Integrating Body and Mind

Western cultures have traditionally maintained a significant separation between mind and body. As a result, many athletes train their bodies and then attend to mental fitness, if at all, as a separate activity. When you improve the connection between body and mind, you can more effectively develop your mental skills – skills that can give you an edge.

By Marv Zauderer

In the past 18 months of this Sport Psychology column, we’ve covered a plethora of mental skills that you can self-assess, selectively improve, and apply in your cycling:

• The five core skills of mentally fit cyclists: Goal-Setting, Self-Talk, Managing Emotions, Concentration, and Communication.

• The integral elements – the building blocks – of the five core skills: Breathing Techniques, Self-Awareness, Managing Your Will to Succeed, Building Self-Confidence, Setting and Challenging Limits, and Comparing Yourself With Others.

Advanced skills, built on the core skills, that you can use on and off the bike in responding to adversity: Increasing Tolerance for Suffering, Recovering from Injury, Sustaining Motivation, Handling Pressure, Beating the “Winter Blues,” and Balancing Self-interest and Cooperation. 

Now that we’ve covered so much ground (and road), it’s time to step back a bit.

Last week, I went to a performance by the brilliant fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan. He told a story of being offered a contract to perform in Spain; the only condition in the contract was that he improvise the entire show. Being a master of improvisation, he signed, but as the date of the show approached, he became increasingly nervous. Finally, he sought the counsel of a friend. “Look at it this way,” said the friend, “you won’t forget anything.”

What a relief it is when the burdens our minds create…disappear. To be sure, much of mental skills work in sport – and in the performing arts – is about “using your mind on your mind,” and that certainly can be effective. But it’s not the only way to master the mental obstacles to optimal performance.

As may be true for many of you this summer, I recently competed in an epic road race. Intense heat, dozens of unavoidable potholes, bottles flying, flats left and right, gravel sections, cramping, and even a bee sting at a critical moment – it was a huge challenge, physically and mentally, just to finish. I was asked, some days later, this question: “Why did you do it?” Why, indeed? Why do we take on the challenges of this physically demanding sport, challenges that call on us to use – and learn – these mental skills? Why do we willingly take on the suffering, the disappointments, the adversity of tough races, long rides, and brutal training?

For the hotties that flock to us after we cross the finish line, I know, but besides that?

One of the reasons, even if we’re not aware of it, is frequently this: The body is the Great Equalizer for the mind. When the mind is too dominant, we’re out of balance. And then we often pay the price – with anxiety, runaway thoughts, and so many other kinds of distress. But when we draw on the power and wisdom in our bodies, we can restore balance, bring mind and body closer, and relieve the burdens that our rampant minds so often create.

In Western cultures, philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes have had a huge impact on the particular kind of dualistic view that separates mind and body. But in the last 50 years, Western civilization has been first inching, and now crawling (or perhaps toddling) toward a more integral view of personhood. Fortunately, it’s been Toddling Under the Influence of Eastern philosophies, among other forces. So when I use the phrase “power and wisdom in our bodies,” I’m not talking about wattage and facts. I’m suggesting that your consciousness – your experience of yourself – is not located only in your noggin. Your emotions, sensations, past experiences, self-awareness, and even your thoughts all have a physical component. Discovering and living the physical in everything you experience – what is sometimes called being more in your body – can be the key to better mental fitness, and a better experience on the bike. But how?

Mind-Body Techniques

Led by Dr. Herbert Benson and others, mind-body medicine has begun to guide what Dr. Benson calls the “third modality” in health care – in addition to pharmaceuticals and surgery – for maintaining health and well-being: self-care. And so, over the years, health care practitioners, researchers, and the athletes they’ve worked with have identified a number of things you can do to better integrate mind and body for sport performance, including:

Improving your emotional awareness. Emotions affect health, energy, and strength, and of course the reverse is true as well. If you have even occasional difficulty answering the question, “How do you feel about that?”, you may need to look to your body for the answer rather than your mind. For example, when you’re anxious or stressed or fearful, where do you feel it in your body? Does your chest tighten? Does your breathing get shallow? Do you get knots in your stomach? (Don’t feel alone in this, guys; contrary to popular belief, there are women who have trouble with this, too.) Biofeedback can build your awareness and skill here. As you strengthen all the pathways to and from your emotions, you give yourself a better chance to handle your emotions, experience them, and use them.

