Zen and the Art of Bicycle Commuting

I started bicycle commuting for my health. I quickly realized that biking around in the city of Boston is a huge threat to my health.

I live in the quaint flowery suburb of Jamaica Plain. I bike to my job in the South End, then ride along the Charles River out to Belmont to tutor my teenaged tutee. I encounter many different types of humans and motor vehicles on my way, and every region of the city has a distinct vehicle personality. Around Harvard, for example, the pedestrians are the rudest, the least law-abiding and the most entitled. The worst drivers are teenagers. The worst pedestrians, the most oblivious and feckless of all, are mothers with baby carriages.

Bike commuting is like a very high-risk video game. Not only are the motorists and pedestrians complete space cadets, but bike commuting has evoked a level of rage and recklessless in me that I never imagined was there. But it’s there. Right at the surface: raw, poised to attack, and loud. Foul-mouthed, selfish, entitled, impulsive, and sweaty.

In short, not my best side.

I ride from my home up the Southwest Corridor Commuter Path into the city. The path is clearly divided into two sections, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists. Of course, the pedestrians do whatever they want to do, usually on the cycling side. They wander diagonally; they turn up their iPods; they sporadically dash sideways without notice; they cluster in groups, four or five abreast. They do not look over their shoulder, they do not move when coaxed, and they do not understand how totally lame they are. I prefer biking among cars over pedestrians because they at least know they are dangerous.

I am a generally temperate, if not sunny, person. I am what is called a “people pleaser,” and nice and friendly is my general modus operandi.

But on the Southwest Corridor Commuter Path, I am a raging, rabid, shouting, Tasmanian loonytune. I scream, ON YOUR LEFT; I bellow, MOOOOVE; I shriek, PAY ATTENTION GODDAMNIT; I roar, WHAT THE FUCK?! I terrify runners, children, mommies, slow bikers, and old ladies. One day, I was so half-cocked and nutty at a pedestrian that I was too embarrassed to encounter him at the next street light, so I took an escapist right turn and ended up lost for an hour after dark. It was utter Karmic retribution for the maniac on the Trek mountain bike. My anger on the bike is a fiery contagion: my throat chakra closes, my torso tightens and my brow tangles. My heart quickens, my jaw hardens and my eyes narrow. My mind grows very dark. I feel like I have a turd sitting on my chest.

Who am I?

After a few weeks of being profoundly uncomfortable in my newly enraged cyclist skin, I decided to assess the situation. I arrived at reluctant certainty that the yelling and the road rage were really only bad for me. Sure, those people aren’t following the road rules, they’re self-absorbed drifters, they’re endangering all of us with their flakiness. But you know what? My reactions weren’t changing a thing on the bike paths of Boston. All they were doing was raising my blood pressure and making me totally hate humans. My anger was clearly arising out of fear—fear that I would get hurt or hurt others, that I would be injured by carelessness and speed. My anger was also arising out of a desire to control the conditions of the road, and the frustrated impotence that, no matter how punitive I became, nothing ever changed. In fact, the more wild-eyed and incensed I became, the more clumsily and riskily I rode, distracted as I was by my futile wrath.

My powerlessness and ire became more and more unbearable until something occurred to me. What if I recognize that I will never, ever change, anticipate or control any of the conditions of my bike path? What if I stop fighting a war against pedestrians I can never win? What if I just…pedal with serenity? What if I accept the thing I cannot change, and courageously change the thing I can: my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad biking attitude?

I decided to try an experiment in Zen biking. The principles are as follows:

  • Observe and do not react.
  • Positively reinforce displays of good driving from fellow motorists.
  • Care for Homo Flakarificus with careful riding (road karma).
  • Engage scenery to balance my affective states of rage, control impulse, and disdain for pedestrians.
  • Traffic laws apply to everyone, including me.
  • Set an example of compassionate, poised, safely efficent bike commuting for others.
  • Rushing is stupid.
  • Navigate the terrain upon which I ride: do not try to change the situation. Accept and adapt.
  • Steer through the zombies of Cambridge with the tranquility of a high-level Zen Master.
  • Surrender.

