What a bicycle can teach us about changing our habits

In the video above, Destin Sandlin, creator of the Youtube channel “Smarter Every Day,” demonstrates an interesting paradox: that we can know something and yet find it hard—even impossible for a while—to act on that knowledge.

The bicycle he’s showing off has been rigged so that the steering operates in reverse. Turn the handles right, and the front wheel turns to the left; turn them left, and the front wheel turns to the right.

One one level, learning this is easy. You can take in the simple fact: “turn the wheel the opposite way of the way you want to go when riding this bike” in jut a few seconds.

With that knowledge in mind, most of you probably think, “Hey! I could do that!” After all, you have all the knowledge you need, right! Not so fast. You wouldn’t be able to pedal this bike more than a few inches before you ground to a halt. In fact it took Destin eight months of practice to learn to ride the bike.

Intellectually we know what’s required to ride the bike. But learning how to physically interact with the world isn’t intellectual. As we learn how to ride a bike, ancient parts of the brain lay down pathways involving coordination, movement, and balance. It takes months of practice in the first place for most of us to learn this, and you’re reinforcing the brain’s pathways every time you get on a bicycle. These abilities are deeply carved into the brain.

When you try to apply the knowledge, “turn the wheel the opposite way of the way you want to go when riding this bike,” you’re having to develop entirely new habits, and are attempting to lay down new pathways. It’s not even easy to get started on this, because your previous learning is actually getting in the way of the new learning. As soon as you get on a bike your existing habits (turn the handles in the direction you want to go) kick in automatically, and there’s no way to switch them off.

Destin’s son, by contrast, was able to master the bike more quickly, because his bike-riding neural pathways haven’t been so deeply reinforced.

This explains a lot about learning practices such as mindfulness and lovingkindness. You may want to be continuously aware of your experience—for example when you’re paying attention to your breathing—but it’s very hard to do this because you already have behavioral pathways carved into the brain, and those kick in as soon as you sit down and close your eyes. You may want to behave more kindly toward other people in your life, but habits of reactivity, criticizing, and anger are similarly wired into the structure of your neuronal network.

So there’s a long period of working with two competing sets of habits as we do spiritual practice. We’re learning one set of habits while unlearning another. Essentially this goes on all the way to awakening. But there are tipping points. At a certain point you’ll find that you’re mindful enough that mindfulness starts to predominate over unmindfulness in your life. At a certain point you’ll find that enough of you is aware of the disadvantages of anger compared to kindness that kindness starts to flow more naturally than anger.

As you can see with the example of the bike, our old habits (or the neural pathways that support them) don’t exactly disappear when we reach the tipping point. They’re still there, but aren’t accessed. It’s no longer natural to be grossly unmindful or unkind. Given the right circumstances those older pathways can still be accessed. It’s harder for that to happen, but it still can.

There are two habits that support our progress toward these tipping points that I think are particularly key. One is emotional resilience. We need to be able to deal with frustration in order to train ourselves. Emotional resilience contributes to persistence. If we can’t deal with frustration, we give up. This happens to the majority of people who take up meditation. In order to be able to deal with frustration, it’s helpful to have the habit of self-forgiveness. In order to be able to forgive ourselves for messing up, it’s helpful to remember that learning isn’t easy. We should expect to mess up, and should learn to see our mistakes as an inevitable part of learning.

The other habit is more cognitive and imaginative, and it’s the ability to keep in touch with our goals. In Buddhism this is called shraddha, or “faith.” Unless we’re able to keep a sense of the long-term benefits of the habits we’re learning (whether that’s the joy of mastering a backwards bicycle or the peace and fulfillment of living mindfully and with kindness) we’ll find it hard to stay motivated. Being part of a community helps here, because if we lose our confidence we can find it again through others.

In essence a whole bunch of traits, habits, skills, and conditions come together to support and augment each other, helping us, in the long term, to change our lives radically.

There’s a lot we can learn from watching people trying to master the art of riding a backwards bike! I could say something about the Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatta) in relation to this, but I’ll save that for another post!

Life as a glowstick

Nora Meiners sent me a link to this video of herself performing “Glowsticks” at the Women of the World Poetry Slam. It deals with the familiar parental situation of dealing with a child who can’t get his head around the impermanence of a toy, and makes the connection with the impermanence of our own lives. We’re more like glowsticks than not…

Nora graduated from Emerson College with a BFA in Creative Writing but started writing poems fairly only recently She has competed in the National Poetry Slam for Boston Poetry Slam (2013) and Lizard Lounge Poetry Slam (2014). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I like the poem, although I’d love to see it performed with more warmth and tenderness, which I think would heighten its emotional effect compared to the more declarative style shown here.