Grounding yourself. No, I’m not talking about banishing yourself to your room. If you want to be more in your body, becoming more conscious of your physical connection with the Earth is a great way to drive your consciousness downward from your head. In other words, gravity works! So sometimes, when you’re sitting, standing, or walking, practice paying attention to the contact of your feet (or shoes) with the ground. Gardening can work wonders, too. There was a great episode of The Cosby Show where one of his kids asks Bill Cosby what he was doing outside in the family’s garden. “I was putting my hands in the life!” he replies, with obvious delight. And finally, there’s nothing more grounding than paying attention to your breath – the place, perhaps, where Body and Mind meet.

Cultivating your spiritual life. Speaking of the breath, thousands of years of many meditation traditions – not to mention present-day research on the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation – have shown how simply following the breath can be so…enlightening. And notice how spiritual practice can be so physical in many spiritual traditions; for example, the ecstatic Zikr in the Sufi tradition, the prostrations in Buddhism and Islam, the bowing and trance-like swaying in Jewish davening, the asanas of yoga, the Eucharist in Christianity.

Being conscious about what you put in your body. Paying more attention to what you eat and drink – the choices you make, the impact those choices have, but also the actual moment-by-moment experience of eating and drinking – can be a great way to narrow the mind-body gap.

Exploring psychotherapy/counseling. Conventional “talk therapies” can be very helpful in closing the mind-body gap, and there are also innovative body-oriented psychotherapies – such as Hakomi and Focusing – that may be a better fit for you.

Continuing to discover your physical potential. There is amazing transformative power in physical, body-focused experience. You can use your cycling in overcoming abuse, shame, or embarrassment. You can use your cycling to learn what’s possible for your mind and body to achieve. Yet as you stretch your physical limits, perceived or real threats to your body may raise visceral fear and anxiety, perhaps evoking the fundamental mortality that underlies every moment of life. But in facing that challenge by drawing on everything within yourself – from mind, body, and spirit – you go through a crucible and a stronger person emerges.

Many of the most successful athletes – in any sport, at any level – are set apart from competitors by mental strength. And your mind will be much stronger when it has a good connection, good communication, and good balance with your body. Be (and ride) well!


How Good Do You Need to Be?

You’re thinking about racing. Upgrading to that next category. Stepping into a bigger role on your team. Joining that testosterone-fueled group ride that you’ve never done. Or doing a century for the first time. But something’s holding you back. If you’re like many athletes, it could be this voice, whether you hear it or not: I’m not good enough. The mentally fit cyclist knows how to silence that voice: to know that you have – and are – enough to discover your true potential.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month in this Sport Psychology column, we concluded a two-part series on Moving Forward by Letting Go. With the help of some insightful ex-pros, we looked at ways you can let go – when the time is right – of goals that no longer serve you. This month we look at the other side of the spectrum (or is it?): how to take on more challenge in cycling when you’re feeling a particular kind of reluctance.

As I started to write this column, I searched my experiences for a catchy example – a movie scene, an author’s vignette, a song lyric – that would engagingly illustrate what I’ll be covering here. I was anxious about the possibility of losing readers’ interest, and I figured I’d better start with something compelling. Nothing fit quite right, and before I knew it, a couple of hours went by. Suddenly I wondered: why am I depending so completely on someone else’s words to engage your attention?

There are always new frontiers for us, as cyclists and as human beings, to cross – if we dare to try. For example:

• Racing for the first time

• Doing a race, or type of race, that you’ve never done

• Seizing an opportunity in a race

• Upgrading to race at the next level

• Taking on a leadership role on your team

• Beginning an organized training program, with or without hiring a coach

• Riding a longer distance – a metric century, a century, a double – for the first time

• Joining a group ride that’s thus far been too intimidating to join

Think for a minute or two. Have you had any of these experiences? Did you have any hesitation before diving in? Why? What are the next frontiers for you in your riding?

