“A gentleman shouldn’t go on and on about what he does to stay fit. At least that’s how I see it.”
In Haruki Murakami. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
The original title of this post was What I Think About When I Think About Biking, which, to any of you who knows who the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is, would know that this was an almost (just almost) direct copycat of his famous memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which, by the way, was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is my favorite book among all of his non-fiction — my favorite fiction of his is The Wild Sheep Chase, a stunning gripping surreal suspense starring an ordinary Japanese man who has to become an impromptu detective thanks to a mysterious circumstance brought upon him by a seemingly mundane action which he didn’t think would lead to anything at all, let alone a mysterious circumstance that would make him travel a very long distance — with his equally mysterious girlfriend who is both sexually liberal and openly charming — to find out what is happening to his otherwise ordinary life (and that’s a hell of a long sentence!). Publisher Weekly has made this novel one of the top ten must-read among Murakami’s novels:
The original title of this novel is “An adventure concerning sheep,” and it lives up to that title…Some of the most interesting parts of the novel take place in the rural wilds of Hokkaido, which has been interpreted alternately as the hero’s inner mind, or as a mythological land of the dead. At its heart, this is a tale of conflict between the will of the individual and the demands of an impersonal State.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is pretty much Murakami’s autobiography in disguise. In fact, it is his biography; hence, the only thing that is misleading about the book is its title, which should be, Talking about My Life Through Running. On the other hand, since a large part of his life has to do with writing (duh), the large parts of the book concern his writing career (which, by the way, one could also read how he fascinatingly, and almost by accident, started his career as a writer in his kitchen in the preface to his first novel Hear the Wind Sing). That is, Murakami could easily have called this book What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing, but the fact it seems more plausible (and believable) for someone to be able to think about something else while using his muscle to run, rather than while also using his brain to craft some of the most intriguing fascinating work in the Japanese literary art. In the book, he basically talks about how he became interested in running, and how running has shaped him as a person, as a writer, and as a runner, which is something that he always takes as an end in itself. This is very clear, as toward the end of the book he writes that these are the words he would like to be craved onto his gravestone:
Haruki Murakami: Writer (and Runner), At Least He Never Walked.
Ever since I bought my Brompton folding bike in May at a professional bike shop in Uptown Manhattan, I have been riding it almost everyday here in Shanghai. By the way, Brompton is the world’s most versatile, beautiful, and mobile folding bike made in the UK. I always wanted one but because it’s not cheap I had to wait until my 33rd birthday to buy it for myself. In fact, it took me a while to make that decision, as I could have bought a cheaper folding bike (which wouldn’t be as versatile, beautiful, and mobile), but cheaper. Then I thought about my father, who always wanted a Brompton. Sespite the fact that his physical condition wasn’t good enough for him to ride a bike anymore during the last decade of his life, he also always wanted to get a Brompton. So, I thought to myself, what would my father want for me? He’s frugal but when it came to buying quality stuff, he never compromised. So, I thought to myself that by buying this expensive bike, I wouldn’t just buying it for myself, but I’d be buying for my father, and would get to use it on his behalf.
The reason why Murakami’s book resonates with me is because I also do the same thing. I like to exercise, and I like to spend the time while exercising giving myself time to think about something else outside of my immediate layers of concerns. When I bike, I don’t think about anything else concerning my life. When I bike, I think of some imaginary scenarios in which, in an ideal world, I could be. I sometimes think of the world with a different set of underpinning of universal political conflicts. I also think of what else I might be doing in another universe parallel to mine. That is to say, when I bike, my mind seems to stop working in the present, taking me to a different place, space and time, altogether. Some of the best ideas I have had in my academic life came to me when I was biking, and that may be precisely because when I was on my bike I always allowed myself to be less myself, and be more “my true self.” I have a feeling that which is also the case for Murakami. In a way, when I am on the bike, I reflect by focusing on what is immediately in front on me, which is the road. The speed, and the sense of excitement, especially when I am off-road but still able to peddle really fast, makes me want to scream out loud passionately about how much I really enjoy being in the moment. It’s the best of all possible worlds. I guess what happens to me when my true self comes out like that is that my sense of provocativeness is completely decompressed, and let out.
That said, there’s another side of myself when I bike. Letting true self out of its self-decompressed mode has yet to be proven to be the loyal road toward the self. As a Buddhist, I don’t even believe that the self even exists. I believe that the self is something that I construct, with the help of the society into which I was born, smply to make myself miserable. Interesting enough, as one of my favorite psychologists Alison Gopnik writes, the philosopher David Hume was also influenced by this very Buddhist idea of the selflessness (as in, “no self,” rather than selfless as in opposite to selfish) when he wrote A Treatise of Human Nature:
When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.
