What I think about when I am riding

In the south London borough of Southwark, where I used to live, there is a building I remember. A building made with typical brick, touches of art deco in its facades, built for the local government almost a century ago. Over the doorway, engraved in stone, the phrase, ‘The health of the people is the highest law.’ This is the detail I most remember about the building, marveling that there was a time when this was such an explicit aim of government. A little research shows the phrase comes from Cicero, and that the building indeed resides near Elephant and Castle (I have come across that delightful blog before). The sentiment expressed in stone seems as old-fashioned these days as the architectural detailing.

A phrase that has been sticking in my head recently is ‘the dominant narrative’. I don’t usually like to steer a personal blog into the political realm, but I have been finding it particularly depressing to read articles such as this one, and this one, from the world of politics and economics, and this, thisthis and this dealing in the spectrum of race and power, where it is clear how much particular narratives reside at the forefront of cultural thinking, and how other ways of thinking continue to be marginalised.

To bring it back to a personal and more quotidian level, I have written about the ways I benefit from privilege, and it has often occured to me that the only time I get to experience life from a position of less power is when I am riding. The other day, on my way up Mount Tam, a couple of cars passed me in quick succession. The first I had heard coming up behind me (car drivers are probably not aware of how loud they are on less busy roads; I can very often hear cars coming from at least a hundred yards away). I had noticed the change of engine sound, which meant they were slowing down on the twisty road to wait for a safe moment to pass. Often I will move slightly to the left if I feel it isn’t safe for someone to pass, in an attempt to discourage them, and then swing further to the right when there is a clear stretch. The first car came by on a straight section, well to the left of me, in a way that felt courteous and appropriate.

I hadn’t heard the second car, because of the first, but as we approached a tight right-hander, he came by me at speed, well over the double yellow lines, but then cutting back in front of me. I don’t know how much visibility he had, but it did not seem in any way a safe manoeuvre. Had I time and occasion, I would have pointed out to the driver that – in addition to crossing the yellow lines in an unsafe way, seeming to be breaking the speed limit, and not allowing me the now legally-required three feet of space while passing – had someone been coming the other way (let’s say a car, though when I take these corners while descending on a bicycle, I will take the full lane in order to corner safely), the instinctive reaction  of this driver passing me would have been to swerve right back into our lane, and either hit me, or force me off the road. I know this because it has happened to me – luckily I was riding at a slow enough speed that I was able to stay in control of my bike as the car cut across in front of me. Of course there was no opportunity for discourse, so my reaction, as it often is in such circumstances, was to make an angry gesture. Unsurprisingly, the driver wound down his window and returned the favour (I was reminded as I continued of the lines in the Dhammapada:  ‘for hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal’).

This is a small and somewhat trivial example (I try, as I have written before, to balance my reaction of fear and anger from an experience of being endangered, with the occasions when drivers behave like the first driver in this story), but as I rode on, I thought of all the times when people in positions of less privilege are told that their responses are out of proportion, too angry, inappropriate, when no amount of reasoned discourse has met with any shift in the dominant narrative. Over time, as the old-fashioned slogan demonstrates, the narrative may bend, and we can only hope that it bends again to accommodate the well-being of all people. My feeling is that for that to happen, we all need to find the space and willingness put aside our attachment to ego and identity, especially when we are a part of the dominant narrative, and be able to listen to other stories and experiences.

2 thoughts on “What I think about when I am riding

  1. I’m really sorry you had a brush with a person who could’ve injured you, and maybe someone else. I find crazy situations, sometimes an awesome teacher. As you know by now, I love to bounce off your blog and share some really nasty-stuff that has happened, to me. This is a story that happened at my work, just the other day, Thursday. I came in the office after being away for several days. The front-desk-person, immediately started yelling at me to alert her (she was in the back office) that I was not a guest. She did not speak, she did not ask how I was doing, she just started to yell. Most times, I deal with these types of situation in a very democratic-way and don’t share how I really feel about idiots who think they rank, yelling at a worker, or anyone else. Before I could collect my Self and I, I reminded her that yelling was never a cool way to communicate, that I’d preferred a hello and reminded her that I announce my present, when I did not need to grab a pass for my vehicle. I one-upped-her in tone and gave her a big fish-eyed look. She suggested we start over but this type of behavior just doesn’t set well. This is a person that I’ve work with for months and a person I’ve always treated with respect and kindness. However, she caught me in a nasty-mood for I had a diagnoses of a broken tooth after root canal, on that tooth. In my moment of anger, in the moment of disrespect; I found that I was very angry with her and decided to write, a few days later, a letter responding to our encounter in the lobby, where we both work. I b-cced the letter to the general manager, who responded. I’m saturated with nonsense. And the dance continues! Deeply bowing!


  2. Dainin Katagiri – Whisper. And some of his words of wisdom, just sticks. So, the chapter on Kind Speech, In Returning to Silence, he says: (Buddha gives advice to the bodhisattvas who are about to go out to teach, telling them they have to sit on the seat of emptiness. Then a few sentences later, he says, We accept all sentient beings as exactly one, regardless of whether we like them or dislike them. At that time compassion is always functioning under all circumstances.) – I really kinda get this! And I love – sitting on the seat of emptiness.


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