Often what gets in our way in these moments is a voice – heard or unheard – that tells us that we’re not good enough. But as my wise friend Lloyd reminded me this week, good enough for what? To win? To succeed? To have fun? To avoid embarrassment? To avoid having it be scary while you attempt it? As you think about the next challenges that you could take on in your riding, ask yourself these questions about each challenge:

• If I take on the challenge, what do I want to have happen?

• Do I have the feeling that I need to have something happen? Why?

• What am I afraid will happen?

If, as you answer these questions, you feel – or at least suspect – that you’re either grasping too urgently for a particular outcome, or are unduly afraid of something happening, there are several steps you can take to shift things for yourself.

Preparing for the Climb
Let’s start by looking at your fears. As you think about a challenge you could take on, do you have any of these thoughts?

• I’m not sure I can do it.

• I might get dropped.

• I will get dropped.

• I’ll finish DFL. (that’s Dead %^$&in’ Last)

• I might not finish at all.

• My teammates will be angry with me.

• I’d let my teammates down.

• I’d let myself down.

• Everyone (or too many) will be stronger/faster/fitter than me.

• I’ll lose.

Or perhaps you don’t have any negative thoughts. If you’re (much) more of a feeling-type person, even considering a new challenge might trigger a very unpleasant feeling – enough so even the mere hint of it might trigger an equal and opposite reaction: backing away. You might even back away before your mind has a chance to generate any thoughts. And your reaction may be so fast – and so habitual – that you may never even feel anything. Any guesses about what the unpleasant feeling might be? Ah yes, our old nemesis, anxiety. And when anxiety comes up, it’s usually a sign that you’re coming up against something deeper. But what?

Let’s go back to the thoughts above. Why does the prospect of getting dropped, or finishing last, or disappointing your teammates have so much power over you? Clearly all those things would be bad if they happened, and yes, you might feel bad, but how bad? I’d like to suggest two possibilities:

1. You wouldn’t feel as bad as you fear you would. In which case, why is your fear so strong and, if this happens often, so consistently disproportionate to reality?

2. You would feel as bad as you fear you would. In which case, why are those experiences so awful for you?

Whether you’re aware of negative thoughts, anxiety, both, or neither, backing away from challenges can have an insidious source: a powerful part of you that asserts: I’m not good enough. That part might show itself as “I’m not good enough to do this,” or as “I can’t handle the feeling I’ll have if things don’t go well (or perfectly).” Or, it might show up as fueling a particularly crushing experience of what you define as failure. It’s a part of you that may actually be broadcasting its unfortunate and inaccurate programming, most likely put in place long ago and through no fault of yours. The programming of that part of you may be: I’m not good.

John Bradshaw, author of the bestseller, “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” says,

“Shame is a natural feeling that, when allowed to function well, monitors a person’s sense of excitement or pleasure. But when the feeling of shame is violated by a coercive and perfectionistic religion and culture – especially by shame-based source figures who mediate religion and culture – it becomes an all-embracing identity. A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior, and defective. Such a feeling is so painful that defending scripts (or strategies) are developed to cover it up.”

There’s an old saying about the difference between guilt and shame: Guilt is “I did something bad,” shame is “I am something bad.” Even for many of us for whom shame is not an “all-embracing identity,” we still have parts of our selves that assert – sometimes with huge impact – that we are “defective.” And that’s a lot different from honestly, accurately, and compassionately acknowledging and addressing our imperfections. When our mind convinces us we’re defective, it’s excruciatingly painful; that’s an experience we definitely do not want to have. So what do we do? We brace and defend against it. But how is this part of the self born?

The words “narcissism” and “narcissist” are making their way into the vernacular these days. Unfortunately, like “addiction,” “ADD (attention-deficit disorder),” “OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) “and “subprime lending,” they are frequently misunderstood and misused.

In Ovid’s version of the Greek myth, Narcissus was a man who was punished by the gods for not paying attention to the nymph Echo. His punishment: falling in love with his own reflection, and dying from the inability to tear himself away. Elan Golomb, in her book, “Trapped in the Mirror,” describes Narcissus’ fate:

“Each time Narcissus reached for his adored image mirrored in a pool of still water, it would dissolve into numberless ripples. The narcissist, who is constantly trying to repair her injured self-esteem by adorning and admiring her gilded self, is also haunted by the terror of psychological fragmentation should she become aware that this self is not all she claims it to be.”

