What Does Try New Things Really Mean?

My latest podcast addiction is Dr. Sharon Blackie’s interviews on Hagitude, The podcast is conversations with a diverse collective of women approaching, experiencing or on the other side of menopause.  When it was first suggested to me, I had a moment of What? Who me? Oh no, is that what you think of me? I never lie about my age. And yet, her assumption that it would resonate for me, caught me up short. Brought me closer in on the reality of my age. This is, in fact, a podcast for me, a woman who has gone through menopause. Then, I listened to the podcast. And listened to another episode and another one and so on. Almost everyone had at least a nugget that grabbed my attention. And her interview with Peggy Orenstein  was unusually provocative. I found myself questioning them out loud. In the episode, Peggy talks about the need for women, as they age, to keep being curious. To try new things that we aren’t good at. Okay. Yes, and …

My question: what does she mean by new things? As in, brand new? Or might the newness reside in the very act of continuing things we’ve done for years, in a different way, as modified by age. I was thinking, in particular, about our engagement with sports. That special challenge of staying curious and engaged with a sport, maybe especially one we used to be quite good at, when we can no longer perform at the same level. When we are no longer good at the sport.

Sure, yes, there’s age-adjusted this and that. We rate ourselves now strictly against our cohort and might try to ignore the broader category of all women. I was never a terrific athlete. And, I did my share of road races and triathlons in which I placed in the top five among women. Now? That doesn’t happen. In fact, for the most part, I’ve given up participating in races. Age adjusting was not enough of a palliative. Because, the bottom line is that I am no longer as fast and strong and that loss comes with some mourning.

I am grateful that the loss did not make me want to quit, as I have seen (understandably) with many people I know. I am not the only one to miss my younger self. As I listened to Peggy talk about curiosity and new things, it occurred to me that continuing to engage with a long-loved sport is a genuine and valid version of trying something new. The curiosity comes in figuring out how to evolve the relationship with our bodies and the sport. We can truly inhabit the age-adjustment, making a mental shift that solicits our curiosity. And we can do what I did, which was to change the nature of my relationship with, for example, running. I needed to strip out the competitiveness, even and especially with myself. I had to get back to basics. Back to the why.

The joy of being in my body. And that required curiosity. 

As a side note, I do also try new things—in the last year I’ve developed a brand, new passion for 5Rhythms dance, which I had never before participated in; and I studied Reiki and got my Level 2 certification, with zero background in prior energy work.

And the universe may be asking me to try quite a few new things in the next months. I’ve recently had a too-close brush with my own mortality (more on that may come in another post). This, too, has required a reset around my physical activity (among other things). I am struggling with the issues that arise around my sense of myself, if I can’t just head out for a double digit run whenever I feel like it. Yes, I am acutely aware that to be able to do that has always been an enormous privilege. And it has been a part of my identity. Who am I, if I am not strong in the way I’ve always associated with my wellbeing? What does strength even mean and how can I redefine it for myself? Questions to be explored with curiosity. In the meantime, my relationship with my existing sports is going to transform into something new for some period of time, which may be forever. And I’m considering whether there are new opportunities for movement I might explore. Tai Chi?

cycling · meditation · mindfulness · motivation

Mountain Bike Meditation

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?