Why I am more happy after riding a bicycle across the world
Hello, my name is Bas, but actually I'm a random pile of subatomic particles that for some reason learned how to use a bunch of them to hit keys in some order on a machine with a screen that humans call a laptop. I'm an over-developed monkey sitting on a soft-surfaced 4-legged L-shaped device called a chair in a neatly assorted hump of bricks called a house flying through space at supersonic speeds on a rotating rock covered with water. Good, that got me writing for the sake of starting to write. I've felt an urge to write lately, and just starting writing will hopefully get me into some sort of flow of creation. So bear with me. I'm a: millenial, Amsterdammer, nature fanatic, son, procrastinator, mammal, friend, adventurer, philosopher, male, Dutchman, fan of awkward, entrepreneur, brother, traveler, meditator, snowboarder, ex-boyfriend, consumer, European, introvert, old cheese lover, wanderer, nephew, fingertip-biter, musician, world citizen, and while being all that, I feel pretty insecure about being all that.. and that ladies & gents makes me human. Ok, warmed-up, let me pause for a moment to remember the intended subject of this piece of text to steer my funky five-tentacled ends of my arms to hit keys that actually start making sense.
... pause ...
Alright, sorry for the distraction there. I remember why I started writing now. I want to write about my spiritual growth over the past year in which I rode a bicycle from Amsterdam to Singapore. In talking to my friends and family from the moment I arrived back home a month ago I notice a manyfold of ways in which I can share my experiences. I can share the trip as it was on a physical level: "I then crossed the Chinese border, saw a giraffe sitting in the top of a pine tree. It winked at me. To keep my sanity I decided to ignore it and quickly cycled past." But although I am able to share a ton of crazy anecdotes at this rather superficial level, it isn't these stories that matter most. Lets head deeper into the experience, to the level of thoughts, feelings and emotions. This adds me, the person, to the story: "I felt a bit scared crossing the Chinese border specifically because of the unusual stories I'd heard of the country. And to my horror, the first thing I saw was a giraffe in the top of a pine tree winking at me. I was petrified as I saw my prejudice about the country crystallize. I freaked out, shot into my fight-or-flight mode and started paddling past the creature like I was on fire. When I came to a stop some kilometers down the rode I shat myself out of the fear this would ever happen again." Because of the person being more present in the second story it is a lot more relatable, I mean, anyone would shit themselves in that situation. But still this way of storytelling doesn't touch upon the permanent changes one undergoes on a trip like this. Which gets me to the deepest level on which one can share a story: that of personal development, the level of spiritual growth. Emphasis on this level is put on the permanent effects on my being, which in the context of this rather silly example would translate to something like: "It was the moment I saw a giraffe up in a pine tree winking at me that it hit me: I've been shitting myself seeing giraffes in treetops all my life, but what if, what if I just face my fears this time and build the courage to wink back. Shitfaced, I winked. The giraffe winked back. Ignoring the raging fear throughout my body I decided to wink again, twice. To my surprise the giraffe smiled, and winked back twice. It was a moment of pure beauty. It was right then that I conquered my large-mammal-in-pine-trees phobia. Shat myself out of relieve this time even tough."
In sharing my story I notice that my interest isn't in sharing the first or even the second level experiences so much. It is too much and too overwhelming to discuss over a year full of adventure around physical facts and their short term emotional consequences. But when I dig deep into the third level of experience during a conversation I notice people take better notice for a simple reason: it discusses why I feel much more happy, calm and satisfied now I made this trip as compared to a couple of years ago. This is what people want to hear, reflect upon and potentially extract some lessons in getting more happy and at ease themselves. And exactly this is what I feel I currently want to share with my loved ones, or anyone interested in my story for that sake. This has been the writing urge. And that's the motive for writing this post: to structure my own thoughts and to find words that capture the personal life lessons that came from the 13 month bicycle trip. I will try to grasp the developments that made me come back a more happy and wise person. I will try to describe my spiritual growth of the past year(s). But before I dive in I would like to spend some words on how I perceive spiritual growth.
