them, but also how open we are to learning from them. Coming into any action - be it driving a car, going on a second date, or simply updating a blog - with a preconcieved notion of what it ought to be necessarily reduces the possibilities in store for personal growth and development. Adults learn at a markedly slower rate than children not because the learning centers of their brains have calcified, as pseudoscience would have one believe, but because they have developed an array of subconscious filters against the clutter of the modern world, many of which are detrimental to the learning process even as they streamline the daily experience. Our brains are like uncut fields and our repetitive actions are like ploughs slucing across its loose soil. As we age, our mental dirt is often packed hard, our ground can frozen, our pastureland sullied by the rocks and clay of daily life in an often hostile environment. Still, our experience at the till is cumulative. As such, we often develop deep clefts in those areas of the brain where we habitually place our attentions, making it easier to accomplish our repetitive tasks and personal specialties, but harder to concieve of anything outside of our sphere of attention. Eventually, like a man standing at the bottom of a canyon, it can be difficult to view the fertile pastures of untrammeled thought spread open to either side.

Albert Einstein had a particularly deeply furrowed brain. After he donated his legendary cranium to science, doctyors remarked not on his processing capacity but in the depth and number of folds in his grey matter, allowing a balance of thought and lending a force to his intellectual action over both hemispheres of his brain. Perhaps that is why Einstein, who was by his own admission far from the most technically gifted mathematician of his own era - was able to peer into the murky stew of time and space and derive some order from the nebulous nebulae of the cosmos.

My little accomplishments are of course, miniscule in comparision to the minds which wrought the patterns of the world in ways which our half developed, simian consciousnesses our monkey brains can reliably comprehend. I have yet to derive any grand theories of existence, but I couldn't even ride a bike without handlebars until I'd done more than a bit of climbing of my own. The day I pushed my head above the canyon wall of my hyper - cerebral childhood, I could suddenly accomplish tasks that I never could before. Ultimately these changes were the fryuits of gradual physical and mental transformations - I had to train my body to accomplish the action, but first I had to train my mind to believe I was capable of even making the attempt; a harder task than many wayfarers realize. But it was then, when I was finally "a-WARE of my sur-ROUND-ings," as my mother might put it, that I was free to traverse the concrete canyons of Manhattan, unbridled by the necessity of bending over the wheel.

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