Narcissus is said to have transformed into the flower that bears his name – a name that has come to be associated with both healthy and unhealthy self-love; and thus, self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

I strongly believe that most people get their self-esteem “injured” somewhere along the way in life – usually early on, some more than others, and some many more times than once. It is these unfortunate and unjustified “narcissistic wounds” that leave shame in their wake and create the powerful parts of ourselves that claim we are bad.

So if there’s a part of you that’s saying you can’t take on a new challenge, or if you know that part of you is going to create excruciating pain if you do take on the challenge but fall short, how can you put the healthy and solid parts of yourself back in the driver’s seat, rather than giving your power away to your injuries? The answer: By shifting up, we might say, to take on what’s getting in the way.

Into the Big Ring
Here are four tools you can use to climb up and over the next frontiers in your riding:

1. Take the sting out of your negative thoughts. Be wary of any “certainties” – “I’m going to get dropped,” “I’ll finish DFL,” “My teammates will be angry with me” – and challenge them. Notice any feared (but realistic) possibilities – “I’m not sure I can do it,” “I might get dropped,” “I might not finish at all,” – and plan for how you’ll handle those feared outcomes; you may then not fear them as much. Check out the articles on Effective Self-Talk and Handling Pressure for more ideas here.

Negative thoughts feel powerful, especially the “certainties,” but it’s a superficial power, not a deep power. Superficial power can look like an effective way to combat your anxiety. It’s not.

2. Find additional ways to manage and reduce your anxiety. The less fear and anxiety you feel, the more likely you are to go for it in your riding. Effective self-talk will help a great deal, and may be all you need. However, you may benefit from understanding your anxiety – on and off the bike – more clearly, using breathing techniques, and better integrating your body and mind.

3. See and be seen. Reflect on everything in this article. If there’s a part of you that’s been hidden and yet running the show at times, seeing it will help you. Check out the article on self-awareness for more ideas here.

Having others you trust see these parts of you may help as well. Physician Rachel Naomi Remen, in her wonderful book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” tells the story of attending a day-long master class with the great psychologist Carl Rogers. He said to the group, about his counseling practice,

“Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it.”

After watching Rogers conduct a session, Remen was stunned. She remembers:

“I had always worked hard at being good enough; it was the golden standard by which I decided what to read, what to wear, how to spend time, where to live, and even what to say. Even ‘good enough’ was not really good enough for me. I had spent a lifetime trying to make myself perfect. But if what Rogers was saying was true, perfection was the booby prize. What was needed was simply to be human. I was human. All my life I had feared being found out.”

4. Trust the power of experience. As I noted in The Power of Cyclotherapy, experiences on the bike offer you opportunities not only for fun and success but also growth and transformation. Yes, you could be right at times: Feared outcomes will make you feel every bit as bad as you fear you will feel. But not only will you survive those experiences, you may need them for your freedom: you may need them in order to reduce and eliminate the hold your anxiety and injuries have on you. There very well may be no way out but through.

In “I’ll Be There,” Michael Jackson sang:

I’ll reach out my hand to you
I’ll have faith in all you do
Just call my name and I’ll be there

Your family, your friends, your spiritual practice – there are many to whom you can extend your hand, and many who can extend their hands to you. As you strive and struggle to experience more of your potential as an athlete, please remember: extending your hand is also something you can do for yourself.

How Bad Do You Need to Be?

Being tough. Being aggressive. Getting angry. When is it exactly what you need to do to succeed? Does something prevent you from going there? And when is it over the line? The mentally fit cyclist knows how bad(ass) to be: how – and when – to use the energy from the dark side of the self.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month in this Sport Psychology column, we covered a common challenge for athletes: an inner voice that claims, “I’m not good enough.” In “How Good Do You Need to Be?”, we looked at some origins and consequences of this belief, along with ways that you can override and silence it. This month, we examine a very powerful source of energy – your “dark” side – that’s available to you on the bike, and help you explore how to use it.

Imagine yourself in these situations:

• You’re on the next-to-last lap of a criterium, and riders are trying to get the best possible position in the pack. You’re slightly ahead of the rider on your right, and there’s a gap to the wheel of the rider ahead. You want that wheel. So does your competitor. You both begin to go for it. You’re still ahead, and you sense that you can grab it, but it would likely mean bumping your competitor, and perhaps triggering a crash.