I perceive spiritual growth as making steps towards getting to know oneself better and better. To get to understand the answer to the question 'who am I?' better and better. I even rewrote the purpose of this blog to revolve around my own search to answering this question. I've seen myself, and many people around me, being caught up in an ego, a concept of self: a collection of beliefs about oneself that embodies the answer to "who am I?" Surely one could be satisfied defining oneself on the physical level like I did in the first paragraph of this post, but what I've noticed in life so far is that any such definition limits the richness of life. It limits being human to the full potential. My reasoning is as follows: identifying yourself around a self-concept inherently creates a belief system of who you are as a person. This belief system in turn limits your ability to be open to what else you could be or already are as a person. Let me give you a personal example. For a long long time (from graduating highschool to my first year into my first job after university) my LinkedIn profile stated:
I'm a hard working, entrepreneurial spirited Dutchy. I aim to combine strategy with sustainability since I believe this to be a necessity in this fast-paced short-term focused world
I thought long about this description back then and decided this truly reflected my deepest being at the time. But by really believing this was me, I unconsciously put a pressure onto my shoulders of 1) having to be hard-working, 2) being entrepreneurial spirited and 3) finding a job that combined strategy with sustainability (which is funny cause I badly wanted to be entrepreneurial simultaneously). Moreover, the description reveals a deep agitation I had with my own world: I found it to be too fast-paced and too short-term focused. When I began extensive self-analysis I noticed that not only had I build enormous mental pressures that were reflected by issues in my body (I'll get to that later), I more importantly had completely neglected parts of me by thinking I was a young, tough, undefeatable man that was on the brink of a super successful career. I lived for the future. What I only saw later was that this self-concept oblitorated my ability to understand my vulnerabilities, feelings and emotions. And since I neglected these aspects of myself, a proper conversation about vulnerabilities, feelings and emotions was far from possible. I would literally shut down if someone genuinely asked me how I was feeling. I starting realizing how much more beautiful life became when I allowed space to grow these aspects though. I now understand expressing vulnerability is one of the strongest bonding mechanisms between people for example. And I now understand the origin of my previous inability to connect to people beyond relative superficial conversations. It was because I held onto a self-concept. In other words, I had limited my human potential because of a deeply held concept of self, my ego. And to put that into a cheesy metaphor: one will never become a butterfly if one gets stuck into believing he/she is a caterpillar. So whereas I earlier framed spirituality to revolve around answering the question 'who am I?', my own experience thus far actually hints towards spirituality to be one's personal path to loose any answer to the question 'who am I?'. Once one loses all answers to the question one is able to open up to the full range of experiences that life has to offer. And no, although realizing this fact is a good start, I'm definitely not there yet.
Because my personal spiritual path didn't begin on my bicycle journey I'll briefly describe the insights I obtained before the trip. After, I'll describe progress made on the trip, divided in growth on the actual physical journey and the growth that came from a Vipassana meditation retreat at the end. I'll round off by describing what it was like to come home.
before the trip
I long perceived intelligence to be aiming for the highest possible career option and controlling the future as firm as possible to achieve that. I lived for the future and expected myself to be able to create it according to my wishes. I even tried hard to control the perception others had of me, trying to make impressions that would confirm their idea of my path of success. It got me totally stuck at some point. Read about how I got unstuck by making my first spiritual steps in this post. During these initial steps I went from being led by a concept of self I fought to maintain to being able to let go of believes about myself. I refound feelings and rediscovered intuition. I was setting myself free from my own expectations. It was in this period I repeatedly told my then-girlfriend I worried about getting incredibly dumb. I seriously thought I had a big problem with a brain getting numbed out or so it felt. I now look back and realize I wasn't getting stupid: I had always perceived intelligence to be the extend to which I was able to control my future, it was in this period that I noticed my urge to control the future slowly dissolve, the continuous I-control-my-future train of thought in my head came to a hold. This made me feel stupid. However, the opposite was true: instead of getting dumb I was more and more able to live the moment. It made me sensitive to what I desired on a much deeper level than the superficial desires produced by the ego. Before I dive into these deeper desires, these initial spiritual steps had a significant impact on an average workday which I'll describe next.
