When I get a chance these days, I love to get myself out on my bicycle and push my mind and body, while enjoying the amazing landscape and environment in Boulder, Colorado. But sometimes, I question myself on whether I should be spending more time on my cushion and less time on my bicycle seat. After all, my meditation practice is the foundation for everything that I do in my life and upon which I base the ever so slow and arduous transformation of my mind.
Because I’ve found myself in the position of having to choose a lot lately, I’ve decided to really take my practice onto the path or, more accurately, onto the road. And, it’s not an easy process!
Pushing one’s body to the brink of one’s capability, going beyond what one is comfortable with, and pushing the mind to push the body can bring benefit to one’s ability to focus and train in mindfulness. However, I find that to apply my mind to a profoundly severe physical exertion while also applying my mind skillfully to the art of meditation can be quite a challenge.
While you may find that sitting on a cushion or chair is a delightful way to practice your meditation, taking it up a notch and engaging in something that requires your concentration on your body as well as on your meditative mind is very different.
What I find happening is that I’m able to be very mindful about what I’m doing, like keeping my cadence at 90 revolutions per minute. I’m also able to maintain an awareness of my surroundings; the traffic, my (aching!) legs and the bugs flying at me at 40 miles an hour. But I’m not very spacious about doing so. It’s like my mindfulness and awareness get “boxed in” by the challenge of pushing myself hard, very hard.
Is there a solution to this predicament? What I’ve found helpful is to bring my meditation environment into my cycling. To do this, I use a number of techniques and resources. Here they are:
For me, even when I’m not biking like some crazed and fanatic lunatic, I find great grounding or centering in listening to inspirational teachings on meditation practice. In the Tibetan tradition as well as in many contemplative traditions, there are specific techniques for alternating between reading or listening to an inspirational teaching, reflecting on it, and then practicing it.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the practice of listening to a teaching, then reflecting on what one has heard, and finally resting in meditation on what one has realized or experienced from the teaching, is a powerful way to work with what one has heard. When bicycling, I practice this listening, reflecting and meditating on the teachings quite often and am amazed with how well they “stick” in my mind.
Recently on my rides, I’ve begun using my headset on/off button to first listen to particular segments of teachings and then pause the teachings to reflect on what I've heard and to allow my mind to rest in a "meditative awareness" based on my understanding of the teaching. This even works while chugging up the steep roads outside of Boulder or descending a hill like some gravity-bound kamikaze.
What’s amazing to me is that even if I don’t feel like I’m gaining any “benefit” directly from these meditation sessions in the saddle, when I’ve finished my ride, not only do I feel a sense of mental and physical exhilaration, but I also feel a clarity of mind that seems very similar to what I experience while on the cushion in a formal meditation practice.
Does this always work? Hell no!! There are times when I have to yank the earphones out of my ears because they’re simply too distracting within the intensity of my ride. Sometimes hearing even the most inspirational teaching or instruction is just too much for my mind to engage with when I’m stomping my pedals up a 11% grade, wondering which will come first, the top of the climb or an ambulance! And there are times when a teaching has finished and I think, “What the heck was that about and where the hell was my mind?” whereupon I hit replay and listen all over again.
As I said, this kind of meditation practice is difficult and is hasn’t been recommended to me as a way to practice meditation. After all, our practice should support our progress in meditation, not impede it. And yet, think about this: when you reflect on the benefits of learning to work with your mind when your body is going through physical rigors, and when you reflect on the fact that at some unknown time you’ll be dying, and there’s no guarantee that your death will be an easy or painless one; when you think about applying your mind to any situation or circumstance as a way of practicing for the inevitable, then it makes sense to take every opportunity available to go beyond what you're am comfortable with, doesn't it?. So, to practice the art of meditation under physical duress may be a very beneficial thing and time well-spent, on and off of the bicycle seat.
Another less complicated way that I use my meditation practice while cycling is to simply use that time as a way to practice meditation with the physical process of cycling as the support of my focus. So I use my breathing, or the cadence of my legs peddling, or the visual landscape ahead of me as the object of my mindfulness. I remain aware, to the best of my ability, of that mindfulness by remaining alert to whenever my mind strays and bringing it gently back to the present. And I remain spacious about the entire process, taking in the beauty of my surroundings, the intensity of the physical sensations within my body, and the meditation itself.
Returning briefly to the meditation on dying piece, I’ve had the honor and privilege to be around – literally – thousands of people who were dying. I’ve seen peaceful deaths and I’ve seen some very painful deaths, where the person who was dying was in intractable pain and suffering.
One big difference between these experiences and the ones that we encounter on a bike, or hiking, or running is that in the latter case, we’re putting ourselves through these ordeals. We’re applying effort to bring on our physical experience and can stop at any time. Whereas when dying, while we’re not purposely creating the pain and suffering, there’s no option to stop, we can’t pull off to the side of the road and say, “I’m done, this ride isn’t fun anymore.”
Within these differences we can see a potential value in using “tough” activities as a focus of our practice; if we can get accustomed to sticking with it and really applying our mind to the task when we do have a choice, then maybe when we don’t have a choice, i.e., when dying, we’ll be more prepared to stick with it to the end, keeping our mind on the art of dying.
Because I’ve finished this post on the topic of death, not bicycling, I’d like to end this post with a quote from the book, Medicine and Compassion—A Tibetan Lama’s Guidance for Caregivers. This quote gently reminds its reader of the importance of reflecting on death and impermanence. While it’s not directly pertinent to the topic of meditation and bicycling, its wisdom can be applied within the saddle, or the car seat, or the office chair, or…
The time spent contemplating and studying impermanence prepares us to accept that the body dies. It’s just a natural consequence of being alive. While you are alive, it is important to learn how to live in such a way that you can be at ease with whatever happens. When dying, it’s important to learn how to die in a way that is not so burdened by anxiety, fear or pain—to learn how to die without dread.[i]- Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, from Medicine and Compassion—A Tibetan Lama’s Guidance for Caregivers
I’m curious though, is this a proper way to integrate meditation into my life? Do you have thoughts on this? Do you do similar practices? What works for you? What doesn’t? Do you apply the understanding of impermanence to your daily activities?
[i] Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima, Shlim, David R. Medicine and Compassion—A Tibetan Lama’s Guidance for Caregivers. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004, pg. 145.