Bicycle advocate Richard Ballantyne wrote in the seventies that travelling through the countryside in a car was not really getting out in touch with nature because it is ‘just more TV’. He meant that we’re watching the countryside through a window, which might as well be a TV screen. He contrasted this with riding a bike, when we are actually exposed to the world with no intervening barrier. That rang true with me and influenced me not a little. But recently I’ve started to feel that even riding a bike, or walking, sometimes seems like just more TV.
I have become a devotee of barefoot running, for a number of reasons, one of which (not the main one) is that it makes me feel more connected to the Earth. When you spend as much of your day staring at a computer screen as I do, you really value experience that is visceral, real and immediate, rather than pixels floating before your eyes.
And yet I feel that even then, it is not immediate enough. If I have aches and pains it is quite immediate. But if I’m just jogging happily along, I don’t feel much at all. There’s some minor sensations in the soles of my feet each time they touch the ground but apart from that it’s like I’m just a video camera perched on top of this 174cm transportation device, viewing the passing landscape in a passive way.
This bemuses me. It’s as if my effort to not just ‘watch more TV’ is thwarted, even when I am at my most engaged and earthy. I wonder what I could do to make it more immediate. Once or twice I have, when finished, stooped down and buried my face in the grass, to directly feel and smell the Earth. This gives a bit more, but still it seems somewhat remote. Plus it sometimes kicks off a bout of sneezing or itches.
Is the remoteness of TV and computer screen experience, rather than being a new thing, just an instance of the age-old conundrum that we only have a tenuous connection with ‘the world’ through our vague and often-faulty sensory apparatus?
I haven’t swum since last Summer. If I remember correctly, swimming sometimes seems to get us further into experiencing the world, because we are surrounded by a medium that touches all our skin and gets in our mouth and nose. And it’s cold – it’s hard to shrug that off! To dive into cold water is to instantly switch from one mode of existence to another. One’s very consciousness changes, in an all-encompassing way.
But when I run, I am surrounded by a medium – the air – as much as when I swim. I think it’s the thinness, the lack of viscosity of the medium of air that makes me feel as though I am not really connected to the world except at the soles of my feet.
If the intensity (or authenticity?) of the experience is proportional to the viscosity of the medium we experience then I suppose the ultimate experience would be to be surrounded by solid rather than water. A safe way to do this is to cover one’s body in sand at the beach, leaving the head uncovered. I used to dig myself in for fun when I was younger and my brothers sometimes did too. Or we’d dig each other in. It was fun to discover how much sand you had to pile on before it became hard work to break out.
The ultimate such experience would be when one is buried at a cemetery, so that one’s entire body is surrounded by the intense earthen medium. But as one is not alive then (assuming the certifying medical officer was on the ball), there is no experience.
In light of all that, I think there’s more to ‘really’ experiencing the world than just plenty of contact points and a thick intervening medium around the rest of me.
When I fall off my bike and hurt myself, the experience becomes more real. It seems different from TV then. It would be a bit silly though, to deliberately crash just so one could experience the world more authentically. And anyway there are other things one can do to increase immediacy, although they are short-lived. Decelerating sharply, cornering hard or swooping down into a dip all introduce sensations that go beyond the audiovisual.
Martin Heidegger had something to say about how we experience objects – or he seemed to – it’s often hard to have any very clear idea of what Heidegger was really saying. He divides the ways we can engage with objects into two types: ‘ready to hand’ (zuhanden) and ‘present at hand’ (vorhanden). The former is the type of engagement we have when we are using the object. The latter is when we are thinking about it, and that type of engagement only emerges as a consequence or derivative of the former. Heidegger’s archetypal example is a hammer. The hammer is ‘ready to hand’ when we are hammering. It is ‘present at hand’ when we think ‘look, there’s a hammer!‘. Both types of engagement are necessary. Without ready-to-hand we’d never get those nails into the wood, and without present-at-hand we’d never be able to design new, better hammers, or buy them at the hardware shop. But Heidegger thinks that people, and philosophers in particular, become way too obsessed with the present at hand. Maybe he’s right, but it’s hard to undo the habits of a lifetime.
