For a professional cyclist, one hundredth of a second can mean winning or losing a race. For a jobless commuter / weekend warrior / fathlete such as myself, I really could not care less about speed. Which is good because I’m not fast. As in, lately most of my rides are around 10 miles per hour. However, the first quarter of the year went by and I rode 1,501 miles. But with the world having a prettay, prettay, prettay bad year, who cares about bicycling goals, right? We are all having to consider (or try to avoid) facing the one thing that truly unifies us: our finite existence. I know I have thought about it, because if there’s one thing I have in spades while biking, it’s time.
I’m timeless now, I’m beyond time.– Keith Richards, 2002
The Rolling Stones were wrong when they recorded their version of the song “Time Is on My Side” written by Jerry Ragovoy (using the pseudonym “Norman Meade”). Sure, it’s mostly a repetitive if catchy song about unrequited love. But the phrase echoes in my head because even though there were obvious clues about coronavirus, the U.S. government was slow to react and made mistakes. Life comes at you pretty fast, as Ferris Bueller said. Things sped up and the virus spread like wildfire. Or a speeding bullet, if you’re of the generation when George Reeves portrayed Superman. In millennial terms, time is even faster: think of memes, untruths and outright lies whirling around the world on an instant on social media.
One thing I’ve had more time for during virtual house arrest is reading. For better or worse, a lot of people are saying lots of things about the pandemic. (Remember, you can’t have a pan(dem)ic without panic! And no, that’s not a dig at Democrats. But they didn’t stop it either, so boo to both parties!) In The Atlantic magazine yesterday, under Ideas, was an interesting piece on time. “The Virus Is a Reminder of Something Lost Long Ago: In rebuilding a broken world, we will have the chance to choose a less hurried life,“ is by Alan Lightman, a writer, author of In Praise of Wasting Time and physicist who teaches at MIT. A quote:
“When a monk has gone into an empty place and has calmed his mind, [he] experiences a delight that transcends that of [other] men.”Buddhist Dhammapada cited in Ibid.
I like this because it reminds me that with so much out of our control, we can at least try to choose to slow down. Sitting quietly on the patio after my regular late morning meal of oats, prunes, nuts, banana and dark chocolate, I was ostensibly reading the last few chapters of a book. (John Grisham’s very readable The Reckoning.) But I stopped reading. I wasn’t doing anything, except enjoying the cool temperature, the warming sun, the birds and breeze. But not the bees that kept circling my bowl and buzzing my head. I had no big revelations, but time seemed to slow down, become malleable, and not matter so damn much. And though I wasn’t meditating per se, it produced a similar state of mind, so I came out of this reverie calmer, a bit refreshed, a little more hopeful.
Later, as I headed out on a 10-mile bike ride on an essential task, I asked one of the roommates what day it was. Without the strict measurements of our days and duties imposed by school, work, family, and the like, time is revealed as a human construct that doesn’t mean much. Sure, if the garbage collectors (brave men and women all) only come once a week, you better keep track. But I think our minds need deep breaks, so they don’t break. And that is at least one of Lightman’s points. Breathe, slow down, reflect, let your mind wander. It’s an important human capacity many people have forgotten how to do and are not comfortable with.
We’re all confronting our mortality, it seems, and the lives of people we know. We are dealing with it in different ways. Some clearly don’t give a #&%* and are going about their lives with callous disregard for the health of themselves, people they know, the wider community and world. I’m super careful riding my bike but see people not distancing themselves as the health experts say we must.
So, we here in Austin, Texas and many other places in the US if not world will probably be rewarded for the irresponsible behavior of a few with more home detention and possibly even greater restrictions, like biking no more than 12 km from your house, or not at all. Of course, the economic repercussions hitting people who don’t have jobs, or own homes, and heave saved wealth are massive. I’m among them. Nobody knows how or when this will end, but for the near-term, it’s not looking good. Not for a long while at least.
