What I think about when I am riding

Right now I feel lucky in that my Monday mornings are unscheduled. Usually I try to make this my study time, but this week I decided to go out for a ride to help me think. I find it hard to talk about tragedies and atrocities when they happen, but I figured that my group of students would want to discuss how to deal with and respond to the mass killing in Orlando. It was not at all hard to find links to articles outlining Buddhist responses to tragedies: this one from Gil Fronsdal (whose views I often find inspiring) in the aftermath of Sept 11th, from Ethan Nichtern after the Boston Marathon bomb, and a more in-depth scholarly look by Peter Hershock, so I sent those around as a foundation for our group discussion.

I rode round Paradise Drive; three hours or so, and relatively flat. We had seen the shorefront houses of Tiburon from the roam on Angel Island the day before, and now I was seeing the island close by from the waterfront of the headland. I reflected on how, of course, the terrain was similar for both places – with one more built up, but also more wooded. The wind blew strongly across the bay both days, clouds passing quickly overhead, the water taking on many hues. Much of the time, on both outings, the rustling of leaves was the predominant sound. There was not much traffic on Paradise Drive; on Angel Island we were perhaps the fastest people on the road, and we were pedalling along chatting with a family of four out on three bikes – the smallest helping the mother on an extension of her bike. On the island we had seen cormorants, seagulls, turkey vultures and hummingbirds all navigating the eddies of the wind; on Paradise Drive a large wild turkey stood in the road, watched me pass, then started trotting after me as if trying to catch a bus.

I reflected that when terrible things happen, seemingly out of the blue, we look for answers, but that anger, and fear, tend to constrict the range of possibilities of what we can hold, and the result can be simply a process of inclusion and exclusion that may seem to offer reassurance, but does not come closer to real understanding.

Among the other articles I read on Monday, I had also looked at an interview with Vanessa Redgrave. At times it seemed the journalist was trying to catch her out with supposed inconsistencies in things she had said over the years, and I enjoyed her retort: “If you’re not happy to embrace contradictions you’re not going to get very far in understanding anything.”

Our practice as Buddhists always means looking deeply into causes and conditions –  and this might mean there are no easy answers. How much can we hold at one time? Can we allow for uncomfortable feelings and views? The group on Monday night had a sober discussion, which I think steered everyone towards finding an authentic response within themselves, and recognising that this inner work will have benefits in the outer world. Small benefits, perhaps, but important ones.


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