13 August 2018

Judaism And The Art Of Bicycle Riding

If you're of a certain age, as we say, there's a good chance you've read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Some English classes--including a few at the college I attended--actually assigned it.  I escaped that fate:  I didn't have to take the English classes that assigned it because, when I entered my college, the person (or folks) in charge of placement decided that I was a better writer than I actually was, based on an essay I wrote as part of my entrance exam.  

I did, however, read Zen on my own.  I didn't expect to learn how to fix motorcycles or about Zen.  If I recall correctly, the book's author, Robert Pirsig, included a disclaimer advising readers not to have such expectations.  Even if he'd intended to instruct his readers on how to wrench their rice rockets (That was a term for Japanese motorcycles, which were much lighter than Harleys.) or meditate, I'm not sure of what I might've learned because, really, I had little idea about motorcycles except that my uncle rode one or about Buddhism save for guys in orange robes.

I'm not sure of what, if anything, I learned from the book.  That's not to say it wasn't worth reading:  At that point in my life, I was a sucker for stories about folks who left jobs, families and other bourgeois expectations behind, even if only for a time, to traverse the country or world, mainly because--you guessed it--I wanted to do something like that.  

Pirsig's prose had little, if any, stylistic grace.  He probably wouldn't have wanted to have any--which, I believe, was part of the appeal of his book.  You don't quote him the way you would, say, Thoreau, let alone Virginia Woolf or Shakespeare. (About my friend Bill:  I remember reading that some researcher found that the average English speaker quotes him at least 20 times a day, mostly without realizing  he or she has done so!)  But I remember this:  "The real motorcycle you're working on is yourself."  Or something like that.

So, what aphorisms can one glean from an experience of Judiasm and the Art of Bicycle Riding?  It's hard not to think that Abigail Pogrebin, the author of an article by that name, didn't read, or at least hear of, Pirsig's volume.  And she indeed reveals a thing or two she learned about herself from riding a mountain bike through Arizona brush--with a Native American guide named George. And, oh, her rabbi.

The irony is, as she says, that George imparted so much Jewish wisdom.  In particular, he offered this nugget that could have come straight from Moses (who, in my mind, always looks and sounds like Charlton Heston):

Always look way ahead of you.  Never look down.  As soon as you look down, you will hesitate, overthink, negotiate, get stuck.  Always be moving into the future. Bike into the future.

The last two sentences, she admits, can sound pretty corny, but, as Ms. Pogebrin points out, "How many times does our tradition ask us to 'go forth'? How many times in our history have we had to keep going despite what's thrown in our way?"  There is no other choice, really:  By definition, we can only move toward the future.  Living in what I call the Eternal Present--and I've known lots of people who've done, and who do, exactly that--is a pretty good definition of a living death.

But, of course, George wasn't trying to be rabbinical.  As Pogrebin learned, his admonitions were entirely literal:  "Once we were out on the trails, as soon as we looked down, we were screwed--the bike suddenly spun out of control, stalled in a mud crevice or jammed its tires between rocks."  When her rabbi and two other cyclists who accompanied them--a couple of guys from San Francisco--navigated a stretch on which she stumbled, George bellowed "GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN, ABBY!"  But then he imparted what was probably the most important lesson of all, at least for her:

You're too clenched, too focused on getting it right.  You're not trusting the bike or the path.  Keep your eyes ahead and trust that you'll get where you need to go.  Breathe all the way there.

"Breathe all the way there."  Funny, how Zen that sounds to me. But it probably could have come from her rabbi--or anyone who understands that it's all a journey, and the bike is the vehicle.  That, as I recall, is also one of the messages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

(If Abigail Pogrebin's name looks familiar to you, it means one of two things:  You watched Ed Bradlees 60 Minutes segments, for which she was a writer and producer. Or, you read Ms. magazine, of which her mother, Letty was a founder and editor.  I'm guilty on both counts.)


  1. "Always look... ahead of you. never look down." Indeed. One might add "Always look where you want to go". The surest way to hit a piece of glass on the road is to be nervous about it and stare at it. Look at the path ahead that avoids the obsticle. As for looking down, one way to pick out the novice cyclists is to notice if they look down when they change gears, glancing at the gears on the read wheel. And then have to recover after swerving while looking down. You have to know what gear you are in by the feel.

    An awful lot of modern bikes have little numbers on gear shifters telling you what gear you are in. Personally I take this as an insult.

    I bought an aluminum and carbon fiber road bike a while back, a Merida. But I just can't get into it. It has those little numbers on the brifters, and I feel alienated from it, like it is always talking down to me, addressing me as a beginner. Back to the gritty zen of steel and DT friction shifters.


  2. Leo--You give a great description of someone who "doesn't trust the bicycle." And, it seems so many of today's "innovations" are intended to keep the rider from doing exactly that--or, perhaps, not trusting the rider to trust the bike!

  3. In my mind, those riders so accurately described by Leo, are not cyclists; they are appliance operators.