When I’m out there riding my bike, time can also be flexible. Sure, I try to ride harder at times, so I can get off the hard seat and trade it for a new one, the softer recliner in front of the idiot box. Also there are the seats of the dining room table, the writing desk, and the yoga mat. Sometimes I lose seconds or minutes to random thinking while doing asanas, in the shower or on my daily walk. And for three months every day after my poses this year I’ve added a five minute meditation using Insight Meditation Timer (I missed only one or two, I think). Ideally I’ll add more minutes to it. I can’t say with the short sessions I’ve seen any changes, but maybe they’re there.
I think we may all have to summon our inner Buddha in the coming months. Whether we do formal mediation, just let our minds wander, journal, sing, or whatever to “lose yourself in the moment,” we should try it. That’s is a lyric from the famous rap song, about which Mashable said just last month, “Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ is the perfect mindfulness anthem. Yes, really.” Here’s a quote from journalist Peter Garfinkel:
“At first I listened purely for the motivation — I can do anything I set my mind to,” Garfinkel writes. “But then the lyrics began to speak to me from another place. Though I highly doubt Eminem would know a bodhisattva from a bodacious babe, I detected an underlying Buddhist theme. By losing himself in the moment, that is by being present in the moment, he finds himself. If he focuses his mind, he can achieve anything. It sounded to me like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.”Mashable, Ibid.
Notice the word practice. There’s a reason I call my various activities and disciplines practices: because I sure as shootfire ain’t perfect. But also, it’s a choice to spend so much of my time biking, walking, doing yoga, gratitude (and ingratitude) journaling, blogging, book writing, etc. Some days I’m better at one or more of them than another. In Buddhism, EVERYTHING can become a practice. One needn’t spend years in a cave to derive benefits from simply paying more attention to the present moment, breathing deeply, at once focusing the mind and not reacting to every thought that crosses your awareness.
In the end, we don’t have as much time on this green and blue planet as we may think. Nothing is guaranteed. Sure, we need to have find memories and to imake some future plans. Yet the present moment is all we really have. When times get really tough, having a practice of whatever sort that works for you is something you can fall back on. It builds resilience, as I recently wrote. Coincidentally, last month, Eminem finally performed his Oscar-winning song live at the Academy Awards, having missed them in 2003.
“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
You can do anything you set your mind to, man.”Eminem, “Lose Yourself”
Five years later, I walked down 9 Mile road while on vacationing in Detroit, Michigan. It was just a few years after my car was smashed in 2005, before I got into bicycling thousands of miles a year. I got a few glances because I was a minority white person, but most people ignored me or said hello. A group of teens gave me wrong directions just to mess with me, but I knew better. Later, I was told I shouldn’t have walked that way, it was dangerous. But I was aware, present, curious and compassionate, and I survived. I’ve been in some other dangerous situations, from being tear-gassed and detained in the political violence in Guatemala, to falling down a collapsed mine shaft as a kid, and a lot more. We all have our scars and stories. They make up parts of who we are but hopefully they also don’t define us.
The world has been through plenty of terrifying times: Wars, weather disasters, famine, other pandemics, the Trump administration. I’m just one dude who bikes and blogs. And soon I may not be allowed to do one or feel like or be able to do the other. But that’s for another time. Not today, COVID, not today. I am celebrating cycling 1,501 miles from January-March 2020. And when I want to, I can call up a nice memory. Yet I will take a breath, or a step, and forget what time it is. So I wonder: Can we begin or increase a practice of mindfulness so that the gaps decrease between when we’re not in the present moment? So we have less anxiety and stress about all this mess? Can we, like Ram Dass exhorts us to in his 1971 book, BE HERE NOW?
Whatever your practice, if you find yourself stopping, for a day, a week, a month or more, that’s ok. Simply start again. The more you do, the more you build the pattern and mental toughness to keep doing it. As for this crisis of the coronavirus, of course I don’t know how it will go; few really do. But of one thing I’m sure: Time will tell. Keep on reading, and I’ll keep on pedaling, and writing… for now.
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