Buddhists are pro-environment, pro-evolution


Josh Rosenau, evolutionary biologist and Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education downloaded the 2007 version of Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey and mapped the correlation between attitudes on the environment and attitudes on evolution. The result is the graph above. His blog post on this graph is here.

In the original survey, people had been asked which of these statements they most agreed with:

Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy; or
Stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.

The second question asked people to agree or disagree with the statement:

Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

The sizes of the circles are are in proportion to the relative population sizes in the original Pew survey.

As you’ll see, Buddhists strongly agree that evolution is the best way of explaining the origins of human life. This perhaps isn’t very surprising. There’s no Buddhist creation myth to defend, and in fact that things are subject to change is a key teaching of Buddhism. While the Buddha’s emphasis was on the way our experience changes, he often referred to cosmological change as well. Had the Buddha known about how species change over time he wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

Additionally, most Buddhists I know are relatively well-educated and liberal. They respect science, for the most part.

Buddhists are also among the most pro-environmental of all religious groups, in that they support environmental regulation. That the environment needs protection against the greed and delusion of humanity is so obvious to me as a Buddhist that I can’t believe that I have would have to explain why I, and other Buddhists, see things this way.

I suppose one could argue a case that the traditional Buddhist belief in rebirth would promote a respect for the environment. Who wants to be reborn in an environmental wasteland that they themselves have helped create in a previous life? Contrast that to the view of some evangelical Christians that the world is about to end soon. Why bother preserving the environment when God is about to end his experiment?

I’m not convinced that’s actually much of a factor, although I can’t rule it out.

I that people who are attracted to Buddhism in the US tend to be liberal and pro-environmental in the first place. However, I suspect that Buddhist practices such as a mindfulness of the consequences of our actions and the cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion do nudge Buddhists toward a pro-environmental stance that they generally tended toward anyway.

An important appeal: please respond!


The short version

We need to raise $4,000 so that we can redesign our website, making it easier to use generally, and also making it much more accessible for users of mobile devices, such as smartphones.

  • If you prefer to use Paypal (whether or not you have an account), you can click here and enter your chosen donation.
  • If you want to use a credit card, you can click here, enter the amount you want to donate, and then click on “add to cart.”
  • And lastly, checks can be mailed to: Wildmind, 55 Main St. Suite 315, Newmarket NH 03857, USA.

The more detailed version

We’re calling this our “Multitude of Hands” fundraiser in homage to Avalokiteshvara, a mythic figure representing compassion. Avalokitesvara is said to have 1,000 hands reaching out in order to help suffering beings. Compassion finds a way. Similarly, each page of our website and each blog post is like a hand reaching out to the world. We’d like to be be able to do that more effectively.

This isn’t just a cosmetic redesign, but a complete overhaul of how our site works, so that it will be easier to use—and appear very differently—on a smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer. With your support, we’ll be able to provide better support and encouragement to meditators all over the world, whatever device they’re using.

It’s urgent that we make this move now. Google, which many people use to find us, is going to start penalizing websites that don’t offer a good experience to mobile users—and right now we don’t.

We’re barely scraping by financially at the moment, and we need your help to be able to pull this off. We’ve already found a designer and in fact he’s already started work. The initial results are very promising indeed, and I’m looking forward to unveiling the final design when it’s ready—hopefully before the end of this month.

It would be wonderful if you could donate $100, $50, or even just $10 — whatever you can afford. You can make a donation using any of the links above or below.

  • If you prefer to use Paypal (whether or not you have an account), you can click here and enter your chosen donation.
  • If you want to use a credit card, you can click here, enter the amount you want to donate, and then click on “add to cart.”
  • And lastly, checks can be mailed to: Wildmind, 55 Main St. Suite 315, Newmarket NH 03857, USA.

With much love,

Pop Art Buddhas


Pop art, Wikipedia tells us, is an art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States. Pop art presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc. In pop art, material is sometimes visually removed from its known context, isolated, and/or combined with unrelated material.

For some reason I found myself using Google’s images search to look for Pop Art representations of the Buddha. There’s rather a lot of them out there, and I’ve included a few here, with links so that you can support the artists, if you’re so inclined. (None of these are affiliate links.)