‘Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling’ by Ben Irvine

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 107.

This is not a book about cycling, Einstein, mindfulness or philosophy in general but one that touches on the different subjects to illuminate one another. Ben Irvine holds a PhD from Cambridge University and has set up Cycle Lifestyle, a magazine promoting different aspects of cycling, as well as the philosophical compendium, The Journal of Modern Wisdom. He admits to being a recovered philosopher, thankfully now not plagued by the dilemmas of the mind-body problem, and instead enjoys a more practical path in the world of publishing, including his love of cycling. For him, cycling holds more than just utilitarian value, since it played a pivotal role in his recovery from a period of breakdown in his life, and so carries with it extra dimensions of hope, rebirth and rediscovery. Ever since Norman Tebbit advised a generation to ‘get on their bike’ and, as the book demonstrates, going much further back over the past century or two, bikes have been a symbol for empowerment and mobility, including early feminists amongst others.

In the book, he counsels how the practice of mindfulness, in tandem with the outdoor pursuit of cycling, can engender a heightened state of awareness of surroundings, engagement with community and feelings of liberation. Perhaps because of his own personal experience, the book has evangelical overtones in its appeal to the reader of the virtues of the humble bike, using it as a vehicle to communicate a personal philosophy of enjoyment of physical/sensory existence. In a striking use of language, he refers to the ‘impudence’ which he feels from the exercise of freedom whilst cycling which can lend a sense of irreverence to his social dealings. Riding a bike, it is said, is the closest people may come to sprouting wings and flying – here the spirit of ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ pops up, urging readers to rise above the tedium of the flock and live adventurously.

Without the inclusion of Einstein, this would be much more of a personal book, but Ben partly displaces his own enthusiasm and thoughts by also looking at the life and ideas of the physicist and philosopher. In these biographical asides, we learn much about Einstein’s character and relationships, as well as some exposition of his theories. Einstein, whilst philanthropically-minded, in the broadest sense, was also an individualist, revelling in eccentricities and his own brand of ‘impudence’ in his insistence on doing things his own way. Such is the nature of innovation.

Having travelled through sections on the history of cycling, Einstein’s life and his own personal experience, Ben then looks at Einstein’s wider thoughts about civilisation, socialism and world government. It is understandable that Ben wanted to include his own wider vision in the book, but it is an ambitious task. Einstein himself was an enthusiastic advocate of world government, which he felt would help manage the ills of national governments (particularly pertinent at the time) – a proposition which is not entirely logically consistent, for a world government would then bring its own potential problems of corruption, bureaucracy and over-control. Einstein was writing in the inter-war and post-World War Two years, when there was much hope for the fledgling League of Nations, building on ideas of collaborative international rule, rather than a singular world government. Ben does not explicitly state whether he is in favour of Einstein’s proposition, but does lay out a neat sequence of world history, much employed by ‘rational optimists’ and liberal commentators, somewhere along the lines of: things are only getting better as humanity forms bigger and bigger integrated units of identity and group behaviour. Violence and prejudice have decreased over time proportionally, compared to many previous contexts; travel, trade and communication proliferate as technology and interconnections evolve. Ben does acknowledge some issues which guard against a wholly positive view of our present context, such as stress, inequality, commercialisation, ‘unwieldy’ governments and ‘intrusive’ media. Surprisingly, for a book which champions the virtues of outdoor exercise and experience through cycling, there is no mention of environmental issues (nor cycle-based solutions) in our contemporary world. There are also probable oversights common in liberal academia in evaluating the complex nature of different pre-agricultural tribes (as well as the variance of other societies throughout history) to which we compare ourselves, which can add to over-optimistic self-evaluation, These omissions and generalisations in painting a picture of the trajectory of world history (and indeed assuming a singular trajectory can be posited), mean that this section should be taken with ample seasoning to add depth.

This is a beautifully crafted book, in the sense of the writing style. There is a sense of engagement with and consideration for the reader, accompanied by a genuine belief in the goodness of the ideas. Ben holds a disciplined yet warm and sometimes luminous style which excels in precise use of language. If it sometimes glosses over some of the less than wonderful edges to the cycling world, this is more likely a feature of a benign polemic, rather than a deliberate distortion of a more complex phenomenon. We lay aside bike-kit poseurs, torn trousers, overzealous city-racers and bitterly cold winter rides home. These things too are true but remain a fairly inconsequential shadow rather than an overwhelming fatal flaw in the greater scheme of things. The lingering sense from the book is of a spirited recommendation to enjoy cycling with new eyes and travel with appreciation on the road ahead.

Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling – Achieving Balance in the Modern World by Ben Irvine (Leaping Hare Press, Lewes 2012, ISBN 978-1-908005-47-2)

Nick Stibbs