Pedaling a bicycle coast-to-coast across Southern India is an experience like no other: exhilarating, harrowing, exhausting, powerful, blissful… the adjectives are too numerous to list. I just finished this 750km bicycle trip with a group of ten others led by an exceptional guide and fellow Toronto resident, Dave Trattles. Embarking on a trip like this is a perfect recipe for personal growth, mindfulness, learning, and unlearning.
Our outer journey began in the megacity of Chennai and wound its way through the cities, towns, villages, rice paddies, temples, and chai stands of Tamil Nadu. We then slowly made our way up through the Western Ghats mountain range, through delicious smelling spice plantations and tea estates and then raced back down the hills into the backwaters of Kerala, finishing the journey in the spice port of Cochin.
Although I could probably write a novel about the magic and magnificence of this trip, I’ll just stick to a few relevant lessons learned!
Letting go of “It’s not possible”
The first 95km were the toughest for me. Starting something physically challenging in Indian heat required changing old patterns of the mind that told me it was too difficult and really not possible for someone like me. Fortunately, I didn’t listen to the stories of the mind and when it said, “I’m too tired, I can’t do this”, I found another voice that said “You’ve made a choice. Keep at it! There’s got to be a coconut stand around the bend!”. After I was able to make this commitment on day one, it helped me tremendously on other days when the road seemed to go on forever and when we cycled up through the spectacular but steep mountains. In fact, I realized there was a kind of “hump” that needed to be transcended after which things started to become much easier. This is similar to the hump that we have to overcome with mindfulness meditation practice. In the beginning it too can be very challenging but with perseverance and patience something inside settles, the mindfulness muscles get stronger, and we can ride the waves of the mind!
Breaking through the “It’s not possible” mindset to “Anything is possible” is a huge shift that we can apply to life in so many different ways. If we think of the people who are truly creative and inspiring in the world, we can see that they have let go of the idea of “impossible”. I have only to think of our guide Dave who has cycled through over 60 countries around the world or Father Charles Ogada (who will be running retreats in Canada in August 2016) for examples of this. Within 3 years (with absolutely no financial resources) Father Charles has spearheaded the construction and operation of an orphanage, primary school, and new hospital in a remote rural village in Nigeria!
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”
During the toughest moments on long days, and especially while cycling up the Western Ghats, Julie Andrews, became our (?my) greatest inspiration. Besides singing “Climb Every Mountain”, “My Favourite Things” and the yodeling Lonely Goatheard song, we also enjoyed “Just a Spoonful of Sugar”, and “Supercalafragilisticexpalidocious”. The amazing thing was that the singing and music really was the spoonful of sugar that helped us to keep going. I think sometimes, especially in Toronto, we become too preoccupied with work and forget to have fun! Life is so short and precious. How wonderful that it can be celebrated in so many ways as we move through it!!
On the really tough sections of the mountain, I also turned to a Thich Nhat Hanh song called “Happiness is here and now” which reminded me to let go of the anticipation of getting somewhere (like the top of the hill), and let go of the need to hurry (because I really wasn’t going anywhere fast). Instead it reminded me to just enjoy the slow but magnificent ride. By coming to the present, each leaf blowing in the wind, each vista, each waterfall, each passerby became precious. This change in the relationship to time is subtle and yet tremendous. Imagine living life without anticipating the end of what you are doing or the beginning of what is to start. Imagine there was no beginning and no end and just the eternal present moment unfolding one pedal push at a time.
Being Seen and Looking Ridiculous!
I felt completely utterly conspicuous as a white woman wearing my usual India wear (which is generally colourful Punjabi suits) with a fluorescent yellow vest over top and a giant pock-a-dot helmet riding a bicycle in rural India. As a person who generally prefers to blend into the background scenery, this felt… ah… you can only try to imagine. To my surprise, however, the villagers (especially the children) were for the most part amused and delighted to see such an odd looking smiling presence (especially when I somehow managed to ride my bicycle in slow motion into a rice padi only to find myself completely covered head to toe in mud!). Sometimes looking or acting ridiculous and not taking oneself too seriously, can offer a little light and joy in another person’s day (not to mention your own).
Going with the Flow
Although most of the trip was through rural settings where there was very little traffic, we did at times have to cycle through larger towns and small cities. As some of you may know, Indian traffic appears from the outside to be nothing less than total chaos and one would imagine it would be harrowing to be moving through it on a bicycle. There are vehicles of every size and shape going in different directions interspersed with cows, goats, pedestrians, potholes, cow dung, ducklings and every manner of life. To my surprise, however, I actually came to very much enjoy cycling amidst the traffic and it quickly became clear that there is an amazing harmony and flow in the cacophony. Drivers are exceptionally attentive (you have to be) and actually are constantly adjusting their speed and direction in order to flow in the moving stream of traffic. I found that as I entered the stream of traffic myself, I too was just another very present and alert part of a greater flow of life. In this flow, the rules are not so much about which side of the street you drive on or what lane to stay in to pass or make a left turn, it seemed to be more about how to adapt, adjust and accommodate to the surroundings while also asserting yourself enough to get to your destination. There was a necessary connection and engagement with all surrounding life and driving in automatic pilot was a complete impossibility. Using technology or other mental barriers to wall off and disconnect from the world was not an option. Imagine how much more connected we would be to life and our surroundings if we put away our phones and were actually alert and attentive while we move through the streets!?
Even if you are not cycling across India, we all are on the journey of life and have mountains we must climb (metaphorically speaking). I hope that you too can climb your mountains knowing in every cell that “it is possible”, while singing with all your heart one pedal push at a time.