Today, you helped me learn how to ride a bicycle.
You know how, in movies, when they’re driving the car and the guy sees that red button and is like, “I wonder what that does”? He goes the whole movie not knowing (usually because he’s told not to touch it), but when the time is right, he pushes it. Magic happens. When I say I discovered how to ride a bicycle, it’s because up until this point, I’d been riding in a sort of cruising stance, hands on top of the handlebar and butt on the seat. I knew there was the “sprinting stance,” but I was happy with just putzing along my ten(ish) miles.
Until sometime into yesterday’s ride.
Yogis like to talk a lot about the “higher self.” The higher self is an imaginary projection or construct of our selves, just more awesome. It’s us at our best. It’s kind of a downer, in a way; we wake up every morning and when we look in the mirror, we see, “Welp, I’m still not Harrison Ford with Gerard Butler’s impossibly CGI’d abs from 300 today.” But that’s really not what the higher self is about. It’s not everything one is not, but rather what it could be.
But how do we tell the difference?
I recently saw a documentary about this; a man, fed up with the gurus he had met in his life, set about becoming one by parody and seeing what would happen. The lessons he taught were real, and one of the core tenets of yogic philosophy: the greatest guru is the one within.
He called himself “Kumaré.”
Once, a young woman asked Suzuki Roshi after a talk, “Roshi, sometimes when I’m trying to decide what I should do, I ask myself, ‘In this case, what would Roshi do?’ Should I continue that practice?”
Roshi answered, “Then should I also ask myself, ‘What would Roshi do?’”
The final lesson Kumaré imparts to his followers (directly) is that of self-guidance, accomplished by sitting across from them and (after months of trust building), asking them, “If you were Kumaré, and I was you, what would you tell me?”
Having tasted a bit of what this “sprinting stance” had to offer, I wanted to see today just how far I could push it. I made it to my first turnaround point in record time, easily, but was more tired than I had ever been. I considered turning around and calling it a day, but I paused there and, with a thousand thoughts racing through my head, asked, “What would I have to write about if I turned around now? What would the me-who-writes have to say about this?”
He would go on, I concluded.
There is a line we draw in our heads between what we want to do, and what we want to want to do. This looks like semantics, but the distinction is important, I promise you. It’s what keeps us from being the us-we-could-be. Yogis are a very self-centered people. Why else would we do asana at the hour of stupid in the morning, if it wasn’t for self-betterment? But every yoga teacher I have ever heard speak, bar none, has pointed out that the reason we better ourselves is for the betterment of all beings.
I could never be Kumaré, because he was the higher self of Vikram Gandhi. For me, the me-who-writes is my higher self, my version of Kumaré. We all have one; the person we really wish we were. It’s the me-who-writes that goes out actively looking for meaning in the world, even (sometimes especially) when I just want to sit around, play computer games and watch Netflix. It’s the me-who-writes that finds the yellow glow of municipal lighting strangely welcoming, almost homey and comforting, like a port to a beleaguered traveler. I’ve worked in power plants and walked on iron girders. The silhouette of a power plant’s girder skeleton at sunrise is something that brings up from within me a deep, revolting dread, and yet part of me, the me-who-writes…finds it profoundly gorgeous.
Downshifting into the next hill’s crest, I took the low bars and leaned into the wind. A storm front was approaching, and the increasingly chilly gusts grasped at my tires. With my thighs burning, a diminutive shift in weight I would’ve otherwise not noticed activated new muscles that, in my old posture, were rarely called upon. A shot of espresso, a shock of electricity, a stroke of genius…what happened in that moment, I really can’t codify with another experience. It was like, in an instant, I understood the centuries of engineering, generations of tiny design shifts that brought about through trial and error and passion and profit the working pieces of metal in the configuration upon which I rode. I didn’t figure out how to ride so much as I came to understand how the bike wanted to be ridden. I pushed the button. It resulted in me racing a storm front.
…All of this because about a half hour earlier, I considered for a matter of seconds the validation of a bunch of people I’ve never met who occasionally like some of the stuff I write.
So, thanks, guys. Today was the coldest, most difficult ride I’ve gone on since starting this new practice.
I couldn’t have done it without you.
This week, may you recognize your higher self. May you see something everyday and ordinary in such a way that makes it beautiful. May you push the button.
—and if you have Netflix, check out Kumaré. It’s pretty neat.