Previously, I would start my day in a hurry: waking up, checking phone notifications, jumping under the shower, getting dressed, quickly prepping some breakfast, and racing my bicycle to work. During all this my head was at work already, in the time-frame of waking up till getting to work a 15-itemed to-do list had stacked itself up in my head: the mind overflowing already. I got to work pretty stressed, rewarding myself with a coffee first thing, slowly sipping it at my desk to build the energy to get started on the 15-itemed list. When at the end of the day I would have finished 3 out of the 15 to do's, I would condemn myself, work an extra hour overtime, and get home grumpy. When I got rid of this unhealthy goal-oriented work style mainly by means of meditation, my rhythm slowly progressed to the following: I get up early to have about a 3 hour period from waking up to getting to work. I try to remember any dreams or special experiences during the night first thing. After, I meditate for about 30min, then shower, get dressed and cook all the meals for the day. Most of the time I have some minutes left to read or do some stretching before riding my bike to work lazily. Up till the moment I sit down at my desk I haven't thought about work yet. The mind is spacious and calm. Magically though, through intuition, I figure out the top 3 out of the 15 to do's within 2 minutes and get to work straight away, aiming to finish all three that day. Having worked productively I am able to finish 4 out of 15 to do's before 5pm, I feel satisfied, decide to go home early, have spare time to do sports, hang with friends or just sit on the couch at home being happy.
Besides increased efficacy, focus and concentration, this extra time and energy had a way more impactful effect. I had always had a dream to make some sort of extreme journey, but I never felt the space, time and courage to actually start researching what form that should take. The extra time and additional energy provided the necessary mental space to start seriously researching what this dream entailed, why it was there, and how I could make it come true. It provided the space to allow this seed to grow in me enough to decide to chase it. It was the moment I decided to cut back work to 2 days a week to start preparing for what would become a 13 month bicycle journey that life really sucked me into a flow. A flow towards living my dream. Read about this effortless period of preparation and how my flow even sucked in Discovery Channel to become a business partner on this journey in this post. Relevant here is that, for the first time in my life, I had discovered some source of energy in myself that seemed endless and was incredibly powerful. I noticed that this flow-of-life kind of energy was highly contagious: whenever I spoke about my dream, the journey, my energy would enthuse other people who would in turn jump in to help make it come true.
I think I can sum up my spiritual path up to the bicycle journey as follows:
- I am not my ego - I had realized I had been stuck in a self-concept for a long time. Unshackling from a pressuring self-concept provided me with more energy, more positivity and more powerful ways to connect with people
- I am not my perceived intelligence - I experienced how spare mental space previously occupied by planning for the future allowed for deep desires to surface
- I am not the product of my past - I had realized that my deep desire was profoundly unrelated to anything I had done before. I realized the ego causes inertia, fear and resistance to follow a dream. It took a bunch of courage to go from 'I'm an high-potential career tiger' to 'I want to be homeless and cycle the world for ambiguous reasons'. It set me free once I dared.
Most importantly, I had experienced how life can feel like a wrestling match vs. how it can flow effortlessly while being more productive at the same time. High on life I left Amsterdam on my bicycle on March 26th 2017.
during the trip
In search for the answer to the question 'who am I?' the tour on the bicycle was as much a journey outwards into the big wide open world as it was a journey inwards into the body. Surely there are physical barriers like getting lost, a bull blocking your way or a freezing hail storm at 4000m altitude, but there is continuous choice of how to deal with it mentally. Like emphasized in the must-read post for everyone considering a bicycle trip, it's mind over matter. Therefore, although it sounds impressive to cycle the world, the physical journey is a lot less important than is the inward journey of discovering your own mental limitations. Through this journey, I've actually come to see running into mental limitations as a blessing since it notifies potential areas of growth.
