More than five years ago, I hosted this soft-spoken, weird and very devoted English guy in Khartoum, Sudan. He came by bike in the scorching heat, and also left on two wheels. Tom has pretty much been bicycling ever since then: he has travelled to more than 40 countries over four continents, wrote two books and made a number of films about his adventures. I find his life journey very inspiring so I asked him a few questions.
Sound Light Yoga: In your book Janapar, which spans about 3,5 years of your bicycle journey, you share deep reflections on your inner journey. What are the cornerstones of the change that has been shaping you?
Tom Allen: There are many things that a journey like this does to you. The first is an awareness of the abilities of your body to deal with physical challenges, and in parallel the abilities of your mind to deal with psychological challenges. Then there is the constant exposure to new ideas and perspectives on life that can’t help but make you question things you previously thought were set in stone. There’s the lessons that come with travelling alone and being responsible for your decisions – you live the consequences of every decision you make in a very tangible way. And finally, when travelling that long, you start to learn to feel at home anywhere, no matter how superficially different it may seem to where you come from. You start perceiving the similarities in all of life on Earth much more keenly than the differences.
SLY: What does freedom mean to you?
TA: In the past, when I wanted to escape the narrow existence I felt channeled into, I thought freedom was synonymous with self-sufficiency – that I should be able to exist completely independently of anyone else’s input, and also without responsibility to anyone else. This was a naive and self-centred view; once your perspective begins to broaden it doesn’t take long to realise that interconnectedness and interdependence is the natural state of all things. So now, freedom to me is more like acceptance – if you are able to accept things the way they are, moment by moment, rather than wishing they were different, it frees you up to follow a path of your own choosing and do so with respect for how you fit into the greater pattern of life.
Devote one hundred percent concentration to the simple act of preparing breakfast. By doing so, everything else ceases to exist.
SLY: I love your above description, essentially, of meditation in action. Do you have a spiritual practice?
TA: It’s interesting how stripping life down to its bare bones on a journey like mine can concentrate the mind like this. You very quickly realise how much of your life experience has been internal yet unnoticed because of the routines we tend to fall into. On a journey, you are always moving forward; there is no routine because each day is different, and that means that the mental chatter has nowhere to hide. So mindful practices like preparing breakfast were the natural solution – years before I’d ever heard the word ‘mindfulness’ used, or understood what it meant. I don’t travel fulltime any more, so I’ve been following a practice of daily mindful meditation for the last year or so – it’s proven very effective at bringing back that sense of simplicity and groundedness. And I continue to go on human-powered journeys of weeks or months in length, by bicycle but also by foot, kayak, horseback, which I love for the same reasons I came to love bicycle travel – the simplicity, the physicality, the humbling nature of the experiences that are there for you if you are open to them.
SLY: Where are you now and what is next?
TA: As I type, I’m in my parents’ house, visiting them for Christmas. Next week I’ll be heading for Australia to spend a month by the beach writing my next book and failing to learn to surf. Then in February I’ll be going to Armenia for most of 2016, where I’m planning to work on a trekking and mapping project in the Caucasus mountains. Early days but I’m curious to see where that idea will lead.