The stillness of sitting meditation would seem to have little in common with the effort needed to power up steep single-track, nor for that matter with the rush of rolling downhill at speed through tall stands of aspens. But every time I head out on my dusty mountain bike, I get flashes of insight that feel like they reach straight from the cushion to the trail.
So this piece is about bikes, and it’s not. And it’s about meditation, but not so much.
In point of fact, its about mind, the one that both sits in shamatha and the one asks, “self, how did I get here,” as the trail angles steeply toward that ridgeline way, way up there…
As a rider, I’m still pretty new to “real” mountain biking (i.e., in the mountains, at altitude with meaningful elevation gain and multiple miles of joyful, if sometimes scary descents,) so it took me some time to see a basic truth—that to get the good stuff (strength, stamina, the joy of descending) I had to get over my resistance to riding up things. Without the effort, there’s no progress. Moreover, I needed to commit to climbing these hills over and over again. One big climb doesn’t make a season, or a rider.
The juice is in the consistency.
For me, climbing on a bike is a shamatha practice—get to the cushion, put in the time, develop the discipline. The masters that came before all had to do it. No shortcuts. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said (long before Nike…), “just do it.”
But climbing kinda sucks. It hurts, at least for me. So right away, I get to work with my mind in order to work with my body. This is the flip side of a long meditation retreat where I get to work with my body in order to work with my mind (because quite often there’s often bodily pain involved in long practice sessions.)
In either case, my ego comes alive and whining as, on the bike, I watch my more gifted pals leave me in the dust (I’m kinda slow…just like in meditation I suppose.) So here’s a chance to practice some serious gentleness with myself. As Popeye says, “ I yam what I yam.”
So be it. What I do have is doggedness- I can generally hang in when it starts to hurt. Recently, I’ve even been able to find a place of some peace amid of the pain. I find it helps here to try to shift to a larger perspective- to lift my gaze from the trail and check in with the incredible space I’m riding through. Just as in sitting meditation, being aware of the space seems to relieve the sense of claustrophobia, of compression that can arise in a long sitting session (or climb.)
If climbing is shamatha, then maybe descending is vipashyana. Here, it’s all about space, moving through it using more instinct and less discursive thought. Insights come often and at speed.
The first is to ride more, steer less. A mountain bike (and the mind) is designed to flow over the terrain and the rocks. If I can relax my grip, give up on over-managing the process, things seem to work out a lot more smoothly. The innate wisdom of the situation has a chance to emerge.
The second is closely related to space – raise the gaze, see down the trail. A proper view is critical. Caution (fear) can lead me to focus too much on the trail right in front of me, but it’s too late to react to anything there. The karma of the ride is going to blow me past these rocks before I could ever hope to react to them. So expand the view – the farther down the trail I focus, the smoother the ride passing under my wheels seems to flow. Again, see the space — trust the wisdom of the situation. Trust the path.
Number three is an extension of number two- ride through the changes. Tight switchback turns, abrupt changes of direction, can be scary. It’s ok to check some speed coming into a turn, but once its started, look through the change, not at it. View again- the larger the better. Ignore the stones under the wheels and look through and well past the turn, and allow the bike (and the mind) to pull itself through and into whatever is next.
Finally, at some point a particular truth is likely to emerge that’s common to both biking and sitting- eventually, you’re gonna fall — beef it, dump it, wipe out. Comes with the territory. We can’t control how much a fall is going to hurt, and it will hurt. Even small falls hurt. But with luck, you get back up and carry on. For a while, you’re going to be a little shaky. You don’t want to fall again. But as long as this thought infects you, your riding sucks.
You can’t ride, or sit for that matter, if you’re trying to protect yourself all the time.
But eventually, the adrenaline fades, the discipline of your practice reasserts itself and the ride smooths out again. And then its over.
The trail ends, the bell rings.
For me, the hours immediately after a challenging ride are wonderful. My body is spent and my mind is blown open. Everything slows down and there’s all the time in the world.
Whatever thoughts were churning during the ride, or on the cushion (and as you can tell by this piece, there are often quite a few…,) pass away without a trace. The rest of life flows back in and on we go.
Until tomorrow. When it’s brand new and fresh once again. When the bike, and the cushion beckon.
The bell rings, and its time again to practice.
And to ride.
© oldbonesnewsnow.com/ J.A. Fink