Wandering the globe with nothing more than a bicycle and the gear to stay alive dissolves the ego and frees one from any attachment unconsciously built up during a previous lifestyle. Having come back to Amsterdam, I feel there is nothing that ties me to anything, which in turn makes it impossible to define who I am. I feel this is ultimate freedom and am working hard to keep up this state of mind. For myself, in other words, I've more and more come to believe it is incredibly healthy to have no answer to the 'who am I?' question. Therefore as a way to share my lessons I will state 'whom I'm not' certainties like I did at the end of the previous section. Those certainties are just as valuable in getting to know oneself better, especially since I feel the following are common traps in today's high-speed society. Renunciation, i.e. distancing myself from a previous lifestyle and environment, provided a ton of important insights into what I'm not:
I am not the product of my past or the plans for my future
Unconsciously everyone carries a frame of reference that is determined by one's culture, childhood, parents, peers, work, lifestyle, etc. It's the shortcut the brain makes to not have to think about the unnecessary details of life. Drop this frame of reference completely and you'll have a hard time functioning. Water from a tap or an airplane passing by overhead appears to be magic instead of something self-evident. These shortcuts create expectations as to what we consider normal in our lives, it's everything you unconsciously take for granted. A longterm trip on a bicycle is the ultimate way to drop what you consider to be a normal rhythm of life. It is the ultimate way to distance yourself from your own frame of reference. It is the ultimate way to discover all the things you've taken for granted unconsciously. On my bicycle journey I've lost all fixed idea's of what anything should look, hear, smell or taste like since I've been confronted with changes on all these aspects on a daily basis. This became apparent whenever I had friends or family visit me on the trip. They brought with them the Western frame of reference and noticed all the differences compared to home, I had lost mine in the meantime and observed reality without opinion or an urge to compare. Changing all aspects of a rhythmic life (what to eat, where to sleep, who you meet, etc.) on a daily basis breaks down a frame of reference. I.e. it breaks down any expectation of the future based off patterns from the past. Without a frame of reference, I found myself not longing to a past phase of my life. Neither was I creating expectations for the future. I was merely facing reality from moment to moment. I was forced into the now continuously. Continuously residing in the now without thoughts into the past or future allowed me to see that thoughts are easily controllable. I found there was a choice of what to think every single moment, and I even realized I was able to decide to not think at all. In this state of mind, life becomes highly steerable, unrelated to one's past and without longing for a certain future. More significantly, with zero expectations, I came to see everything on my path as a gift. Every meeting with a local, every meal, every drop of drinking water, every pretty camp-spot, and yes, I even came to see every mental and physical struggle as a gift in the form of a challenge or test to be overcome. From the moment I departed on this trip life has felt like one big rollercoaster of gratitude.
I am not the things I own
Obviously, the biggest detachment from my belongings occurred the moment I left. I detached from all the stuff I owned, caring only for the functional gear I needed on the road. It had to be as small and lightweight as possible to fit in 6 bags. I had bought high-end gear and some of the newest camera's around to shoot the D TOUR footage. At the start of the trip, I was having tough times detaching from that gear since I carried a firm believe that all of it was necessary to make the journey, the dream, come true. Especially the first nights of wildcamping in Eastern Europe got me on my nerves. It was hard to leave the thought that I was a complete moron to pitch my tent somewhere random and leave gear worth close to €15.000 "up for grabs" while I closed my eyes. The more the trip progressed though the more I was able to detach. Losing things was incredibly inconvenient (like the time I left my rain jacket and pants a day before we would be riding through yet another snowstorm on the Tadjik highlands or the time I lost a crucial part of my stove that prevented fuel from leaking. I used it anyway and almost set our campsite on fire in Uzbekistan) or got me stuck somewhere for a while to find replacement (like the time the rear rim of the bicycle cracked in Kazakhstan and I got stuck waiting for a new one to arrive for two weeks) but never stopped me on my trip. I came to realize that even in the most remote places there would be ways to survive without any gear. However cliché the lesson: life goes on, even if you own nothing. Conversely, I would argue life gets easier, more free and light the less you own. The less belongings the less chance of attachment, the less chance of ego building up. Dissolving the ego is the motive behind monks not owning anything and going around to beg for food in their neighborhoods for example.
I guess these two lessons, not attaching to one's past/future and not attaching to belongings, have been the most important lessons this trip has brought me. It might come across a bit daunting I do realize. I'm basically saying it is a good thing to not attach to any idea one has about oneself and to not attach to anything one owns at all. It begs the question: how can it be that when I empty myself of just about anything that makes me feel human, it makes me an even happier being? Without me realizing it at the time, I wrote part of the answer to this question on the wall of the abandoned Russian military base that me, Daniël and Marc (fellow cyclists) used as a base camp to climb a 5k mountain.
Don't mind the SpongeBob, I just really enjoy contrasting deep spiritual philosophical stuff with the apparent superficiality of kid cartoons (although SpongeBob seems pretty enlightened I have to say). Honestly, it's the only thing I've learned myself how to draw. Point in case here is that once one empties his-/herself of any attachment love, compassion and yes, fascination remain. Thus, in my experience the more distanced one is from any concept of self and the more one is able to detach from belongings, the more someone resides in unconditional love and compassion. Surfacing during the most desolate stretch on my journey, this quote therefore holds wisdom pertaining to the physical world as well as to my spiritual path. I've felt my heart open and open more and more during my trip. The more empty I felt, the more I was able to truly connect to locals (most of the time without using words). The more I lost any idea of who I am or what I carried, the more grew the fascination and wonder for the beauty of the world.