Zen makes a point of engaging with the world too, although, as with Heidegger, it’s hard to know if one has ever properly understood the point of any Zen practice or statement, or even if there was one. Raking the pebbles in a pebble garden into precise patterns is a Zen practice that I interpret as being about engaging with the world via the rake and the pebbles in a ‘ready-to-hand’ way, with all intellectualising switched off.
For the infatuated, the desire to engage closely and totally can be overpowering. I remember as a young chap just after graduating high school, staring from a distance of about ten centimetres at the ear and neck of my girlfriend with whom I was heavily infatuated. I could see all the tiny pores of skin and where individual hairs projected out from their follicles. Somehow that intense amount of detail brought me a frustrating feeling of separateness, that I could see no way to bridge. Perhaps it is this frustration with separateness that leads lovers to make ridiculous metaphorical exclamations like ‘I could eat you up’ or ‘I love her so much that I want to be her’. Sometimes, to the besotted, no degree of separation is tolerable, however small.
It’s interesting that for the deeply infatuated, powerful feelings can highlight the feeling of separateness, while in other circumstance, feelings are what makes an experience more real. As I mentioned, when one is cold or in physical pain one tends not to feel like a video camera mounted on a mobile platform. One ‘inhabits’ the pain, in a sense. It becomes the entirety of one’s world. Similarly, when one is hammering some Heideggerian nails, with great concentration, into an intricate carpentry project, one inhabits the activity of hammering. One is not a separated observer.
So it seems that feelings can either increase or decrease the feeling of separateness from the world, depending on the context. Zen has much that relates to eliminating feelings and ‘just being’. I think one is not supposed to feel anything much when raking a pebble garden. One is supposed to concentrate so intently on the task at hand that one becomes the rake, or even becomes the activity of raking itself.
David Hume said in his ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ that when he went in search of what people call ‘the self’, all he could find was a bundle of sensations, that came and went in a disorganised, uncoordinated fashion. He couldn’t find any persistent object that could be called the self, and doubted that there was one. Nagarjuna, writing in the 2nd– 3rd century CE, even believed he had proved that there could be no persistent self. From this point of view, the bundle of sensations is all there is, so there is no separateness from the world or other objects, because the world is those sensations, as experienced by all sentient beings, regarded as a massive collection. If so then my jogging along barefoot, feeling only the soles of my feet and a bit of a breeze, is no less authentic and immediate an experience of the world than is anything else. But so also is my watching telly.
There are plenty of good reasons to ensure that getting out in the fresh air and burying one’s face in the long grass form a part of our activities as much as telly-watching or web-surfing. But perhaps ‘authentically engaging with the world’ is not one of them.
Of course, I don’t know whether ‘authentically engaging with the world’ – a phrase I just made up – is something that many people care about. Richard Ballantyne, David Hume, Martin Heidegger and Zen practitioners seemed to think that that or something like it was a subject worthy of attention, and it interests me. But maybe other people just get on with their lives, and never feel like a mobile video camera.
This essay is all over the place. But what should one expect when one is trying to speak about the unspeakable?
Bondi Junction, March 2015
One bright winter Thursday, in my last years of high school, I went for a bike ride in the morning. Thirty kilometres, quite hard, with plenty of hills. I didn’t have to go to school until 11 o’clock because I had a double free period. After arriving home and having a shower I went into the lounge room, put on a record – Schumann’s piano concerto – and made myself a cup of instant coffee (this was long before the days of personal espresso machines, not that my parents could have afforded one anyway).
The lounge room had a large window into which the sun was streaming, and outside I could see the nearby gum trees and the far off blue-green hills. My leg muscles had that pleasant, achey feel that tells of a hard job, well-done, and I felt very relaxed – full of endorphins perhaps.
It was the first time I had fully realised how marvellous Schumann’s piano concerto is. It has great swelling surges and a captivating momentum, especially in the last movement. It is deeply romantic in its expressivity, yet has a classical sense of drive and purpose. I had read not long before someone’s opinion that Schumann was only really a “miniaturist”, writing well for solo piano or accompanied singer, but that his attempts at large orchestral works were failures. “How wrong that critic is!” I thought as I thrilled to the surges and rhythms of the orchestra and the piano in response. Relishing the music, relishing the warm sunlight (on a chilly but bright winter’s day), relishing the coffee, relishing the gentle, worthy ache of my quads. Relishing the fact that I, a mere schoolboy at an undistinguished Catholic school, was free until 11 o’clock, and that the ride to school was mostly downhill.
