Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Zen and the Art of Handcycling

2008 454 bikeI wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about all the toys that I've sold because MS doesn’t allow me to play with them anymore, things like snowmobiles, ATV’s, and our camper. I ended the piece by mentioning an item that I’d not exactly given up because I hadn't dared to try it this year – my handcycle. I rationalized that if I didn't even attempt to ride it then I wouldn't have to suffer the disappointment that I've suffered with so many other toys. This was a blatant act of denial that I nevertheless felt entitled to. Just last week, though, I finally relented and gave the handcycle a go.

Good news- I can still ride. It isn’t pretty, and I can’t go very far, but I've now been on four short rides in the last two weeks. I can still advance the cycle down the road, at least a perfectly flat road. I employ energy conservation techniques in order to put any distance on the ride at all. For example, I coast when I'm able to coast, which by definition on a round-trip ride is about 50% of the way. I simply have to take a break when I get tired. I can't worry about bettering yesterday’s time or yesterday's distance. This is about as unnatural as asking my dog Phoebe, the West Highland Terrier, to just casually watch those damn squirrels cross the yard, willy-nilly, unharassed. But I’m left with no choice.

I'm not sure how beneficial handcycling is to my physical well-being. I don't know if it's the case that I get so little exercise that even this tiny bit is magnified in importance, or if it is the case that this scrap of exercise is so irrelevant that it can't possibly impact my health at all. Bottom line, though, is that it doesn't really matter. If I get any physical benefit from this modest exercise, then it is icing on the cake, because it's good fun, and fun is something in short supply when you have MS.

2008 300 bikeOn this morning’s ride the weather was perfect. It was a bright, sunny day with comfortable temps and low humidity. The neighborhood was quiet, the chaos of the morning commute having subsided. As I began to glide through our quaint, suburban community, breeze in my face, my all-too-well-rested cardiovascular system shaking off the cobwebs, I began to experience a peaceful bliss. Ahhh, life was good. But then my instinctive defense systems kicked in. The part of my brain which is responsible for protecting me from future heartbreak sent an alarm out, “Hey, don't fall back in love with this activity. It will be all that much more sad for you when you're no longer able to do it." That kinda killed the mood.

So often these battles take place wholly in our subconscious, making decisions on our behalf without the participation of our conscious selves. In this instance I was fortunate enough to lure the discussion into the light of day for further examination.

The debate could be boiled down to this. Should I temper my enjoyment of an activity that I'm almost certainly not going to be able to experience for much longer, so as to protect myself from future sorrow, or should I take advantage of any opportunity, no matter the circumstances (within reason), to enjoy a moment, and deal with the fallout later. I, the conscious I, decided clearly in favor of the latter. Carpe diem, and all that. I further reasoned that even though the activity that triggered this singular pleasure may not be available to me for much longer, there are still other ways to achieve that same feeling. When handcycling does go away for good, it won’t take all opportunity for peaceful bliss with it.

2008 334 bikeSo, does that settle the debate? Probably not. My conscious self is not fully in charge. I only hope that subconscious Mitch indulges me on this one.

I'm no Buddhist, all that meditation and talk of Nirvana turns me off, but I do subscribe to several of the tenants of Zen philosophy. In particular, it’s helpful to stay in the moment. Moments will come and they will go, but only this moment exists right now. Make the most of it.

Let's explore what it is about handcycling that brings me such joy. It must stem from the fact that I am propelling myself through space under my own power, since I can't think of another instance where I can do that anymore. Sure, you could argue, existentially, that I self-propel myself through life using my power wheelchair, which I bought with money that I earned while I was gainfully employed as a healthy person. So in a sense, the effort that I put forth my entire working career is allowing me to self-propel via my power wheelchair today. That doesn't really cut it though. It’s a logical rationalization, something you might say to make yourself feel better, but it does not induce a feeling of peaceful bliss.

How does handcycling accomplish this? The process of sending a signal from my brain, through a frayed and fragile central nervous system, to the last few muscles in my body that are still accepting assignments (my biceps, triceps, and pecs are hanging in there the longest), and having those muscles respond by moving my body through space- it’s just a magical feeling.

All the logic in the world can't make that happen.


  1. Afraid of relapse,
    should we live on the slow lane
    where MS wants us?

    Or in good moments,
    do we live life to the max
    and risk a setback?

    I go flat out
    and take my lumps later,
    but make memories.

    So I said on Jan 22 2011


  2. Ditto to what Judy said. where do you find hand cycles anyway. Sounds Cool. Liked this blog. I plan to add it to my roll...if you don't mind?

  3. I love logic and philosophy. Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my favorite books.

    You made me laugh.

  4. Mitch -- I am *so* with you on this one! And you made me laugh this morning when you wrote: "The process of sending a signal from my brain, through a frayed and fragile central nervous system, to the last few muscles in my body that are still accepting assignments"... Too funnny. Keep searching for - and even demanding - those magical moments - that's what life is all about.

  5. Hiya Mitch! Very much identified with your post. I appreciate the way you developed this post - explaining the internal thought process, describing the day, and how MS messes with the emotion vs. logic dynamic.

    I recently finished reading Jonah Lehrer's "How We Decide" which explores how the human brain is mostly a mish-mash of decision makers that come up with suggestions we're not conscious of, how emotions interact with thought, and the economics that play out as a result. I bet you would like the book.

    Here's to momentary bliss!

    Aside - oddly enough the "capture" to make this post is shipain :)

  6. It would be so great if you could borrow little Phoebe's brain to do the handcycling.....Result: simply joy (with ears and tongue flapping) and no rationalization at all! from Ginny F.

  7. Judy,

    Well said!


    If you Google "handcycle" and your city, you should find a place that sells the handcycles. And yes, I'd be honored if you add me to your blog roll.


    I'm glad I made you laugh. You can't get too much of that in a day.


    Your screen name makes me laugh!


    Of late I've become a bit of an amateur neuroscientist. It sounds like you are to. This kind of stuff makes you wonder if the concept of "free will" actually exists, or if our subconscious is really making most of our decisions for us, while our conscious self is taking all the credit. For example, let's do this experiment. Think of a famous person… Who did you think of? How did you come up with that name? Did you do a survey of all the candidate responses to my prompt, weigh the pros and cons of each one, and carefully select your response. Probably not. Something in the background fed that answer to you. You almost certainly didn't truly select it yourself. I'll add your book suggestion to my reading list.


    That would be a great idea until the first squirrel crosses the road in front of me and runs in the woods – I'd be in a pickle then!

  8. ~ ~ ~ Fred Astaire ~ ~ ~

    and agree with Darren Baker - "I appreciate the way you developed this post - explaining the internal thought process, describing the day, and how MS messes with the emotion vs. logic dynamic."

    I stole this comment to nurse me through a re-reading of your post....

    Now, you neuroscientists, why did I pick Fred Astaire? I thought of ONE person (that I was "aware" of) and wrote it down.

    Okay, okay, I thought of FRED ASTAIRE and then for a mini-micro-second, I thought, "you liar!" but no other person occurred.

    I hope is there more to this experiment?

  9. Handcycling is great exercise, it definitely helps to keep the body active. I ride with a guy in Los Angeles who has MS, his handcycle has definitely been a great form of therapy for him. He always says how great he feels after our rides, and it has certainly kept him mobile for longer.

    So much so, that I am thinking about getting my own so that we can ride at the same level. I have been shopping around. Does any body know whether is any good? I am also looking at but they seem real expensive. Any feedback would be appreciated!

  10. LA Biker,

    I bought my handycycle from bike-on, slightly used, and I was treated well. I've not had experience with any other sellers.