• You’re doing your first century ride, and you’re 85 miles into it. It’s cold, raining, windy, and you’re starting to cramp and shiver. You’re also starting to feel lightheaded. The next 10 miles are all uphill, followed by a very fast descent. Just then, a rider cuts you off in a corner.

• You’re on a team where friendship among team members is highly valued. You’ve been working for others in races, especially for one teammate who has a long history of victories. However, you’ve also been training hard, and that has paid off: your fitness, skills and ability have surpassed most of your teammates’ for some time now. No one, including your team’s director, has offered you the opportunity to be a team leader at a race.

• You’re in a stage race, and your teammate is second on GC. The rider who is first on GC, although in the pack with you, has no chance to win the race. You have a friend on a competing team, and he’s done a lot for you over the years. It’s an early stage, and he’s in a breakaway. If he gets enough time on the main field during this stage, he’ll take the leader’s jersey, and you know he’d love that. Although no one in the break is a serious threat to win the GC, you also know that if the break gets an unusual amount of time, there would be a significant risk to your teammate’s – and thus your team’s – position. And yet if you and your team help drive the field too close to your friend, you risk ending his jersey dreams, and you risk his anger – and perhaps the friendship – as well.

Is your decision in any of these situations quick and easy? In all of them? None of them?

What’s tough, and what’s foolish? What’s aggressive, and what’s dishonorable? What’s justifiable and useful anger, and what’s poor self-regulation? What’s reaching within yourself for something strong, and what’s settling for something weak?

What you may need in situations like these is access to a hard edge within you, the judgment to know when to use it, and the inner strength to keep it under control.

The Dark Side is Not All Bad
In their book, “Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature,” Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams cite the poet Robert Frost, who wrote:

Something we were withholding made us weak,
Until we found it was ourselves.

Many of us deny and hide feelings and behaviors that we define – and usually, that others defined for us long ago – as taboo, wrong, bad. And yet, skillfully accepted and managed, there is great strength in that which we withhold.
What’s your dark side? What lives there? Anger? Rage? Jealousy? Greed?

(Aside for the interested reader: In the original Star Wars trilogy, did Luke Skywalker always see the Dark Side of the Force as completely bad?)

Michael Clarkson, for his book “Competitive Fire,” conducted interviews with over 1,000 athletes, coaches, psychologists, and researchers over ten years. A key conclusion: “…many superstar athletes reach peak performance more often than their opponents, and stay at the top longer during their careers, because they provoke and then control their stress emotions as an additive to performance both over the short term and the long haul.”

Clarkson also studied over 50 of the “all-time peak performances” by athletes, and found that anger was one of the key drivers in most of them. Let’s look at anger as a “way in” to your dark side.

Remember Lance Armstrong in the 2003 Tour de France? He was on the ropes, looking fatigued, seemingly vulnerable, when suddenly his handlebar hooked a spectator’s musette. He went down hard. He later said he decided the crash was his fault – he “took a corner too tight, got too close to the public” – and got fiercely angry. Suddenly he sprang to life, channeling his anger into adrenaline, into intense focus, and into a blistering attack (hmmm, that’s an interesting word) that left everyone in his wake. He won the stage and, of course, the Tour.

Think about this for a moment: How friendly are you with your anger? Do you always feel it fully? Does it ever boil over? Do you stuff it (ie. push it away)? How effectively do you manage and convey it? Here are some of the factors that may keep you from feeling, expressing, and using your anger:

• Painful experiences. It can hurt terribly when someone gets angry at you, and also when you get angry at someone else. You can feel ashamed, guilty, frightened, embarrassed – and if this happens enough, an equation may start to be carved in your neurons: Anger=Bad.

• Insufficient management skills. One of the reasons why it can be painful when you get angry is that you’re not managing your anger effectively. Depending on your definition of “effectively” – and, if there’s another person involved, that person’s definition as well – signs might include blaming, shaming, accusing, judging, name-calling, yelling, being too physical, having a sense of “losing it,” and being (accurately) called out about it.

