One year since Anna finished her job in Brussels and we pushed our shiny new bikes from her parents’ driveway to pedal to London. One year ago we were fighting the Flemish wind and winter rains and a storm across the English channel – a far cry from the sunny South African skies that surround us now.
It has been so much more than a year for us in terms of all we’ve experienced and learned. It’s hard not to feel like we’ve been on the road for decades, or even for our whole lives – maybe we will start celebrating November 17th as a birthday of sorts…
We ended our first year on a bit of a different note – not cycling (we haven’t touched the bikes since the last update in fact) but instead on a ten-day silent meditation retreat.
This may seem like something of a nonsequitor of course (weren’t we supposed to be biking back to Kenya?), but actually it is just as connected to the biking as anything else we’ve done. We’ve been interested in learning meditation for some time now, but it was only once we started cycling that we realized just how important it could be for us. Not that we’re not happy people – we are, we’re the happiest people we know in fact (except for Charlie, who we met in Namibia and who’s been cycling for nine years…) – but something which has surprised us maybe over the past year has been the extent to which external circumstances can only partially bring you happiness.
You can bike and travel and learn about the world and meet all kinds of extraordinary people, but in the end: wherever you go, there you are. And if you’re not at peace with yourself, you’ll never be at peace with your surroundings.
This is something we really learned in the desert – day after day with no distractions your mind just goes on a loop, reviewing every bit of insecurity or stupidity that has ever passed through your life. You start to feel like you’re biking around the inside of your own head rather than the world.
And then add to that the fact that we may be happy biking, but that we won’t be biking forever, that someday this will all end – and then what will we do? What will have been the point of it all if we’re miserable the moment the wheels stop turning?
After reading some about Buddhism (merci Matthieu Richard), we both felt like the time was right to learn some meditation. Friends in Brussels had told us about Vipassana, and when we e-mailed asking for more information they responded with a link – www.dhamma.org – and the news that there is a center near Cape Town and a class at the end of October.
Sure, why not?
I don’t think we knew what we were getting into. I would love to say that we researched various schools of meditation and thought through our choice and evaluated the options… But no, it was just what our friends told us to do. But that’s okay, it was the right choice for us: Vipassana is non-sectarian and non-religious, it doesn’t cost seven million dollars a day (it’s free), there’s no chanting to any deities, no rituals or rites, just observing reality as experienced by the body at the present moment.
It sounds so simple…
And yet, not simple at all. Two breaths, and up, I’m off wondering whether I left the oven on, but no, I don’t have an oven, though it would be nice to have an oven, I could make quiches and casseroles, and baked ziti – when was the last time I had baked ziti, when was the last time I even heard the word ziti. Which is a funny word for sure: ziti ziti ziti ziti… and ten minutes have gone by without paying attention to any breaths at all.
And so on, for eleven hours a day, for ten days straight…
All in silence. There is no talking allowed, no eye-contact, no smiles or hand signals. This is a bit of a pain when your wife is sitting across the room from you and you’re sure she might know whether you left the oven on or not, and I’ll admit that we did make eye-contact some after the eighth day, but otherwise there was nothing…
Though for the rest, the silence wasn’t too difficult for us actually – the cycling helped. If you have biked across Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, you’ve experienced silence. Even in a couple, on the road with no villages we still just roll along with no one to talk to. And then add to that years spent working as a writer – spending my days with no colleagues but the voices in my head – and yeah, silence wasn’t too much of a shock. Though silence for ten days and not being able to write, that was a bit harder than expected.
And so little by little the exercises got more complicated, though always based on the same idea – observing reality as experienced by the body at the present moment. After ten days, we were allowed to talk again, and though the week had been full of doubts and frustrations and boredom, suddenly we were all overwhelmed by the feeling that we need to do it again!
Certainly for our part, we feel like we have taken the first baby steps down a new path. Vipassana is a valuable tool, but it is deep and complex, and I don’t think we can say after a ten day course that we really grasp where this will lead us. There is a heap of philosophical reasoning behind all of these exercises, and I haven’t touched on it here but feel free to find books or to visit www.dhamma.org if you would like to learn more.
I do think we feel more at peace though, if only a little, and so we are trying to continue with our daily meditations to keep that feeling alive. And who knows, maybe if we have a good enough base in the technique our post-cycling days will be every bit as happy and satisfying as our cycling days.
We have time though – one year down, three (four? five? six?) to go!