I’ve been reading a bit about Taoism lately because December 27 is Ta Chiu, the Taoist festival of peace. While I’m certainly no expert--my understanding of Taoism is more The Tao of Pooh than Tao Te Ching--I do know a thing or two. Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy, or religion depending on who you ask, that embraces harmonious living with the natural world. In a nutshell, it’s the concept that things in their original simplicity, such as an uncarved block of stone, contain their own natural power. But the power is lost when that simplicity is changed, like when a chisel is taken to the uncarved block. As people, our simplicity is lost when we add arrogance, pride, selfishness and busyness to our lives.
This has got me thinking about cycling (what doesn’t?). Cycling itself is a very simple, harmonious pastime. It’s fun, it’s practical, people of all ages can and do enjoy doing it. But we have complicated the uncarved block that is riding a bicycle by racing them, by making them into beasts of burden, by making them immobile.
So what is the Taoist approach to riding a bike? What form of riding is in greatest harmony with nature? I’m not exactly sure, but there are a few cycling disciplines I know are not Taoist.
Racing is absolutely not a Taoist thing to do. If you ever see me, or any other racer, fuss about in preparation for a race you’ll quickly see there is no natural harmony involved. Nutrition, hydration, lubrication, tire pressure, sunscreen, eyeglass lens color, I could go on and on. It all has to be just so, calculated and exact. Otherwise there’s no point in racing. Somewhere amidst all that chaos the simple act of riding a bicycle is lost. No, racing is more of a Confucian activity. Confucius tells a story of a master who would not sit on his mat unless it was straight. Imagine trying to be that master’s bike mechanic!
Bicycle commuting is not a Taoist thing either. I know, just last week I said that riding to work is the highest use of a bicycle, and I still believe that; but by assigning the purpose of getting to work to a bicycle ride the bicycle commuter is taking a chisel to the uncarved block. She’s carving her ride into something utilitarian instead of simply riding for the pleasure of riding. As a bicycle commuter I also know that there is nothing simple about riding a bicycle in rush hour traffic, or about seeking out streets with the least traffic and the widest shoulders. A commuter busies himself choosing between the safety of the side roads and the directness of the main thoroughfares. The only harmony for the bicycle commuter occurs in his mind; the harmony that comes from making one’s way through the melee of a typical morning commute that he did not create and that he has consciously chosen not to participate in. No, commuting is more of a Zen activity, where the world is a revolving wheel of pain with bitter and oppressive winds and where man’s purpose is to transcend it. The bitter winds of traffic lights and myopic drivers stand in stark contrast to the windless state that Zen Buddhists call Nirvana and that this bicycle commuter calls the highlight of his day.
What then is the Taoist form of cycling? Like I said, I don’t exactly know, and I believe it is different for everybody, but I believe the life of a bicycle tourist is the closest fit to the natural harmony and simplicity that Lao Tzu described.
The Tao is about allowing nature to fill in the void spaces that are not already filled in. This is a perfect description of a bicycle tourist’s day. She doesn’t always know exactly where her ride that day will take her and she doesn’t know what will happen to her on the way. All she can do is turn the pedals and take things as they come. Bicycle touring also reinforces the Taoist concept of simplicity. Tourists don’t encumber themselves with needless or frivolous items that slow them down. Frugality comes natural to the touring cyclist because if she can’t eat it or use it immediately, she doesn’t buy it.
On a bicycle tour, nothing is something, and some things are really nothing at all. In that way, touring is the most childlike form of cycling. On a tour a cyclist can go wherever he pleases. He has no deadlines, agendas, or meetings to parcel his day. When something comes along the road that interests him he can stop and investigate it for as long as he likes. Or he doesn’t have to stop at all. And most childlike of all, a bicycle tourist burns enough Calories that he can eat as much of anything he wants.
What do you think? What form of riding is in greatest harmony with nature? Tell me what your uncarved block that is a bicycle ride looks like.