What a bicycle can teach us about changing our habits

In the video below, 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 it properly.

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!


1 Comment. Leave new

  • Reminds me of my first attempt to drive a left hand drive car in France. I kept winding the window down when I wanted to change gears.

    I think I am more at the stage of seeing my anger, judgement, criticism and I suppose the self-loathing that underpins them. For the moment, I am just working on this process of seeing this, not buying into these thoughts to the same extent, not beating myself up and thus compounding the problem.




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