What is mindfulness, and does it have anything to do with cycling?
In our modern time, most of us have, at least heard of the term "mindfulness," and would likely say that we know what that is. But do we really? We might say that it is simply paying attention. And it might be said that this is so. But for what purpose? To make us happy? We are generally not happy. Just look around. Then another question arises. Is happiness a goal, or is happiness simply a feeling, and a fleeting one at that. My belief is that as a human we are meant to feel a wide range of feelings, and that mindfulness is the simple awareness of just what we are feeling in this moment; feeling it, allowing it to be, and not trying to hide from it, or evade it.
As a cyclist you are probably wondering how this relates to you, other than the obvious that you are a human. Let me ask you this: When you are on that bike, often for many hours at a time, just where does your mind go? I am sometimes surprised at just how lost I sometimes get in mundane thoughts, often awakening from this stupor many miles down the road. At times I believe this to be a necessary evil, numbing myself from the pain that sitting on that saddle for what seems an eternity. However when I do this in a car it worries me. Did I run over someone that I didn't see? Well not likely, but can I say that I am putting my best effort into my ride if I am not present?
Being present on a bike ride is not near as important as being present in the relationships we have with others. It is just a bike race. But it is important. It is a part of our lives. To me it is a metaphor, the pain and suffering we experience on a ride, the joy comparable to that which we experience in life. This is a difficult time to be alive. One simply cannot know, day to day, the reality of what we walk through. Just watch the news. Politics aside, we do not know just what is true. Propaganda has replaced the truth as the message, as if there was some absolute method for discerning the whole truth. As I age, one of the deepest regrets is that rather than knowing truth I am stuck with perception alone.
I like to tell the story about a study that was conducted by the Washington Post. They put a violinist in a train station during the busiest part of the day. He played Bach pieces for 45 minutes. Virtually no one noticed. Occasionally a child would stop to listen only to be pulled along by a parent. Very few people actually listened. In the end the man made less than $10. As it turned out the man was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists of our time. Later that night he played the same music at Carnegie Hall where tickets cost more than $100. The instrument Mr. Bell played was a Strataverius worth several million dollars. The conclusion that was drawn from the study was that if we don't notice the extraordinary things that happen around us, how can we hope to notice the ordinary things in our life. In fact, we don't.
We are trapped, at most moments of our life, in this dream, characterized by our own inaccurate perception. Think about the most recent interaction you had with your partner, with your child. Were you actually present? Did you listen? Were you open, and calm? Were you actually connected with that person? Think about the last race or event that you did. Were you calm at the start? Were you aware, and present to your movements, to tactics, to the road to what was going on around you, to your own body, it's sensations, your strength and energy level? Or were you anxious and out of control?
As a former mental health counselor, my experienced belief is that the most common symptom of those in mental distress is anxiety. Anxiety is a common term, and most of us have experienced symptoms of it. But for a moment let's think about what the actual physiological symptoms are. They are an increase in breathing rate, in heart rate, in blood pressure, and the production of adrenaline. The very same symptoms of what is called "fight or flight." We are preparing for an emergency event. Blood is drawn away from the brain to the arms and legs. It then becomes difficult to think straight. If you have to run or fight, you are well prepared. If not, as in a bike race where you have to dose your energy, control your pace, you are not. You are basically not prepared to do anything other than fight or run. Is this any way to ride a bike race? Hardly. You will likely be unprepared as the anxiety usually occurs in advance of the actual race, and you will probably spend your precious fuel in the first hour.
With this handicap, it is surprising that any of us succeed. Yet we do. There is hope. The hope is to chose to be present despite the thoughts and feelings that you are having. To bring awareness to your experience, for example, awareness that a conversation with your child is not a life threatening event, that a bike race is not a life threatening event.
For a moment, let's have a closer look at mindfulness, at a definition that I have found useful in better grasping what it means to be mindful. Let us say that mindfulness is "Paying attention, without any judgement to the on-going flow of your experience in the present moment." This is from the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Dr. Edmund Bourne. This makes sense to me. Paying attention, as we have already suggested, to what is going on within us, and around us. Connected to, and aware of our surroundings, including our body and mind. Without any judgement. We need our faculty of judgement to make appropriate decisions. However we often judge ourselves and others harshly, imagine situations as not what we want them to be, when in reality they are simply what they are. Again we might look at our perception as inaccurate. To the on-going flow of your experience in the present moment. Paying attention and being in the present moment are basically the same thing, however this idea of paying attention to the "on-going flow of your experience" is critical to our being present in our own lives. One of the most common descriptions of the symptoms that those with mental distress mention is a feeling of "being stuck," as if the thoughts and feelings and experience that they are having are all that will ever be. Most of us experience this feeling from time to time. It is a very good description. It is also an illusion. Your experience is on-going. What happens around and within you never stops. When you feel that it has, you have blindfolded yourself. I have often in the past used a metaphor of a busy street. Just let me blindfold you, and have you walk across the street. I promise that you will have a new experience. Consider what you might be missing when you are feeling stuck.
Next, let's have a look at how this effects your life in a very direct way. Imagine....this is a very powerful tool, a tool capable of leading us to a new way of "being." Imagine that you are conversing with a young child who is being influenced by peers to do something or other that could very well be dangerous. But you are not present, you are feeling, for your own reasons, stuck. You are not hearing the clues this child is giving you, looking for an open conversation with you. Or you have a bike race coming up, but again you are not present. Imagine that you are planning to do the Oregon Triple Crown, three rides that would result in a "finisher's" jersey if you finish all three. The first ride is the Oregon Gran Fondo, a race that you have finished in the past. But you don't feel as good as some other riders, and finished "back of the pack" last time. You are feeling over-weight, and tend to imagine that the worst is always waiting to happen to you. You are getting progressively more and more anxious, and as much as you go over and over your checklist, you can't seem to focus. A possible consequence-you have a flat 70 miles in, which in itself is not a problem, until you realize you don't have a pump or CO2 cartridge. You walk the six miles to the next aid station, but now you are worn out, and pretty much broken in spirit (even though it is just a bike race), and quickly accept a ride in the sag wagon. Your race is over, as is your quest for the Triple Crown jersey. There are so many examples where our absence in a situation makes us complicit in our own tragedy.
So how do we become and remain mindful and present in our lives. It is difficult because our egos are just so busy reminding us of all that isn't going the way that it ought to-aversion and grasping. This is how we become stuck. To be mindful, to be present, is going to require reminders. I once new a guy who put a rubber band on his wrist, and would snap it, hard, everytime he found himself drifting away from being present. This is perhaps a little harsh, but we are going to need this kind of dedication. Stay with what is going on, and how you feel. Allow it to be without arguing against it. One of our big problems is aversion. If we don't like the circumstances in our life, or what we are feeling with avoid or resist it, which as we all learn only makes it worse. We must dedicate ourselves to staying with circumstances or feeling, no matter how difficult it may be. There really is no alternative. And allow yourself to imagine, intend for it to be possible.
I have said in the past that the main ingredient for a successful life or bike ride is preparation. Being as ready as you can possibly be for what might come your way. But, you might ask, how can you be prepared when you are so anxious that you can't think straight. The one and only answer that I have is meditation. There are so many ways that you can learn to meditate. Just pick one, or find a good teacher. And don't critique yourself on whether you are doing it right. Just do it, and remember that it is cumulative. You cannot achieve, or likely won't achieve enlightenment with one extroardinary meditation, but you may do so with many ordinary sessions. The main result may very well be the calmness that you need to think preparation.