Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Olive Leaves, Cows, and Pink Roses

On May 1, I undertook, by bicycle, the 100-kilometer course of the Wine Country Century, which starts and ends in Santa Rosa. This is normally a 62-mile ride (since 100 kilometers is normally 62 miles), but if you miss the final turn and go four miles past the finish line, it can be parlayed into 70 miles. Just saying. The 70 miles took me seven hours.

The course was congenial—not overly hilly—and the weather was warm and sunny, with a refreshing breeze. As I rode along, I asked myself regularly, “What do I see? What do I smell? What do I feel?”

I saw many, many a vineyard—but no two alike—and charming country dwellings and fabulous country mansions and a couple of cows and some goats. I smelled dirt and grass and flowers; I pulled up now and then to get a good whiff of the latter.

I felt the light wind on my skin and heard the leaves rustling; now and then, I felt a somewhat more pronounced draft—a cyclist passing way too close, or a whole herd of the same. And then I asked myself, “What exactly is the experience of irritation?”

In a seeming paradox, focusing explicitly on irritation caused it to disappear very quickly, though that was not the goal. The whole thing was noticeably different from my usual practice of either trying to push the irritation away via rationalization (“Oh, don’t get upset; it’s such a nice day”), or getting lost in a train of thought that can take on quite a life of its own: “Too close! How irritating! Why do people do that? Why don’t they allow more room, or at least say ‘On your left’? You know, that is the fourth time that has happened today, and—my god, there’s another one! But it’s not just cyclists out in the country. Cyclists in the city are clueless, too … Plus my co-worker is clueless … Plus I hate my job … ”

Sad to say, I can remember finishing rides of this length in the past and recalling the primary flavor of the day as irritation.

But when I made the annoyance my conscious focus—where do I feel it in my body? what thoughts am I having about it? what is it actually like to have this feeling?—it proved to be strangely elusive, soon gone and without leaving any filmy white residue. How exactly it dissipated, I can’t tell you. My mindfulness isn’t that good yet, but I did notice that seconds after deliberately setting out to experience irritation, four or five times in the course of seven hours, it was no longer there to experience, and thus cumulatively took up maybe 60 seconds instead of several hours.

Primarily, my experience was of what I saw and heard and felt in my body and on my skin, and when the ride was over, instead of being ticked off at the rudeness of other cyclists or irritable in general, I felt tranquil, and I had vivid, beautiful memories of flowers and leaves, hillsides and houses, expanses of green and rows of grapevines.

It’s lucky that the course wasn’t extremely hilly because I discovered after finishing the ride that someone who shall remain nameless had not secured my rear wheel to the rest of my bicycle, which had been dismantled so it would fit into a tiny rental car. On a very bumpy downhill, the wheel and bicycle could conceivably have parted company and I could have been discussing lucid dreaming with my maker sooner than expected, but, fortunately, this didn’t happen, and yes, from now on I will confirm the key aspects of bicycle assembly firsthand before setting off.

Speaking of lucid dreaming, as we often do here, Siri Hustvedt, in a column for the New York Times’ splendid All-Nighters series (an exploration of insomnia and the things people do in the wee hours) wrote this, which I thought was fascinating: “The neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas has proposed that consciousness and dreams are not distinct but part of the same intrinsic brain functions, ‘that wakefulness is nothing other than a dreamlike state modulated by the constraints produced by specific inputs.’”
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