Like for all lessons coming from impactful life-experiences, I've not been able to articulate them right on the spot. They always start making sense after some time. Actually, I think I would have never been able to be so keen on them so soon if I hadn't taken 10 days to sit still on a pillow for 10 hours a day.
Around 10 years ago I had heard of a Vipassana meditation retreat from a friend. It sounded so incredibly irrational and just plain stupid to sit closed eyed for 10 days back then. A complete waste of time. I completely ignored even the possibility it could have been a good thing for him. But experiencing the benefits of daily meditation myself years later, I remembered his story and promised myself I would try once. It was on my trip in China and Vietnam that I came to speak about Vipassana with four backpack travelers on seperate occasions. One had just done it for the first time, one went twice a year and two others were gonna go soon. It felt like there was no way back: I clicked so well with these people specifically, it was the signal I had to do such a retreat on this trip. I subscribed to a 10-day course in Malaysia that would take place three months later. I guessed I would make it in time there on the bicycle. I rode through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and got to the Eastcoast of Malaysia in time.
Now, I don't want to get too much into the specifics of my experience during the retreat because hearing about anyone's experience might create expectations for your own, if you ever decide to do something like it. Since everyone's spiritual path is unique, any of my specific experience will not be too relevant for your own. I will however share an Instagram post that I shared afterwards that captures the core of my experience. I'll try to share a generalized story of the experience after.
Vipassana is a meditation technique that allows you to experience that your karma (all of your past positive & negative actions, words, and thought) is stored in your body. First, you train your mind to stop thinking, allowing it to focus your attention inwards. Next you train yourself to objectively observe any sensation throughout the body. By not giving the unconscious mind a chance to react to the sensations you are able to face them. The law of nature is such that this equanimity allows the body to start healing the stock of negativity. Practically seen, you are sitting 10 hours a day for 10 days with continuous pains while trying to smile at them. A small personal example relating to you as an Instagram/Facebook follower: on day 7 my right arm was struck with a ferocious pain that started in my thumb. Expecting it might have to do with a craving for attention online, I tested the hypothesis by thinking of a new post after the arm was healed. By playing around with thoughts on how this post should be build up, slowly but surely the exact same area in the arm started glowing again, creating a new pain in the long run. This is just a minor example of all the mind/body impurities that got resolved during the past weeks. Realising how ill my body still was at day 10 I applied to serve on the next 10 day course. The meditation center accepted and I was able to heal further. With a renewed body & mind I'm cycling my way south to Singapore now. Unlike before, I'm highly aware on the bike looking for a posture that doesn't allow the buildup of any negativity. With the same caution I'm clicking the share button for this post, diving into my body straight after to observe potential harm done. I want to get this out there though because it has been one of the most powerful things I've experienced in life. With this experience added to the journey, it has given me everything I could wish for. I'll be flying home from Singapore soon to be reunited with my friends & family. If this post has sparked a curiosity with respect to the Vipassana technique make sure to check out dhamma.org for all the center locations around the world. Be happy.
Vipassana meditation gave me the insight that all mental defilements correspond to bodily defilements. So like in the small example from the Instagram post above, every bodily pain has an unhealthy thought counterpart. They in essence are one and the same thing: if you get rid of the issue in the body, you'll notice the unhealthy thought pattern dissolve too, if you change your thought pattern, you'll notice the physical issue to disappear. So what are problematic thought patterns? Thoughts are unhealthy and create bodily strains when they can be subdivided into one of two categories: desires and aversions. To provide an example for each: one likes a sensory input and creates a desire for more, like when you open that Pringles can for just two chips but find yourself finishing the thing over the next 5 minutes, or one dislikes a sensory input and creates an aversion against it, like when it's cold and you actually get colder because you start complaining about it. Wim Hof aka The Iceman is the extreme living proof of mind over matter in that sense. The more you get stuck in desires and aversions, the more issues will build up in the body. Besides, not only current impure thought patterns are creating problems in the body, all past impure thinking patterns have been stored in the body. Problematically, there is no way of noticing this process at first. The unhealthy bodily sensations occur at the unconscious level: you don't feel them at all. This is why some of us get to doctors way too late for an issue to be properly taken care of. Similarly, I thought my body was pretty healthy, I never had serious complaints: I mean I was able to run a marathon and cycle to Malaysia with my body so it has to be healthy, right? Well, not quite.