Perception might not be the thing that makes us unhappy, but the caring too much for the perceptions of others on the thing that you call “I” is what brings about pain, dissatisfaction, and discomfort. When I get on the bike, I am no longer this PhD student guy whose only job is simply to write, to write more, and to write even more, but a man who is enjoying being in the moment. I am not a professional biker, so I don’t care if I don’t move very fast, and I don’t care if I don’t bike like a pro. I guess when you take yourself out of the immediate circle in which others think you are the expert, you also take the pressure of having to be an expert from your shoulder. It is not a complete sense of selflessness, but it’s at least providing some breathing space. It’s the mixed feeling of being my true self and being selfless, being myself and being non-self (as opposed to Non-Self; Gees my name is so handy when it comes to punning!), being something that I want to keep it alive and being something that I could simply let go, and the list goes on. Hey. I understand that at this point, you may think that I am simply exaggerating. You might be right.
At this point, I want to take this message to a slightly different direction. I did mention earlier that, on my bike, I feel as though I am living in the best of all possible worlds. On my bike, I often feel as though there is nothing else that I want in my life. On my bike, in other words, I always feel as though my life is fulfilled. This may have to do with the fact that when I am on my bike, I’d have no choice but to stay focused on what’s in front of me, such as traffic, people crossing the road, traffic light, and so on. Yes, there’s a temptation to look at my phone, check my messages and emails, and so on, but none of these I could do while I am on my bike trying to balance myself on the bike while looking ahead at the road on which I am. The quote “best of all possible worlds” owes its origin to the 17th–18th-century rationalist philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This philosopher, known to many of his time to be a polymath because he’s knowledgeable in many fields including the sciences and the arts, has a very detailed and methodological technique of rationalization to come to the understanding that whatever happens in the world we are living in is the best of all possible worlds. Leidniz may have been focused too much on the power of God — that makes the world we are living in the best that is possible — but if we read between the line and try to understand his outside the context of the all powerful God, maybe we can derived at a different conclusion. For me, I feel as though I am being embraced by the all powerful energy when I am focused on what I do. So, when I am on my bike, for instance, I feel as though nothing else matters. Time passes in a relatively different shape compared to when I am drinking coffee, or cooking. Spaces through which the wind generated by the directional speed of my bike cut bend different too. I feel as though I can distant myself from the phenomenal world when I am on my bike.
What I am about to say here is something that a gentleman, in Murakami’s mind, shouldn’t do. If the weather is acceptable, people of Shanghai will always see Non and his bike roaming around the city — at a ridiculously fast speed. I always wear an extra windbreaker so that I can sweat more than usual. That’s how I keep my belly in check. Of course, as a single man, I would like to keep my health and my physique in check. At the beginning, I wasn’t very comfortable with sitting on the bike’s seat for a long time, but I could easily be on it two hours uninterruptedly. This week, unfortunately, has been pretty dreadful in terms of rain, so I haven’t been out on the road that much. Today, after all I had to do for the day was done, I managed to ride about 20 kilometers around the part of the city in which I am currently living, which is northeast of Shanghai. It’s the part closest to the Yangtze River Delta. There’s one time that I rode my bike all the way to the very tip of the Delta, where the hyperbolically modern-looking International Cruise Terminal (but people-less) was. Biking makes me feel relax. I always use the time on the bike to listen to audio books and Podcasts that I like. Sometimes it’s something totally random, such as all Malcolm Gladwell’s books (you name it, and I’ll tell you exactly what it is about!). For the last few weeks, it’s been Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that got me completely entertained, in the zone, and helped me pass time when the ride wasn’t that pleasant (especially when the road was nothing but a long, dusty, and tediously straightforward). If not an audio book I would be listening to Podcasts. Two of my favorite Podcasts are, for some reason, all about philosophy: Philosophy Bites by Nigel Warburton and David Edmund, and Philosophize This by Steven West. It’s interesting how the names of these two Podcast program rhyme!
It was pretty much the same route that I always take since there’s some comfort in taking the same route, as I don’t have to worry if I get lost. That said, there’s something unsettling and boring about taking the same route. This conflict has always been the conflict that I have when I think just about anything — I like to keep doing things that I know I am capable of doing them well; yet, at the same time, I always search for new things to try out.