• Overwhelm. Being around enough anger – above your threshold, we might say – might overload your circuits and your skills. In other words, you might have a sensation of feeling physically overwhelmed, and if so, typical responses include (a) fight, and (b) flight. Either one may keep you from being solidly present with anger.

• Bad Habits. As a way of coping with any or all of the above, you might develop strategies to defend against feeling and metabolizing your anger. These might include smiling, laughing, joking, ignoring/avoiding it, trying to fix what seems to be triggering your anger, and so on. (To make things even trickier, sometimes all of these can be healthy responses to anger as well.)

• Fear of losing relationships. As a result of your history, anger can become strongly linked in your mind with conflict, and conflict can raise the specter of loss. The threat of loss, separation, abandonment, the end of a friendship – all of these could have a great deal of leverage with you. Reflect for a moment: how does this operate for you – with friends, teammates, competitors, your coach?

Speaking of relationships, sometimes there are gender differences in how – and whether – athletes use the “hard edge” they may need. Kathleen DeBoer, in “Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently,” writes:

“Males define contests as self-contained events during which normal rules of decorum may be momentarily suspended. Females define contests as just another activity and expect all the usual rules of decorum. This male ability to separate life into interactions that count and those that don’t is ideally suited to their ‘life is a contest’ mentality.

Contests have a defined beginning and ending and, within them, males tolerate what would otherwise be aberrant behavior. Since winning is the shared goal of the males competing in the contest, this ‘whatever it takes’ attitude is often glorified, idealized, and mimicked. Females do not easily compartmentalize life into contests and ‘the rest.’ For women, relationships are ongoing and primary. Relationship standards supersede contest standards, meaning everything counts. The stresses associated with competing are no excuses for abandoning civil behavior.”

She continues: “The challenge for males is to combat the incessant message of the hierarchical world that winning is everything, and therefore any edge is a legitimate edge. The challenge for females is to recognize the debilitating message that winning is tainted, and honorable losing always more virtuous. Pragmatic righteousness is somewhere in the middle.”

Clearly, we all know men and women who defy these generalizations. Yet it still may be useful for you to consider whether your beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about being a man or woman – about what kind of man or woman you have wanted to be – are enhancing or detracting from your ability to use your dark side on the bike.

Tapping into all of your dark energy takes self-awareness, motivation, the courage to confront yourself, and the willingness to experiment. It may take some skill-building – for example, learning to manage and channel your emotions more effectively. Ultimately, by integrating the darker sides of yourself, you create a larger source of what you need to succeed as an athlete, and you become a more complete person both on and off the bike.

For some final words on this topic, I turn to an important source of wisdom on everything in life: Star Trek. In the episode entitled “The Enemy Within,” Captain Kirk is accidentally split by a transporter malfunction into twins. One Kirk is the good/light one: kind, highly sensitive, compassionate. The other Kirk is the bad/dark one: angry, menacing, violent. Dark Kirk, when he’s not attacking women, immediately moves forcibly to take control of the Starship Enterprise. The crew looks to Light Kirk to save them from this threat. Light Kirk feels the crew’s fear, and desperately wants to help. But he can’t. He is too afraid. And little by little, he feels his life ebbing. He is dying. And somehow he knows that Dark Kirk is dying, too.

Luckily, Light Kirk has his friends: Spock, the unemotional Vulcan, and Bones, a man very friendly with his own anger. With their help, Light Kirk learns the truth. He learns that although his dark side terrifies him, it is also a necessary source of his power – power that he lost in the transporter malfunction. Without this power, he cannot act on his sensitivity and compassion. And to make things worse, without this power he will die. He appeals to Dark Kirk to join with him: to go through the now-fixed transporter (thanks, Scotty) with the hope that they can become one self again. But Dark Kirk refuses; he is consumed by his rage and his desire for power and control.

Light Kirk persists, reaching out even as Dark Kirk threatens to kill him. Light Kirk is not afraid, because he knows his dark side cannot live without him. Finally, Dark Kirk’s defenses give way; in tears, he admits that he, too, knows they must be rejoined. The transporter experiment works (you’re going to get shore leave for this, Scotty), and Kirk is whole again.

If you keep your dark side at all hidden, split off, or obscured, you get double-whammied: you don’t have access to all the energy it can provide, and it takes energy to keep it imprisoned. You can use your desire for success and fun on the bike as fuel for your efforts to fully liberate your dark side.

