I love mountain biking. In these COVID-times, with all the additional stresses, the sport is a meditative source of grounding, focus and joy.
This was not always so. It took me a lot of years to arrive at the relationship I have with the sport (and my bike). I dabbled in mountain biking for many years; i.e. a couple of decades. The first time I tried out mountain biking was more than 30 years ago. I bought a mountain bike to replace the city cruiser I had, figuring that it could do double duty—replace my dilapidated cruiser and be a source of off-road fun exercise too. I couldn’t quite achieve the off-road fun bit. I didn’t trust myself or my bike. I was so frustrated by my lack of skill, that I could never relax enough to develop the skills. I spent a lot of time walking my bike, while simultaneously cursing my ineptitude.
Then about eleven years ago, we bought this place I’m at in the California mountains that’s a stone’s throw from a huge network of fabulous trails. I ride out the driveway and I’m on single track trails within 2 minutes. I started riding once a week, as an off-day from trail running (another love). I still walked my bike a lot, but I improved. Very. Slowly. Then, when various running injuries forced me to reduce my mileage, I started to ramp up my time on the mountain bike. Well, hello, turns out when I ride more than once a week, I actually improve. Noticeably. And that’s a pleasant virtuous cycle—the more I improve, the more I enjoy the sport. I’ll come back to what I mean by improve in a moment. Then 5 years ago, as solace after my father died, I bought a new mountain bike. And holy cow, was I shocked to discover that all the new bike tech really did notch up my potential. For the first time I really felt like I was riding with a partner and friend—my bike, that is. I painted a flower on her crossbar with green nail polish, in thanks.
This year I’ve been riding a lot. Not because I can’t run, but because I want to ride. In a period of such pervasive anxiety (societal anxiety fuels personal anxiety and around the merry-go-round the anxiety goes), mountain biking demands my complete presence and attention. When my mind strays, I get knocked off my bike. When my mind focuses, I make it over, through and around obstacles I thought were impossible. Over and over again on my bike, I get an up close and personal look at how my mind either obstructs my progress or harmonizes fluidly with the world. In the best moments, I feel like I’m dancing on my bike. Pure woohoo joy (yes, I shout out loud, the happiness is too much to resist). In the less harmonious moments, I can usually see exactly how my own thoughts interfered.
There are, for example, certain obstacles I only “make” on some days—a steep sandy uphill, a hairpin over rock clusters, a pincer gap between two boulders. The days I don’t make them, it’s most often because I’ve started talking myself out of it before I get there. I’m thinking too much about whether I’ll achieve. The days I stay on the bike, I find the flow between going for it and not worrying about the outcome. So, when I mentioned above that I have improved my bike skill, that’s the skill I mean. Not whether I can ride over, around or through an obstacle, but whether I can find the right mindset. In other words, my mountain bike rides feel like an object lesson in learning to find that harmony between effort and no effort that allows us to feel in flow with the world. I liken this harmony or flow to what Taoism calls wu wei, or effortless action.
Being in flow on my mountain bike certainly doesn’t mean that everything is possible. There are still obstacles that are objectively not within my skill set. Yet. Or maybe ever. Staying open to the flow and noticing its ebbs, enables me to see more readily where I can do more and where I should stay humble, get off my bike and leave that steep rock drop off for another day.
One more reason why mountain biking works as a meditation—because, even as my skill evolves, every previous challenge has stayed fresh in my mind. Even if the last time an obstacle stumped me was a decade ago, I am grateful each time I meet it with ease. There’s no complacence in my developing skill. Going around rocks, whooshing through gulleys or popping over fat tree roots, I remember that they used to stop me in my tracks and I take an extra breath of thanks. Gratitude fortifies my ongoing curiosity and seasons each new skill I acquire with humility. Inside this sport, I am present with the delicate balance between acquiring and acknowledging my own expertise, while simultaneously staying curious (without judgment) to what’s new or changed.
The more I can learn to notice these subtleties in my rides, the more I can see how the same patterns play out in my life off-the-bike. How can I foster the harmonious coexistence of expertise and curiosity? Where can I find more flow? When am I giving up too soon? What can I let go of?
In meditation practice, being in the flow is what teachers describe as finding the calm below the turbulence of the waves in an ocean, or letting the silt settle to reveal the clear water in a glass. These are the metaphors for a clear, uncluttered, unobstructed mind. More than any other activity in my life (including my longstanding meditation practice), when I’m on my mountain bike, I get robust glimpses of the power of my clear mind. Again, meditation teachers tell us that the more familiar we are with that space and its possibilities, the more readily we can access our clear mind again.
I have found that to be true, on my mountain bike (and in life). The difficult part is that it takes constant curiosity. I was going to say hard work or vigilance, but those are such effortful terms. Just like peace is not achieved through violence, finding the flow of effortless action is not achieved by forced labour. What’s needed is expansive, open-hearted curiosity. Over and over. Staying alive to possibility is challenging. I want to do better. My mountain bike meditations help, but I’ve got a long road ahead. But then again, if the journey is the destination, to bowdlerize Ralph Waldo Emerson, well then, I’m doing okay.
How about you? Where do you find flow most easily in your life?