This is a guest post by James Thomas, whose recent really big bike ride took him on a journey from South East Asia back to the UK via 26 countries. I wrote earlier this year about the parallels between cycle touring and mindfulness, and have long been fascinated with the idea of the long solo journey as a tool for personal exploration. Here, James generously shares his own spiritual experience while riding in India – an experience I am sure will resonate with many who have cycled there.
It was with a feeling of intense trepidation that I approached Dhamma Ganga. That moment in India represented a metaphorical halfway point of my journey around the world by bike. Not a conventional circumnavigation in any respect but a shambling meander across South East Asia up to India then westwards; encountering fading tribal cultures, a handful of prolific mountain ranges and countless smiling faces along the way.
Rosie had wanted a house and a baby, I offered a tent and a bike. Rosie was still in London. This journey would be made alone. I had become used to my solitary life on the road, took some pleasure in it even. A spartan life of few possessions and abundant freedom. I had everything I needed strapped onto the bike; I had clothes for hot and cold, could cook for myself and had my tent for shelter; I was totally self sufficient. I’d begun to enjoy the silence.
It was ten months since I’d left England. I was now in Kolkota at Vipassana Kendra to attend a ten day silent meditation course. Rosie had attended a course some years ago in Australia and said that it was worth checking out. Beyond that I really didn’t know what to expect but despite my mild anxiety about availability of calories and sitting still for upwards of eleven hours a day, was open minded about what was to come.
When I read through the five precepts of Vipassana I realised with a wry irony that I’d been keeping them pretty closely for the past few months, three at least, maybe even four. I hadn’t been intoxicated with drink or drugs, lied, had sex or stolen anything and I don’t remember killing anyone either. Naturally, I felt more than a bit smug with this, importantly, I felt ready. This would be my first meditation and it appeared that I’d prepared myself rather well.
The first three days were spent perfecting Anapana breathing; cultivating an awareness of breath around the entrance of the nostrils and upper lip; this too was something I was already doing, not specifically focussing on the area above the upper lip but certainly I was aware of breath more than usual due to the aerobic respiration needed for long distance cycling; big climbs particularly induced a trance like state, similarly I imagined, to that of a meditation. I was on a roll.
The meditation itself focuses on the awareness of sensations of the body, by working from head to toe with the same level of concentration used in Anapana breathing to recognise different sensations throughout the body. The law of nature (Dhamma) says that these sensations are temporary, impermanent and therefore will pass. The key to the Vipassana technique is to observe without judgement or reaction when you become aware of experiencing any sensation, pleasant or otherwise.
Through this dedicated mental alertness and observation you are able to cut straight to the root of any and all cravings. Cravings are the cause of all unhappiness. End craving, live happy. A simple theory, tough in practice. Very tough indeed.
For ten days my mind wandered violently through the myriad thoughts and feelings buried deep in my subconscious. I’d walked away from a successful career, I was worrying my family with wild notions of uncertain outcome, and I’d broken up a loving relationship with a great woman‐ all that, to go on a bike ride. What was I doing? Each time I realised that I’d strayed, I brought my awareness back to the fleeting sensations passing through my body, the rhythmic repetition of breath, slowly but surely cleansing my ego of all craving.
The two final teachings on the tenth day of the course explained the principle of Metta and Dana. Metta means spending a few minutes at the end of each meditation fostering intentions of goodwill towards others. Dana simply means sharing that goodwill with others. It was this strand of Vipassana that really hit home.
Throughout this journey I’d been at the mercy of strangers time and again; in each instance I’d been treated kindly; taken into family homes for a hot meal, offered a bed for the night‐ it was extraordinary to encounter such kindness in every country I’d passed through — it was something to be thankful for. Yet, this unyielding generosity was not unusual, it was the norm. People are good. Smile and the world smiles with you. It may be a cliche, but it’s true.
The teaching of Dhamma and the Vipassana technique had reinforced my experiences from the road. I left the centre feeling elated, high even. For the first time I could see things as they really were. After months of challenging cycling, personal sacrifice and untold hardships, seeking the simple life, I’d found peace in the law of nature. My first meditative steps towards a happy life had been generous strides all because Vipassana and long distance cycling were such happy bedfellows. I continued my journey on the road headed west, to see the world on its own terms and to pass on the infectious enthusiasm found in traveling by bike. I set up camp that night with a feeling of optimism for what was to come — the long road to happiness.