“Why do this?” is nicely ambiguous as I’m trying to write something both about why I’m doing the cycle ride and also about why I’m creating this mix of site and blog. Without the ride there’d be no account so let’s start there.
Why the ride?
I’ve said a bit about autobiographical, personal historical, roots in my first blog post but that doesn’t really unpick the motivations nor does it address the timing which is that doing it on giving up clinical work, a sort of retirement step. I always planned that it would happen “when I retire” but retiring turns out to be more complex than I’d thought as I’m only retiring from clinical work and very much continuing with my research/academic work. I do intend to have a bit more of the week for pleasure when I return. However, my family would say, with some accuracy, “Oh, so you’ll take a day off perhaps some weekends!” They’re almost right: actually I intend to have at least one week day every week not for work: exhibitions in London are much less crowded on weekdays!
I’m dodging this explaining. This has always been about an experience that would have a meaning to it. I always thought it would have something that, for all that I’ve loved my work, working hadn’t. I’m agnostic: I have never had a clear conviction of religious belief or of there being “other powers” so this isn’t a traditional pilgrimage in the traditions that are strong particularly in Christianity and Islam. I’m not an atheist: I don’t feel I know that there is no system of belief that might be “right”, I don’t think I can know there is no “other power” and I have a lot of respect for the way religion and strong spiritual belief work for some people and seem to empower them to do good. However, I also fear and loathe the way that such belief almost as often seems to inspire people to hatred, contempt and rejection of other people and drives them to do horrific things.
So this isn’t a religious pilgrimage but, whereas I don’t have a religion, I have always felt a deep pleasure in both the natural and the creative worlds: I can get a huge mood lift from seeing a heron overhead perhaps while making my way through London traffic, or from a goldfinch coming to the food I put out in our back garden. Birds are the domain of the natural world I know best: I do know a bit about non-avian European mammals, I can recognise some UK/European trees but there are many I don’t know and I’m pretty hopeless at smaller plants and the entire fish and insect realms. I was a keen birdwatcher for a few years in my young adolescence. With two friends I went out in the fields and woods around Leamington Spa with trusty binoculars and inconspicuous, dull coloured clothes. I was never a twitcher: moving far to see a rare bird seemed wrong to me, and to miss the point. However, I remember an incredible surge of excitement when we saw a waxwing one very cold day. There was a surge of pleasure in knowing what this exotic thing was, that it was just sitting on a very ordinary field gate but sort of blessing us with its rarity and the fact that it had probably come a long way from somewhere much colder to give us the minutes we had before it flew off. However, fairly regular sightings had something almost as special a thrill: kingfishers, those wonderful herons, the three main UK woodpeckers, treecreepers, nuthatches. Even good minutes watching a robin or a wren could be calm and special.
Working hard pretty much from medical student days to now, and living in London for most of that time, I’ve felt I’ve sacrificed the opportunity for much of that simple pleasure in nature and it feels time to get (back) to that.
So part of the logic of this trip has always been about having the time to really savour it as nature rolls by as the speed it does when you’re 59 and pedalling a moderately laden bike. So far I’ve seen egrets, a peregrine at Canterbury cathedral, buzzards, one very near flying, one equally near sitting imperiously on a fence post by the road, and throughout there have been swooping swallows galore. However, this isn’t an ornithology trip, it’s just as good to have felt the ground changing, the configuration of woodland and river with the millennia of erosion and human intervention that have shaped them as they are. And there is a huge satisfaction to be moving through all this under my own steam. Some of that is simple pleasure to have no window between me and what I’m passing, something is the satisfaction that I can still move a bike a fair way in a day but slowly enough to take things in.
Then there’s spiritual pleasure in human creativity: particular foci are the cathedrals and churches and I’m sure part of that is that they have spiritual meaning for people and have had sometimes for over a thousand years. However, there’s also pleasure in the engineering skill that created the canals and the simple aesthetic touches in even quite small cottages: often in the gables and the moulding: a sort of statement of being able to do something that is pure decoration but in no way detracts from the functionality, the often obviously efficient logic of the building.
Ah but those cathedrals and churches … hm, I’ll move on to them next in the next instalment of “Why do this?” To be continued.
3 thoughts on “Why do this? Part I: why the ride?”
What a lovely post. You just happened to pop into my head and your email redirected me here which is great. I shall stalk this for a time (not really!…well mebbie). It sounds like things are going well so far with your journey and you are appreciating being in nature. The herons you talk of remind me of that game where you could cycle through London town. It seems like it is a good time to engage with other spiritual things and to connect that to you or not. I wondered if you could have a go on a penny farthing on the flat roads. It might be funny up a hill though.
Just a small question… What does ‘spiritual’ mean and/or mean to you?
‘Spiritual’ is fairly easily distinguishable from ‘religious’, which might be defined as accepting the beliefs and following the practices of a religion, usually including acknowledging the existence and significance of a higher and/or wiser power – ‘an other’, identifying with others who follow the same religion and having a sense of community with them. I guess people of Christian faith would say spirituality is inseparable from ‘being religious’ because it is about ‘being spiritual’, giving time to those practices that deepen relationship with and response to God, which gives meaning to creation and existence and imbues life with an ethic to live by.