During the Vipassana I learned my body carried a lot of trash at the unconscious level. It was right there in the body, I just hadn't learned how raise my consciousness to be able to feel or treat them. So for 10 days I practiced mind-control and aimed the increased attention inwards. I discovered the desire to establish my I'm-a-high-potential-at-the-start-of-a-successful-career self-concept to reside in my shoulders as enormous pressure for example. It had manifested itself as large energy blockades that made parts of my body highly insensitive. I even discovered an aversion and a fear for death in my right foot. This I realized got build up between the age of 7 and 9 when I was confronted with the death of close relatives multiple times. By not generating new sensory input and unhealthy thoughts during the long days of meditation, my body set out to cure these impurities, even ones from the far past. This is what the meditation course has brought me: a technique to not only purify the body but a technique to purify the mind simultaneously.
To put the core of my Vipassana experience in different words: karma isn't something that is controlled by some higher power or isn't floating around randomly. You are literally carrying around your own stock of negative karma in your body. Exactly this is what hit me on a experiential level when I meditated at such intensity. Not only was I able to stop the mind's continuous train of thought, I was able to stop the creation of new desires and aversions and with all this time in perfect equanimity I've been able to dissolve a large stock of negative karma in my body. It takes tremendous time and effort, but this is why I meditate. By purifying my body I purify my mind, I detach from a concept of self and am left with love, compassion and fascination. At the same time I experience a heightened level of energy, a deep feeling of satisfaction and calmness and a much stronger determination and sense of direction in life. I could share a lot more of the specifics of my body and the desires and aversions I got rid of, but I prefer doing that one-on-one with people. As for an introduction to the strength of the mind relating to bodily illness I recently watched the documentary HEAL. I think it's fascinating to see how Western scientific medicine is generally struggling with accepting 'impossible' cases of curing through methods like meditation. There is a lot to learn in the West. BTW.
Every night during the Vipassana course around an hour of theoretical and anecdotal discourse was given. These were the moments when the experience of the day aligned with the theory. This in itself was so powerful that I cried pretty much every night during these discourses. During one of them ten mental qualities that aid one in his/her effort to purify mind and body were elaborated on. This session made me see the immense spiritual value of not only the Vipassana course but specifically of the preceding bicycle trip. I'll run through these qualities explaining how both the retreat and the bicycle trip contributed to each.
mental quality #1 - renunciation
This is the mental trait that the bicycle trip contributed to most as I described earlier. Long term bicycle touring is the ultimate way to renunciate from a fixed lifestyle, a self-concept and possessions. Renunciation is done for the purpose of dissolving the ego. And just like monks go around to beg for food, I've been knocking on doors to ask for food, water and places to stay. A Vipassana course in itself enhances this quality since the whole experience is made possible by the charity of others. Old participants donate because they selflessly want others to experience the benefits of Vipassana too. This in my eyes makes Vipassana the purest form of spiritual retreat/program/course I've participated in. Accepting whatever is offered as food, accommodation, or other facilities, one gradually develops the quality of renunciation. Whatever one receives in the meditation center or when knocking on someone's door while bicycle touring, one makes best use of it. Since Vipassana is free of charge, you realize you are working hard to purify the mind not only for your own good, but also for the good of the unknown person who donated on your behalf.
mental quality #2 - morality
Morality encompasses abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech and all intoxicants. The first three feel obvious and are easy to follow. Wrong speech is more ambiguous, but basically means: no lying or no speech that is not aimed at helping others. No intoxicants means no drugs, alcohol or anything else that influences the mind. In the meditation course, there is no opportunity to break these precepts, because of the heavy programme and discipline. Only in speaking is there any likelihood of one's deviating from strict observance of morality. For this reason one takes a vow of silence during the course. In this way, at least within the period of the course, one keeps perfect morality. To a lesser extend bicycle touring will force one to keep his/her morality too. For the simple reason that you're alone most of the time, there is not much opportunity for wrong speech, and since you're highly sensitive to your body because you practice sports every day, taking intoxicants can be disastrous for your riding. My tolerance for alcohol dropped to getting drunk from just two beers over the course of my trip. And worse (but for the better), I was feeling the effects of two beers for up till three days after.
