|Is cycling your religion, or at least one of them? If so, you’re not alone. Many people define themselves as “spiritual,” even if they don’t practice an organized religion, and many find spiritual experiences in physical activities. Connecting cycling and spiritual life may offer a powerful source of inner strength and fulfillment for the mentally fit cyclist.|
By Marv Zauderer
Last month in this Sport Psychology column, we examined the critical moment in a ride or race, and what it takes for you to seize – rather than freeze up in – that moment. This month, as we begin the column’s fourth year, we explore the potential connections between your cycling and spiritual life, and the opportunities for those connections to help build your mental fitness on the bike.
A friend of mine helps organize mountain bike races for hundreds of kids on Sundays. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?” he said to me, as he explained his painful childhood experiences with his family’s religion. “Now, the races are my church,” he went on, as he described the joy, meaning, and inspiration he finds in helping the kids, seeing them strive, and watching them grow.
Let me be clear: There are plenty of people, including me, who have wonderful, fulfilling experiences with organized religions and spiritual practices. But there are also many people who find such things to be the wrong tools for the job. Consider these findings:
• A recent University of Chicago study found that “a growing number of people [in the U.S.] are spiritual but not religious.”
• A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, surveying Protestants, Catholics, and the unaffiliated, finds that “large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions.”
• According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, “so many people declined to label themselves with any religion that the so-called ‘Nones,’ now 15%, are the nation’s third largest ‘religious’ category after Catholics and Baptists.”
Clearly, many spiritual experiences are confined – as we perceive them – to our heads. However, when we broaden our experiences to the physical, the results can be just as powerful spiritually, if not more so. Dr. Marcia McFee and the Rev. Karen Foster, in their terrific book, “Spiritual Adventures in the Snow: Skiing and Snowboarding as Renewal for Your Soul,” illuminate this phenomenon in compelling detail. They write,
“Neuroscientists have discovered that when the part of the nervous system that creates a high-energy release is greatly stimulated, it can create simultaneous activity in the part of the nervous system that quiets us….Sometimes when we are concentrating with great intention and are engaged in intense rhythmic activity (such as skiing, riding, skating, or trekking), this stimulation of both of these systems in the brain happens. We feel energized and calm all at the same time. We feel powerful, and we feel at peace.”
and they continue,
“There is also another by-product of this that can occur: we can begin to feel oneness with everything. Why? Apparently, when there is so much activity in the brain, we have to inhibit activity in some parts in order to conserve energy for the parts of the brain where the super-buzz is going on. The parts of the brain that get the plug pulled for a time are places that enable us to know the boundaries between ourselves and everything else. When this happens, the boundaries between us and other people, between us and the snow and the trees, between us and our skis or board, disappear.”
Ever have an experience on the bike like that? Sounds a lot like a “no-chain day,” or the elusive “Zone,” doesn’t it? Let’s explore how cycling and other parts of life can be “spiritual, but not religious” (or spiritual and religious, if that works better for you), and how that can help you get more out of riding.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Reflect for a minute. What does the word “spiritual” mean to you? What seems to contribute to you having anything approaching a “spiritual experience,” on or off the bike?
Notice how McFee and Foster referred to “concentrating with great intention.” As noted in the column on Concentration, that’s one way you might increase your awareness. Now there’s a word – awareness – that some of us toss around quite a bit. What does it really mean? Let’s start with its root: a word meaning “wary” or “watchful.” To me, “wary” has an anxious, on-edge quality to it, and that’s not quite a fit. How about “watchful?” If we think about awareness in the standard sense, “watchful” seems like a closer fit: awareness is about noticing, isn’t it? But someone (you), or at least something (your mind?), is still doing the noticing.
Sometimes a spiritual experience isn’t about having awareness. And it’s not about self-awareness. It’s about being awareness. It’s having your complete, moment-to-moment experience defined and consumed by what’s actually happening. Can you imagine what it would be like to live that way every moment? No extra thoughts, analysis, fears, and the like to get in the way of living each moment fully. Does this sound a lot like your dog or cat? You’re right! In contrast, we humans have consciousness, which is both a blessing and a big pain in the you-know-what.
Fortunately, “concentrating with great intention” can bring you closer and closer to the elusive state of pure awareness, and can give you glimpses of that state from time to time. You can practice this in any one of dozens of ancient meditation traditions, in how you commit to bringing a certain quality of attention to your family or friends, in how you lose yourself in solving a problem at work, and in so many other ways.
Now, let’s add the “intense rhythmic activity” that McFee and Foster mentioned. As I noted in the column on Integrating Body and Mind, the world’s spiritual traditions so often involve the physical: the ecstatic Zikr in the Sufi tradition, the prostrations in Buddhism and Islam, Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation, the bowing and trance-like swaying in Jewish davenning, the asanas of yoga, many Native American rituals, the Eucharist and labyrinth-walking in Christianity. You bring to riding what you’re given from any of those practices. And, you can make riding a practice itself: “concentrating with great intention” on a tough climb, in a sprint, during your training intervals, in a race.
Moments of pure awareness can be, in McFee and Foster’s words, the disappearing of “boundaries between ourselves and everything else.” In cycling, where setting goals and knowing our limits define such important boundaries for us, there’s a “letting go” that’s important as well. How, or when, or where does that happen for you?
Garmin-Slipstream pro Steven Cozza has a terrific video of one of the most popular rides in our area. He points out how important Nature is to him – wildlife, mountains, the ocean, islands, fog, redwoods, the wind – on this ride, and on every ride. Nature: that’s one of the places many of us let go, isn’t it? And often without even trying. There can be something magical about immersing ourselves in the natural world, away from most of the signs of industrialization, of civilization, of “progress.” Why is that so? Perhaps it’s in Nature where, for some of us, it’s easy – or at least possible – to feel a part of something much bigger than ourselves.
When we feel connected to something larger – and I’m not talking about the peloton – focus and concentration come more easily. Anxiety lessens. Thoughts quiet. What is the “something larger” for you? Literally, something larger, like the ocean or a redwood forest? A “Higher Power?” (in which case, I can’t resist: that could mean higher power!) An energy, or Force, that any of us can tap into? A sense that everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent?
The wonderful Buddhist teacher (and Jewish grandmother) Sylvia Boorstein has a tape entitled “The Courage to be Happy,” in which she uses Jewish and Buddhist stories to illuminate a path to living each moment fully. There’s a picture of her on the cover, and I’ll give you one guess at what she’s doing. Yep. Riding a bike. And smiling.
Cycling can be a path to the spiritual, and spiritual life can deepen your experience on the bike. Enjoy the journey.