But in the absence of [a] God, what does the word ‘spiritual’ signify? Mindfulness might say that focussing in the moment without judgment leads to greater appreciation of and pleasure in everything, and, by some means, increased compassion for self and others. Is that spiritual?
You’ve set me off now. Can spiritual be secular? Does ‘spiritual’ differ from a collection of human emotions that arise when we find something beautiful and or pleasurable? Are there things for which we have no words and ‘spiritual’ is a catch-all? Does it refer to experiences shared by many, from what they report, that defy scientific, empirical explanation? Is spirituality to do with self-understanding and a search for meaning that can’t be reached or expressed in other ways, like psychotherapy/analysis? Does spiritual have connotations of connectedness and respect towards others and or creation? Does spiritual, religious or secular, give rise to a personal (or group) ethic or moral code?
Am I overcomplicating it all? There are so many more thoughts and questions in my head, words like ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’.
When a dying priest-friend slipped towards death and beyond communication with others, he was heard to say repeatedly, ‘Wow’! The family thought he might be edging into heaven or experiencing intense closeness to God.
Maybe seeking and having experiences that move us to ‘Wow’, and leaving it at that, is enough.
Lovely to have your response. In fact, so nice to have three comments so far ommitting lovely ones from family that I’ve kept back as personal communications rather than extensions of the blog, I had feared there might be none. I’m experimenting replying having hooked up my computer to my ‘phone giving me a local hotspot as the promised internet here in this campsite is out of action. I think that’s going to be a recurring issue. That means this will be a very short attempt to reply to what is clearly a huge question and theme.
I like the death bed comment. I guess it doesn’t quite beat Timothy Leary’s “Why?” then “Why not?” and finally, “Beautiful”. (Though I sometimes wonder how much about Leary should be taken at face value.) Whatever your friend was experiencing, it sounds a better way to go than many. I guess my position is that we can’t “know” these things. I know that a bit of this trip involves recognition of ageing and that I shouldn’t put this off and then find I put it off too long.
I used the word rather lazily though I did search around for something else and was left with “spiritual”. To a very large extent I think one motivation for this has always been to have some time to ponder such things and to accept that I will almost certainly return no clearer about them than when I left but, I hope, with a positive experience, even some “wows”, along the way and some good feelings of at least having had time to think such things.
OK. Let’s be a bit braver though. Well, I used the word because I needed a word and of course they interesting co-owned things, to the extent that we don’t have a handle on them they’re useless, dead, gone. However, they rarely (ever?) have unambiguous and universally agreed meanings I guess. I know what I’m talking about, what I’m feeling, isn’t something that has ever mapped onto an organised religion that I’ve met. However, it’s about touching something beyond the individual and sufficiently persistent that it can be shared by me and with people long dead, people alive now but whom I’ll never meet, and with others long, long in the future, way after my own death, perhaps when accepted languages and cultures have mutated way beyond easy comprehension. The other key feature for me is that these experiences are in some way “good”. (Now there’s another tricky word!)
I see that “spiritual” thus gives a sense of pleasure and uplift, something that helps when one might be brought down by one’s own mortality (and ageing) or by anyone else’s suffering or death. To me it also suggests, but I don’t think it prescribes or proscribes, hints about doing good. So, the two main sources of such uplifts I know weave into all this “spiritual” for me are things in the natural world that seem special and might, if we as a species can stop our desperate poisoning ways, be there for future generations and have been there for people way back. Paintings of goldfinches have particular meaning in Christian use but to me they’re also just beautiful birds that someone may have caputured well and in a way that gives me a sense that he (how often was it “she”?) had some of the same pleasure I have seeing them. A rather “twitcher” type example of this touched me today in that I’m fairly sure I saw a pair of great bustards fly off from near the road ahead of me in a huge Poitou stubble field. The other set of such experiences for me are human creativity. Twenty or thirty minutes after the bustards, fighting a fairly tiring head wind, I passed in fairly quick succession a remarkably grand farmhouse with much of the pretention of an early 19th C French town house of real affluence. Then I could see a formidable defensive medieval tower on a hill, I’d guess 11th to 13th C but between me and it and the first real invitation to stop and set about lunch (refueling pushbikes is an important business) was a derlict Romanesque (“Norman” in the UK) church. I didn’t have time to check out the house or the tower but the church was sensational and turned out to be a very dead church with a very “live” graveyard that is clearly still used, attended and tended. The sheer beauty of the carving on the west front of the church was a lift and the graveyard underlined the long continuity of its beauty having touched, or been there to touch if allowed, so many generations’ lives.
Does that push things any further forward? To be continued when I have time, energy and internet connectedness but now it’s time to shut this down as both the laptop and the ‘phone need their own refueling. To me there’s something about “spiritual” that they, remarkable IT things though they are, can never experience as they refuel: spiritual to me is something I suspect humans need and make. OK. I suspect I’m rambling now. I’m off to listen the rather good two person cover band playing in the camp site and get another beer!