Here’s to your freedom. Live long and prosper!

Higher Power?

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.


Tell the truth: How much do you want it? Desire is rocket fuel for your cycling experiences. It can get you over fear. It can give you access to your deepest sources of energy, strength, and power. It can make the difference between missing out and getting the most from your cycling – and yourself. The mentally fit cyclist knows how to tap into every possible ounce of desire in reaching for goals, growth, and fun on the bike.

By Marv Zauderer

Three years ago in this Sport Psychology column, we looked at common threats to motivation – feeling tired after a long season, overtraining, feeling down about your results – and how you can sustain your motivation for cycling and your goals. For many of you, it’s the off-season now and the bad weather has arrived, bringing with it less outdoor riding and the possibility of experiencing the cyclist’s winter blues. It’s the time of year to get in front of those obstacles, and a time to go deeper: to move from motivation to passion, and to keep yourself there.

I had the pleasure of seeing some enchanting works of art recently – pieces that, for me, reflected intense desire and passion at their core, yet were constrained by their surrounding darkness. I gravitated to one piece, Rising, and as I reveled in the beauty and depth of its crackling fire, I flashed on The Promise, HBO’s new documentary about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. (I know fans of the Boss are smiling, and not just because of the “darkness” connection: his haunting, uplifting, post-9/11 album is entitled The Rising.)

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, a Springsteen concert is always an utterly riveting experience: part revival meeting, part soul-baring, and part an experience of our shared humanity. Bruce becomes the absolute, living embodiment of passion, and it’s an experience of feeling fully alive to be swept up in the energy that he and the E Street Band create.

In The Promise, he talks about his song Because the Night. He started to write the song for the Darkness album, but only got as far as the music and the chorus. He gave it to the great poet, artist, and musician Patti Smith, who finished the lyrics and had a huge hit with the song. Bruce recalls:

“I knew that I wasn’t going to finish the song, because it was a love song. I felt like I didn’t know how to write them at the time….A real love song, like Because the Night, I was reticent to write. I think I was too cowardly to write [it] at the time. But she [Smith] was very brave. She had the courage. She took it and turned it into this really beautiful love song…I have to thank… her for the intensity and the personalness and the deep love she put into it. Her work on it has been a tremendous gift to me.”

And in the August 2010 issue of Mojo magazine, Springsteen says of Because The Night,

“Darkness[on the Edge of Town]… was about stripping away everything – relationships, everything – and getting down to the core of who you were. So that song is the great missing song from Darkness.”

Desire, if you can find it and feel it, is at the core of who you are. And it’s the most powerful fuel – next to your instinct to stay alive – that you have. But it can get obscured, even for Bruce. What blocks it? What prevents you from going for – lusting for – your first race, winning a sprint, finishing those hard intervals, doing your first century, riding across the country, or staying on the wheel ahead of you up the hardest climb of your life? What prevents you from living Patti Smith’s words – “desire is hunger is the fire I breathe” – fully, in all aspects of yourself: emotions, intellect, body and spirit?

When the Fire is Doused
Longtime readers of this column have already guessed the first desire-squelcher I’ll mention. Yep, it’s our old nemesis, anxiety, and its siblings: fear, nerves, pressure, tension, and worry. Mark Epstein, in his book, “Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life,” writes:

“Anxiety and desire are two, often conflicting orientations to the unknown. Both are tilted toward the future. Desire implies a willingness, or a need, to engage this unknown, while anxiety suggests a fear of it….There is rarely desire without some associated anxiety: We seem to be wired to have apprehension about that which we cannot control, so in this way, the two are not really complete opposites. But desire gives one a reason to tolerate anxiety and a willingness to push through it.”

In years past, we’ve focused many times on how to deal with the Anxiety Family: how to manage anxiety, how to handle pressure, how to tolerate suffering. Those are all valuable skills, and sometimes they’re the right tools for the job. But just look at the verbs in those sentences: “manage,” “handle,” “tolerate.” If you stick with those, you’re not tapping into the full power of your mojo. The 17th century Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracian, in his book The Art of Worldly Wisdom, wrote, “When desire dies, fear is born.” Your desire is a huge anvil: in your clever, Roadrunner-like way you can drop it on the Coyote-like head of your fears and squash them. (We’ll get to the details of how to do that in a moment.)