mental quality #3 - effort
In daily life one makes efforts, for example to earn one's livelihood. In a Vipassana, the effort is to purify the mind by remaining aware and equanimous. This is right effort, which leads to liberation. Cycling the world takes effort, and if your intention of the trip is to grow personally this falls under right effort too. In that sense, I believe it is best to stick to personal growth as the main motive behind such a trip.
mental quality #4 - wisdom
In the outside world, one may have wisdom, but it is the wisdom one gains from reading books or listening to others, or merely intellectual understanding. The real mental perfection is the wisdom that develops within oneself, by one's own experience in life or in meditation. One realizes directly by self-observation the facts of impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. By this direct experience of reality one comes out of suffering. When practiced right, Vipassana meditation and long-term cycling, or any other endurance sport in that regard, share the practice of continuous self-observation, and thus fosters experiential wisdom.
mental quality #5 - tolerance
During a Vipassana retreat you live together in a group silently. You may find yourself becoming disturbed and irritated by the actions of another person. Tolerance is the quality that makes you realize that the person causing a disturbance is simply ignorant of what he is doing, or a sick person. Tolerance replaces irritation for a person with love and compassion for that person. Tolerance is most definitely developed while bicycle touring too. Complaining fellow cyclists, locals dumping trash on the side of the road and bribing border officials have all tested my ability to replace frustration with compassion.
mental quality #6 - truth
Every step on one's spiritual path must be a step with truth, from gross, apparent truth, to subtler truths, to ultimate truth. There should be no room for imagination. One must always remain with the reality that one actually experiences at the present moment. Staying with your own truth is what you do when you meditate, and, as I emphasized in pyramid analogy in the hurdles-in-bicycle-touring post, staying with your own truth is similarly crucial in enduring a bicycle touring lifestyle long term.
mental quality #7 - strong determination
When one starts a Vipassana course, one makes a determination to remain for the entire 10 day period of the course meditating 10 hours a day. One resolves to follow the moral precepts, the rule of silence, and all the discipline of the course. In bicycle touring one develops a strong determination mostly before departure. It was before my trip that I decided I wanted to stay away from home for a year. In avoiding a journey that would be too goal-oriented, this determination of time was more important than the determination to reach some place. Like I described in the post on running a marathon, it is though sometimes to balance between setting ambitious goals and when to decide the persistence to get there becomes unhealthy. Bicycle touring is an ultimate test in that sense.
mental quality #8 - pure, selfless love
In the past one tried to feel love and goodwill for others, but this was only at the conscious level of the mind. At the unconscious level the old tensions continued. When the entire mind is purified, then from the depths one can wish for the happiness of others. This is real love, which helps others and helps oneself as well. Although I cannot say I've purified the mind I can say that the trip on the bicycle opened my eyes to the selfless love people all around the world are able to give to strangers like me. Receiving selfless love like that substantially builds the ability to give back yourself.
mental quality #9 - equanimity
In meditation one learns to keep the balance of the mind not only when experiencing gross, unpleasant sensations in the body, but also in the face of subtle, pleasant, sensations. In every situation one understands that the experience of that moment is impermanent, bound to pass away. With this understanding one remains detached, equanimous. In bicycle touring staying equanimous is a lot more challenging because of the manyfold of sensory inputs that create sensations to which one reacts. But when one sees each difficult situation as a challenge to stay equanimous, one could actually start to enjoy pitching a tent in a dung-covered cowshed at -10°C in a highly remote mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan. Damn, even thinking about that night gets me exited again.
On a trip like this, the last days of riding shouldn't be the last days if they were easy: today some water machine swallowed my last coin while refusing to give me water, an unfindable glass splinter made me have 2 flats, temperatures rose to 40° again and this whole being-100%-honest-to-all-sensations-in-the-body Vipassana thing makes me more sore than ever. It is exactly these micro challenges that I will probably miss most though. Bicycle touring equals being tested mentally day in day out. It is one of the most beautiful ways of learning how to smile at, and even appreciate, misfortune. Which is an absolute art. One could say it's the art of living. The awas (=warning) sign on the second picture seems to warn for ups and downs. But are ups and downs really there if you appreciate both? I'm currently mentally prepping to extra extra enjoy the final 70km into Singapore tomorrow. Thanks Malaysia, you've been so good to me.
