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.
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.
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.
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.