What else blocks desire? Giselle Koy, in her forthcoming book, “The Modern Muse: How to Create the Ravishing Life You’ve Always Wanted,” writes:

“It is through our plain, simple, red hot, lip-burning, spine-tingling desire that we begin to understand. It is that pure desire that comes directly from an open heart. Not ego desire, but instinctual desire. The desire you were born with and which brought you to this moment.”

(Excuse me – I have to splash some cold water on my face. OK…I’m back.)

Giselle is pointing to the dangers of a constricted heart. Protecting yourself – from disappointment, embarrassment, frustration, anger, pain, hurt, sadness, whatever – obstructs your access to your deepest sources of desire.

Sadness. That’s an interesting one. The obvious reason to protect yourself from sadness: if you desire something and don’t get it, you could be sad, and that would be uncomfortable, so why try (or why try so hard)? More subtly, though, what if you desire something and you do get it? Sometimes there’s a sadness – at least a letdown – in getting what you want. Patti Smith was fond of quoting Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master, who said, “Never let go of the fiery sadness called desire.”

Giselle also points to the seductive power of your ego. If your desire comes from a need to puff yourself up, or shore yourself up, or depend on an inflated sense of self-worth for your internal solidity, then your desire is weakened. It becomes what some Buddhists call craving, which is beautifully illustrated (and successfully battled by Frodo) in the Lord of the Rings books/movies. But if your desire is “instinctual,” pure, for the sake of discovering your potential, and for the sake of having the fullest, most awakened experience possible on this Earth, then…you’re onto something.

Awakening Desire
In his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong tells the story of his famous ride in Boone, North Carolina during his recovery from cancer. Feeling defeated and despairing, and having decided to retire from bike racing, he had been convinced to do “one last race,” the U.S. Pro Championships, by his coach and close confidants. He decided to go to Boone to train with his friend, Bob Roll. As they rode through a steady rain for six hours, they began climbing Beech Mountain, a 5,000-foot climb with a snowcapped summit. He writes,

“That ascent triggered something in me. As I rode upward, I reflected on my life, back to all points, my childhood, my early races, my illness, and how it changed me. Maybe it was the primitive act of climbing that made me confront the issues I’d been evading for weeks. It was time to quit stalling, I realized. Move, I told myself. If you can still move, you aren’t sick….As I continued upward, I saw my life as a whole. I saw the pattern and privilege of it, and the purpose of it, too….Some weight…was no longer there….I was restored. I was a bike racer again.”

Say what you want about Lance, but this is undeniable: he has purpose and passion. Purpose. It’s desire’s soulmate: each is meant for the other. Not coincidentally, teaches author James Hollis, the word “desire” derives from the Latin desiderare, “to long for,” which derives from de sidere, “of the stars.” So find a star and point yourself toward it.

And passion. Are you as hot for your riding as you can be? Passio is the Latin word for suffering. Go out and suffer on the bike, and search within for your desire. It worked for Lance, and it can work for you.

Notice that Lance identifies the fundamental importance of self-awareness as well. It may be time to ask yourself: What have I been evading?

Relationships can also be great sources of desire. No, I’m not talking about that kind of desire. I’m talking about feeling seen and supported in your cycling by people who are important to you. I’m talking about choosing to compete and using your intense relationships with competitors to find out what you’re made of. I’m talking about being inspired by people. Like your coach, or your family and friends, or… Bobby McMullen.

In the film The Way Bobby Sees It, Bobby takes on racing the hardest downhill mountain bike course in America. And: he’s blind. But he has a friend who rides in front of him, calling out obstacles and turns. He trusts his friend. He’s inspired by his friend. He fights with his fear; desire wins. Says Bobby: “Sometimes, the hardest part of a race is getting to the starting line.”

There’s a starting line waiting for you. It’s a ride, a workout, a race, that new bike in the shop window, finding a coach, joining a team, leaving a team, asking for support, or that climb you always get dropped on. It’s rising up, breathing fire, freeing yourself of darkness. It’s feeling yourself come alive, and having the courage to show it and act on it. Go finish that song, and sing it. Loud. And stay hungry!