The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

Cycling Prayer

On a recent Monday I worked a slow day at home after a busy all work weekend. By mid afternoon I'd had enough and set out to ride my bike towards Kersbrook. It's not as far as my daily commute, but the difference was that my destination is all up-hill; an hour and ten minutes out, and half an hour back!

This is very different from my normal flat commute, which has only one decent hill to worry about.

It reminded me again how much cycling is a "mind thing." The difficulty of this long uphill ride did not lie in the steepness of the hill, or in the distance to the top of the range. Nor did it lie in the succession of false flats. The difficulty lay in my mind, and my need to hurry and fit a vision of an athletic cyclist. At 54, I should know this is not going to happen!

The secret of touring is to maintain pedaling cadence at a comfortable speed, and essentially ignore the road speed of the bike. Most novice cyclists pedal too slowly, or even if maintaining a faster cadence, still try and maintain too high a gear. Both strategies make for a far harder climb than is necessary. It is strangely hard to maintain a steady pedaling rate and not worry that one's road speed is quite low. Yet maintaining this practice eats the miles, and allows a cyclist to travel long distances, even in horrible weather conditions. A wonderful freedom comes with this discovery. It lets a cyclist ride for days, enjoying a whole new perspective on the countryside.

In my daily 20 mile commute, this understanding of how to ride a bike is a life saver. Rain or shine, howling head wind or three-gear tail wind, maintaining cadence allows me to arrive at work within a few minutes of the same time each day. It's not that the ride is always easy. Last week, in a freezing evening, a sharp shower of rain quickly damped me down, as I headed along the Parafield drain. It's always the coldest part of the ride. I was a bit tired, and in only a few minutes was reduced to uncontrollable shivering. Some bitter experience has taught me the answer to this: chocolate. In a half mile the hypoglycemia that causes this was reversed. But you have to know what to do. The first time I got "the knock," I was far from home on a country road, and suffered badly.

Karen Armstrong says

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos ("reason; science") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience...

There's a great reference to this in the Tony Hillerman book, Listening Woman.

"I don't remember much," Mrs. Cigaret said. "I told him he ought to get someone to take him to Gallup and get his chest x-rayed because maybe he had one of those sicknesses that white people cure."

Armstrong continues

Above all, myth was a programme of action. When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something "true" about human life and the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not be proven rationally. If you did not act upon it, it would remain as incomprehensible and abstract - like the rules of a board game, which seem impossibly convoluted, dull and meaningless until you start to play.

Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth...

I could use the swimming example Karen Armstrong gives to illustrate the need for a certain practical knowledge about religious truth. Swimming is something I learned with difficulty. I was only ever a slow swimmer, and always somewhat ungainly. I watch my wife swim with a fluid, unhurried efficiency, and cannot imagine how she does it. Cycling, however, is something I'm good at. I've covered thousands of miles across South Australia and Victoria.

Coming back to it in recent months, now that commuting, work, and time all intersect favourably, has been wonderful. Yet I, who rode across the Hay Plain in mid-summer, am still a novice who can lose all he has learned, on one simple hill. The constant need for the practice of cycling, is just like the need for the constant practice of religion. Each morning's ride, routine though it is, needs its own attention. A moment of dreaming can mean being knocked off the bike. Lack of attention can find me panting up a normally simple slope, or with sore legs that will last a week. It doesn't matter how good we are, practice remains essential. Religion is not about subscribing to a set of propositions. Religion is about doing and being. It is, as she says, "a species of practical knowledge."

Andrew Prior (2009)


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