Monday, February 29, 2016

Talk 23 - The Backwards Bicycle

The so-called "Backwards Bicycle" [youtube, 8 minutes] is a bicycle that has been made to steer in the opposite way that a normal bike steers.  So if you turn the handlebars left, the bike will turn right, and vice versa.

It's a fascinating story.  The intuition is that one should be able to quickly adapt, since you can easily understand the basic concept and you already know how to ride and balance on a bike.  But that intuition would be wrong.  Turns out that it is exceedingly hard to re-learn/un-learn the way you ride a bike.

The reason for posting this here is that it strikes me as a passable analogy for awakening.  We have all been indoctrinated into a certain kind of attentional style (attachment to thoughts and self identity) which has been practiced for hundreds of thousands of hours.  Awakening or enlightenment could be thought of as a substantially different style of attention.  It is possible to stumble a bit into this different attentional style, i.e. ride the backwards bike straight for a second here and there, but in order to actually master this different attentional style takes some serious practice.

People in various meditation communities preach relaxation and say that there is nothing to do.  Sure, I get that.  There is certainly room to relax if one is substantially grasping or resisting and one becomes aware of that (BTW, how does one become aware of that?).  And once one has thoroughly and completely learned to ride the backwards bike, sure, the message is going to be to just go with that, go with the flow and let that happen, nothing to do anymore, just relax and be.

But when one is starting out and can't really ride that new bike, effort, repeated effort, over and over again, is definitely required or else all that will ever be happening is falling down over and over again and the bike will never be ridden.

Learning a new skill requires effort at first, particularly if it goes against the grain of previous conditioning.  For example, I find it much more difficult to learn a person's name if I get their name wrong the first time.  In the case of awakening we are working against unbelievable amounts of conditioning that has been honed to the level of completely innate instinctual behavior.  It takes time and effort to undo that.  However, once learned/relearned/unlearned, then it can start to become effortless.

I advocate a balance between awareness of awareness and letting go.  This post is intended to highlight the fact that some kind of serious intent or effort to be mindful is necessary, a notion that is typically eschewed by the consensus meditation community.


  1. The traditions that preach relaxation may be talking about a fundamentally different "kind" of awakening than, say, Theravada. I know Kenneth Folk has put forth this idea (e.g., that rigpa was something new to him after attaining fourth path), and I agree (although I have very few credentials with which to support it). From that perspective, it's truly not a "skill" of any sort. Hard to communicate what that is pointing at, of course.

  2. The analogy with the bike breaks down because (at least according to the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions), the deepest possible relaxation IS realization, whereas it is NOT backwards-bike-riding (which is a relative skill).

    If one has immediate and complete trust / faith that one can relax profoundly into the simplicity and perfection of the present moment, that's all there is to it. It's true that most of us have conditioning that prevents us from having that level of trust, but there are certainly stories of (seeming) beginners just "clicking" into it -- because (again, in this context), the "it" in question isn't a skill at all in the usual sense. It's a letting go.

    Ajahn Sumedho:
    "So I encourage you to develop this simple immanent ability. It doesn't seem like anything. It's not an attainment. Maybe you conceive of it as an attainment, and so think you can't do it. But even if you can't do it, be aware of the view that you can't do it."

    Skills are always attainments. The idea that it's a skill can eventually become a hindrance, since that subtle belief prevents the profound letting go being spoken of. But yes, for some people some of the time, conceiving of it as a skill or attainment can be a useful skillful means.

    With metta,

  3. Perhaps I would do well to use a few more words at times. Not that I'm "right" or anything. I'm not really sure there is any real disagreement here. As I said, once learned, riding the bike can become relatively effortless.

    But effortlessness by itself will simply not do it. It's a great, great instruction, a fantastic and necessary pointer, to part of it, but it's not the whole thing. Put simply, if someone does not "strive" to ride that bike, they most assuredly never will. People who wake up spontaneously and completely, without a lot of intent in that direction, are almost unheard of. Maybe something like one in a billion, or many millions.

    The default mode is urging us all the time to come chase after and identify with thought. If one intends to "reward" a lean in a different direction, even if it is comfortable or relaxing, it is a direction nonetheless. My main point is directed at beginners/intermediates who in some cases (like at a point in my own past history) don't even engage with meditative practice because the teacher says nothing about it and simultaneously says there is nothing to do.

    But practice is "something". There is indeed a skill acquisition to using the brain in a different way than the default. In pure theory, you could raise someone isolated from language and cultural conditioning. Such a person would possibly never acquire these kinds of prejudices, although I suspect there has been enough co-evolution of language centers, etc. such that it's a done deal. In that case awakening would actually be technically unnatural, which it kind of is, culturally anyway.

    I'm not much into what the traditions say about such things. But if we go in that dogmatic direction, supposedly the last words of Buddha were to STRIVE diligently. He certainly wasn't advocating that people go on grasping forever, but just until there is enough space or stability for the direction of effortlessness to take hold. If one is always grasping at thought, it ain't gonna happen. In my case it didn't happen until I had practiced staying aware for maybe a couple of thousand hours. It most definitely didn't happen before that.

    What I see in perhaps most people, beginners/intermediates anyway, is a catch-22 kind of game. If they don't strive for awareness, they are instantly embedded in thought. If they are embedded in thought, they aren't relaxing and letting go. They are instead unconsciously efforting at attaching to their thoughts. I'm suggesting they effort towards staying aware. At it's simplest, I'm describing a process with two parts: train the mind towards awareness of awareness, and THEN within that awareness, allow this letting go, this relaxation, this non-striving to happen.

    Peace to you.

  4. I think you're right that there's no fundamental disagreement. It's just that for me, it's useful to make a distinction between the "skill" part of it and the "main practice."

    It's true that maybe one in a billion get straight to the end without practice, but I think significantly more people are able to enter the "main practice" (in which there's no sense of skill-building, or what Zen calls the "gaining idea") directly. Something feels fundamentally different about dropping conditioning than building a skill, and recognizing this distinction has been important for me almost from the beginning, even if much of the practice required the skill-building part for practical reasons.

    As an aside: I feel that as my practice progresses in this direction, the belief that mind's true nature is caused by brains (or indeed by physical reality) softens in an interesting way. And as I take that story less seriously, it feeds back into practice, and new facets open up. And that whole process is in some way related to the contrast between the "skill-based" and "letting go" perspectives.

    Thanks for your thoughts,