This, I thought, is an excellent experience. I must remember this.
And I have. More than thirty years later, the sounds of that Schumann concerto still transport me back to that sunny lounge room.
Last week I had another great experience. I was just riding along a bush-lined path next to the airport. I had been feeling a little seedy earlier but now, after about half an hour on the bike, I was warmed up and felt a harmonious unity with nature as I swooped around corners and over dips and bumps. I am dancing Nataraja, dancing the cosmic dance that is the universe.
I doubt I’ll remember last week in thirty years, should this body last that long. I’ve already forgotten key elements – there was more to the feeling of well-being than I can remember even at this short interval. Perhaps I need a musical accompaniment, a taste or a smell, to really fix something in my memory.
My life contains these rare moments when there is a feeling of tremendous well-being. There are many more moments of dullness, routine, embarrassment, discomfort, sadness, fear and anger, as well as plenty of feelings on the positive side – relief, comfort, amusement, intellectual stimulation, success, kinship, love – that are appreciated, but not remembered for a lifetime.
People sometimes talk of wishing to “bottle” a special moment, to make it last. I can’t make it last, and I realise that trying to do so would be counter-productive. Clinging destroys the beauty and pleasure of the moment. In fact, part of the reason why such moments are so special is that they are different from the everyday. They are precious because they are rare of occurrence and finite of duration. But we can preserve all of the moment that is worth preserving by fixing it in our memory. We can write it down, or just set some mental markers to make it easy to recall. The Schumann and the coffee are the markers for my marvellous Thursday in 1979.
Each life is a work of art, a pattern, a dance, a song, a tapestry, and each individual is the creator of their own artwork. The artworks of all the different individuals mingle to make a grand panoply of colour and movement. We can make decisions and perform actions that enrich our own art work and those of others as well. Works of art need contrasts: highs and lows, louds and softs, fast bits and slow, pastels and primary colours, rough and smooth textures. If we can internalise the understanding of that sufficiently well then perhaps we will appreciate times of sadness, fear or pain as well as times of pleasure.
So I will pay more attention to the feelings that life arouses. If they are negative, I will try to view them as interesting, curious anomalies, phenomena to be studied. If they are positive I may do that too, but I will also try to make mental bookmarks to be able to recall them later on. Perhaps at times of great sadness it will be helpful to view the strife in the context of past joys, to reclaim, at least in part, the feeling of aesthetic necessity of such times as part of the grand pageant that this life is.
Perhaps it’s even worth mentally bookmarking some negative times for later reference. That may enhance the enjoyment of the positive ones, as well as assisting the holistic perspective. I can think of some past experiences of fear, pain (physical and emotional) and embarrassment on which I can look back quite equably now, perhaps even fondly.
But I’ll not pretend that I don’t enjoy the good experiences more. I do. Even one of those experiences is enough to justify this life. I have been very fortunate. I hope that everybody can have at least one experience like my Schumann moment before they die.
Friedrich Holderlin’s marvellous poem “To the parcae” expresses this rather well:
Grant me but one good summer, you Powerful Ones!
And but one autumn, ripening for my song,
So that my heart, fulfilled by sweet play,
Might the more willingly die, contented.
once I lived as the gods live, and more we don’t need.
A postscript. It’s not just about the bike. The two positive experiences I relate above involve bikes, but that’s not always the case. Many involve exercise, it’s true. I can remember running around Centennial Park on a sunny winter morning about twenty years ago (there’s something about sunny winter mornings that seems particularly conducive to well-being), watching the fence fly past me and thinking “I’m running so fast, and I can’t even feel my feet touch the ground!”. There are also wonderful, memorable moments involving one’s children or spouse. I have less of them though. I think the mind is too distracted during the years of child-rearing, by tiredness, busyness and endless to-do lists, to be able to focus well enough to form sustainable coherent memories. But the rareness of memories of such moments makes them extra special.
Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 May 2013