Little by little, the world is becoming a friendlier place for this erstwhile apoplectic cyclist. Zen biking has taught me a lot. Life lessons.

All of this, of course, is imminently applicable to every area of my life. When I act with deliberation and a modicum of composure and generosity, even if it’s totally disingenuous, life is easier. Prettier. Breezier. Less embarrassing. I act as if I love the childlike wanderers in my path, and strangely enough, I eventually manage to really care a little bit about them.

I hope the cyclist behind me maintains the delicate ecology of pedestrian care. It’s a crowded path and we’ve all got to get to where we’re going together.

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14 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Bicycle Commuting

  1. I got knocked on my @ss by a pedestrian learning this lesson. Luckily, neither of us was hurt too bad and I had a laugh on my way home….how smug and entitled I was before the crash and how humbling that whole incident made me.

    Since then I find myself also monitoring my thoughts while I ride (along with the changing external conditions). I find that the quality of my thoughts have a direct influence on the quality of my ride. Is it me against the world? Or is it me flowing, blending and bending with the current of the mass?

    1. Chris! Thanks for the comment. City cycling is a compelling microcosm for all human interdependence…and a larger lesson that my emotions affect me first and foremost but really don’t amount to much until my actions bring them into the world. So I have to do what I can for everyone to not act from my anger or entitlement. Given that the worst pedestrians out there are new mothers, how awful would it be to lose control and let my reaction to her worstness harm her motherness? Serene riding to you, friend… 🙂

  2. Great article on the internal consequences of cycling in a metropolis! thanks, Lindsay!

  3. You forgot one other unintended consequence of your previous rage. You managed to reinforce many of the things pedestrians and motorists hate about cyclists… thus perpetuating the vicious little circle of misunderstanding.

  4. I think that I should have said, learn the Aikido of bicycle commuting, rather than, as I said “the real Zen”. Zen is fine as a way to focus the mind and develop a sense of calm, and that is important but the art of bicycling in urban traffic is much more akin to Aikido, involving the control of large and potentially threatening forces through subtle actions which prevent conflict from occurring in the first place. The common presumption is that bicyclists are defenseless, but that is a self-fulfilling prophecy and it need not be so. Certainly, there’s no sense in trying to mix it up physically with other road users — in motor vehicles, or for that matter, other bicyclists and pedestrians. However, by making use of positioning on the road, and with good bicycle handling skills and an understanding of their behavior, it is possible to prevent conflict, and to ride with confidence, self-esteem and in accord with traffic law, as a good citizen on the roads. Like Aikido…

  5. Thank you so much for this terrific article!

    I’ve been a longtime bicycle commuter in Chicago, both in traffic and on the lovely Lake Shore Path. Some time ago I became aware that there just wasn’t a way to holler out “I’m on your left” without sounding like an entitled doucher and so I started singing it instead. It’s great, allows for a lot of expressive range, and I think it actually punctures the fog a little better than words alone can.

    More generally on the theme of your piece, though–my personal style as a rider borrows from Neal Cassidy’s driving style, minus the amphetamines. When I’m in my zone, I’m one with the path and it doesn’t matter at all what anyone else does because I flow along a path between and around all obstacles and threats. Cars never need to see me, because I know where they’ll be and I’m already someplace else instead. Hard to put into words, but I know it when I feel it and I feel it every day and it’s magical every time.

    Whatever reason we started riding–health, the environment, saving money–it’s that feeling of Tao that keeps us on our bikes.


    1. David, you said: “Cars never need to see me.”

      Please read this:


      I’d add:

      Cars don’t see. Drivers see. This is not only a wording error, it is to paint yourself into a corner. You have described communication and interaction on paths but you are thinking of yourself as a nobody on streets, a self-fullfilling prophecy. The discussion here has been discussion centered in spirituality, and being a somebody is as important a foundation for spiritual health to the Eastern concepts discussed here as it is to the Western ones of citizenship on the roads and elsewhere.

    2. Dear David,

      Ever since you shared that you sing to pedestrians I’ve started to try it. It works way better than shouting (where I always sound angry/bossy) or meekly requesting (which can only be heard when I’m already too close to said pedestrian). To boot–it’s funny! Everyone’s a winner!

      🙂 Jenn

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