mental perfection #10 - charity, donation
Every person has the responsibility of earning money to support oneself and any dependents. But if one generates attachment to the money that one earns, then one develops ego. For this reason, a portion of what one earns must be given for the good of others. If one does this, ego will not develop, since one understands that one earns for one's own benefit and also for the benefit of others. The volition arises to help others in whatever way one can. Whatever one receives in Vipassana is donated by another person; there are no charges for room and board, and none for the teaching. In turn, one is able to give a donation for the benefit of someone else. As you might have noticed, the Vipassana meditation has been extremely valuable for me, both in direct personal growth through meditation as well as providing me a way to see the value of the entire bicycle trip in light of personal growth, as this entire post exemplifies. In no way am I able to donate this value in monetary terms (I gave €100 euro's), neither was I able to repay this value in terms of helping out at the center (I made a drone video for them and stayed to serve on the next 10 day course). I however instantly felt like sharing this method of self-healing and self-purification with just about anyone I love back home. I realize that there can be no greater help to others than to help them learn the way out of suffering. Surely the last thing I should do now is to go around demanding all my loved ones to sign up for the first next course. This would be counterproductive. The only thing I'm able to do is to share my story and keep it as close to my experience as I can. That is what I aimed to do with the words in this post: I am clarifying and structurizing the story for myself to be able to share it in an impactful manner. This is the only thing I can currently do to repay for the magnificent experience that was cycling to Singapore and doing Vipassana on the way. I cannot avoid thinking this is the perfect place to sneak in a link to the the global organization behind Vipassana courses for if my story sparked interest though :)
after the trip
I'm back home for just over a month now, and wow, coming home has been a journey in and of itself. On the time frame of a human life, of someone who has a static daily rhythm, 13 months isn't that long. I therefore don't see a whole lot of significant personal development around the people I love. However, everything is different at the same time. I feel I'm bringing a new way to connect to the people I love. I've changed, therefore everyone is changing their behavior towards me, changing them in my perception too. Fact is that I perceive everyone as having become more lovingful, positive and compassionate, probably because I'm able to see those qualities in them better. Changing your world is that easy, and yet so difficult, most certainly when it comes to people you've known for a long long time, like family members for which social dynamics tend to be pretty stuck. Fact is, and let me give you another cheesy cliché warning first, that you change your entire world by changing yourself.
When it come to getting back home after such a journey, it is also a big risk to forget about all the lessons you've learned quickly and sink back into old habits and old lifestyles. It has been very clear to me for example that I should tell all people asking about my trip about this spiritual journey more than any other aspect. Partly because it is most impactful but mostly to keep myself close to the state of mind I obtained on the journey, and to signal to people that I've changed and will not accept falling back into potentially negative social dynamics.
I feel eager to continue my spiritual growth. Searching for the right words for this post has been an important way to stick to the calm and clear state of mind I'm in. Besides, I've continued practicing Vipassana meditation twice a day for an hour ever since I left the meditation center in Malaysia. Due to instant results, I notice it requires no effort or discipline anymore. It's much easier to detach from all sensory input and thoughts after a day when I take the time to meditate at night and much easier to start a day positively and clear minded when I meditate straight after waking up.
Next to meditation I feel interested in other methods of spurring spiritual growth. Since I've noticed sports to be a significant method of self discovery, I started running again. Besides, I've gone to ecstatic dancing, I've drawn mandela's, I'm meditating and plan to pick up playing an instrument again. If you would have told me this a couple years ago in my I'm-a-high-potential-at-the-start-of-his-highly-succesful-career phase I would have absolutely not believed I would ever become this hippy. But now that I see hippy equals more happy, I'm absolutely stoked to go explore more hippy activities. I'm happy. Darn it, I just said I was something. Now the challenge is to not identify myself with happiness.. wow, life is complex.. no wait.. I mean fascinating.. you know what I mean.
To sum up:
- In my search to answer the question 'who am I?' I found that the less of an answer I've got the happier I am
- Bicycle touring has been an incredible way to detach from my frame of reference and from a concept of self
- Vipassana meditation has been a key enabler for me to understand the above two points and provides me with the technique to forever stay in the egoless domain of love, compassion and fascination
- I realise now all of the above has been in preparation to become the happiest man alive eating a krentenbol met oude kaas first thing after I got back home from the monstrous 13 month bicycle journey across the world. It's in the small things.