Surface Thinking


What character traits link interesting human phenomena like a predilection to world domination, vile arrogance, rampaging road rage, terrorism dressed up as religious fervour, and a passion for the game of golf? 

What's really bugging me about the human race right now and why should you care? Well, it's in all our interests to understand or you too could end up as traction for the next motorist's wheels. 

I call the disease 'intellectual bathophobia'. Bathophobia is the fear of depth. Intellectual bathophobia is the fear of thinking too deeply. And boy oh boy have I seen this baby scything it's way through all that I hold important in recent years! This is the nuclear holocaust of human failings. This is the most pervasive and debilitating of phobias. It effects you, me and everyone else; all at the same time. Every day in every way. It explains just about everything that makes us mad. It explains just about every war and every appearance before a judge. It It explains the failure of international climate change summits and people who drive rather than ride to the local shops. 

Intellectual bathophobia is all about surface thinking. it's the fear of finding out new stuff; the fear of listening to something genuinely new. The inclination to cling to what we know rather than shift our brain into a higher gear. It's deeply perverse, this intellectual self mutilation, because while most people shift continuously from one fad or fashion to another, so very few of us ever shift our minds. Virtually no one digs into the old mental engine room to seriously question and analyse what it is that we do and why.

And virtually no one will ever, ever, admit that they are afflicted by intellectual bathophobia themselves. Everyone else, for sure. But never, ever, me

If we spend our whole lives surface skipping across our own private intellectual seas, our minds end up, eventually, stretched out like too little butter spread across way, way, too much bread. We invest whole lives in keeping that overstretched mental veneer intact. It's a doomed project, of course. Over time, everything shifts. Eventually, our surface skimming minds will stretch too far. It's like attempting to stretch out the one tube of tyre glue to repair a lifetime stream of punctures. With an ever more stretched supply of glue, each new hole in the harmony of our lives is less and less effectively repaired; until we sink into a permanently deflated state and sit our the rest of our lives in front of the TV. Our responses to everything and anything that happens are voiced with an ever fading sentient hiss. 

Consider those who continue to do to themselves what we would never have them do to us. Consider those who continue to shovel food into an ever expanding carcass of fat. Eventually, the dirigible they become will burst or implode. Consider those who believe in the mantra of continual economic growth. Eventually, infinite greed will meet the realities of resources that can't keep pace. Consider those who continue to believe in theories of life that life itself so readily disproves. Examples are economists who believe in the perfection of the market place and politicians who believe in the righteousness of the polls they pay marketers to shape. Consider those who deny human impact on climate. Consider those who believe that their own view is the only view for everyone else. Consider those who think their religion should be our religion; enforceable by death. Consider those who think that their choices should be our choices, that their politics should be ours.

There is a simple cure. It involves emptying your cup. 

Years and many happy years ago, I once wrote a handbook for a PhD programme fortune found me within. Right across the front page was a cartoon of a monk serving tea to a disciple in search of inspiration. The monk filled the cup. And kept on filling the cup until tea started overflowing the table. 'Master! the cup is full!' 'Exactly so', the sage replies. 'This cup is as with your thoughts. If you want to take on new thoughts, you have to empty your cup first. Or there will be no room for the new ideas to take hold'. That's a classic koan from the tradition of Zen. It's as right for now as it was right for then. The mental blockage from carrying a full mental cup has the same effect as a mind closed to new and different thoughts. You have to puncture that overstretched intellectual skin or unplug our mental drain. But so very few of us ever bother to drill the necessary holes or open our mental taps. We seem to spend our lives perpetually scared by the depths to which our minds have the capacity to dive. So we seek out stuff with which we agree and keep on patching with all the self-referentialised validation we can find. We seek that validation like a thirsty man looking for water in a desert. Every drop of validation is captured and nurtured; every message to the contrary is dismissed. We club our selves to tribes with similar points of view. We avoid those with views outside the borders our tribes protect. We build cathedrals to the ideas we cherish and condemn to hell those we don't. We put ourselves on pilgrimages of evangelical self-referentialism through which to interpret the messages from the rest of the world. We even appoint priests to help us in that task (figureheads and heroes of our own points of view). 

I am just as guilty with all this as you. I believe it's possible for anyone and everyone to lance the boils of a closed mind – eventually – with the right kind of help. The toolbox to redress the mess can be a pretty subtle box of tricks. Like that butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil connecting to that hurricane in Japan, there are some incredibly powerful, subtle things we can do to inspire self-introspection and the blowing open of minds that were hitherto locked at fortress strength. Simple little stuff can flap towards hurricanes of meaningful change. There are simple little pricks to drag that mental skin away – to open the depths and really let us swim. 

Yes, you guessed it. Cycling is a trick of that particular trade. Cycling's just one little insidious thing to unleash our intellectual springs. Why is cycling a clever tool through which to unleash change? Because it is not a belief system (at first); it's not a cultural construction we need to explain. It's not a big investment to make and it does not necessarily require you to quit your job and head off on a sea change. It's a simple sounding thing with which to become involved. Innocent. Innocuous, it would seem. Almost utilitarian. Easy to start. But it's a spring, nonetheless. A catalyst to which passions can become attached. It's a life changing investment via a small allocation of time. Cycling's a classic catalyst. It's easy to enter, but has the potential to unleash furies of change when it takes hold. But above all, cycling's a place. It's a place off to the side of everyone else's routine; from where you can observe those you have left behind and contemplate the philosophical journey you have begun. Contemplation is the key. That's the stuff you need to journey down deeper into your own intellectual depths. Cycling gives us thinking time. It pumps more blood into the brain. Your body will change; fitness will reshape your appearance and your mind. Cycling inspires the opening up of a lateral, deeper swimming mind. 

When we first take up cycling, we're like a puppy out for its first exploration of the world. Everything's new from our unaccustomed new vantage point. Cycling shakes us into a different space of mind. We come to experience the experience of doing something outside the box within which we might otherwise have become permanently enclosed. Cycling, or other experiences of that kind shake perceptions that otherwise might cement our world views into the singular perspective of the couch. But cycling is such a seemingly innocuous choice. It's seemingly more benign than taking on an Everest climb, or joining the Foreign Legion for a five year spell. It's the catalyst we are looking for here. It's a catalyst to shake things up – easy to take up, but with the potential to unleash a chain reaction or two.

We all need is to be catalysed into the chaotic potential of deeper, more reflective thought. Once that takes hold, life and living is renewed from the inspiration of a wakened mind. Cycling is, to me, the act of emptying a teacup that's become too full. If I were to lead the world for a day, I'd be giving out bicycles to everyone who could join the queue - before the economists, accountants and bankers could start to object. Bicycle butterfly wings flapping their way to a hurricane of individual -then social renewal.