I quite like to imagine Buddha riding a bike.
He’d be wobbling his way down a dusty road, going at no great rate with his robe flapping in the wind. He’d be all barefoot pedalling and relaxed steering, carefree and serene, radiating gleeful Zen delight.
I hope he wouldn’t be offended by the picture. Somehow I imagine that that’s a basic tenet of Buddhism, not to be offended by the idle fantasies of others.
Buddha would be too mindful for that.
Ah yes, mindfulness. A buzzword of our age, one that twenty years ago no one really used. It was an exotic concept like sun dried tomatoes or quinoa.
But now it is mainstream and a practice that we are being encouraged to adopt more and more. Its benefits are said to include relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, preventing heart disease, improving sleep, aiding us to more energy and enthusiasm, regulating our emotions, widening our perspective and generally making us nicer, calmer and – crucially - happier. What’s not to like?
It is usually practiced through a special activity like mediation or yoga. But for those of us who cycle regularly I think there could be another way, a moving mediation, mindfulness in motion, on our bikes.
I should quickly say that I’m not a mindfulness expert, but I think that the right kind of cycling has lots of the ingredients that compare favourably with the benefits of that practice.
Do you remember the feeling of pedaling away from your parent for the first time as a child? That wonderful, woozy, wobbly tummy bouncing feeling of cycling by ourselves? Our whole mind and body was bent upon the task. We had to concentrate fully on staying balanced, on turning the pedals, on steering to avoid trees. We were completely in the moment, cycling just to cycle, thinking of nothing else. This in mindfulness is called the ‘beginners mind’. A mind so focused on one thing that there can be no other clutter, nothing else to distract us.
That is something that we can still find on our rides today. As we chicane through the hectic heartland of our local high street we cannot allow ourselves not to concentrate. We have to be alert to our surroundings and muscular on our bikes. We need to be ready to stop in an instant, to swerve and avoid trouble. This is not the moment for making the to do list. However, this also isn’t an environment that one would expect to find Zen calm. The number of stimuli is likely to raise our heart rate and our stress levels.
So it needs to be the right kind of riding. Buddha riding. Bikefulness. Cycling in an infinitely more relaxed way with the freedom from restriction to allow us to enjoy moments when we can experience the new and find that beginner’s mind connection.
One of the greatest times for experiencing this joyous connection to the new is when we ride without a destination...
It might come when we are trying a new technique, say clipless pedals for the first time or a first road bike. Those things send us spinning back to our first ever rides. But it could also be challenging ourselves to do distances we haven’t tried before or a style of cycling that we’ve never attempted. Or it could be as simple as a new route. As we take a gentle weekend ride along an unknown bike path, or strike out on a different road route or descend down a steep mountain biking trail, if we’re doing something for the first time our eyes and minds are stimulated in a way that breaks us out of the old and propels us into the current moment.
This feeling of the ‘here and now’ is a mindfulness biggie. Living in the moment, smelling the roses, sensing what is around us now and only now. We can tune into our ride and focus fully on it, experiencing our environment, the heat or the cold, the surface of the road, the rain and the sun, the distant vista the climb hard in front.
I find that just being outdoors is often cue enough for my brain to change gear. I can’t help but notice things more openly because my view is larger and more expansive, wider than the tiny screens I often stare at or the detail in every day life admin. I’m not rushing through the supermarket or ironing school uniform, I can just see further and this shift often brings my focus to the more immediate.
One of the greatest times for experiencing this joyous connection to the new is when we ride without a destination. We set off simply to explore. This opens up our child’s mind fully because we have no plan and we can let the journey unfold. If you’ve never tried it, I challenge you to. It’s hard to resist the temptation to choose a route or aim for a place, or to set a deadline for the end but it’s gleefully delicious to try and allow ourselves to go with it.
If you’ve got water and a phone (or maybe just the former) you know that you can always stay hydrated or call in a lift, so you can slip away and explore without boundaries. I have pulled over to stare at a funny old building, an interesting garden or read the writing on a jaunty looking notice. Or I have just stopped to breathe in an unexpected view or to see how quiet things are. Or aren’t.
I’ve just stopped and breathed. And it’s a treat. It’s impossible to contemplate without smiling, it’s impossible to complete without some moment of grin worthy joy or the making of some quirky little tale.
And when we stop on these rides we have a chance to put into practice another mindfulness technique. Have you ever tried to just focus on your bike, to look at the machine itself? Lots of mindfulness meditations suggest focusing on something with complete concentration. Looking at a leaf and really looking at it, touching it, smelling it, noticing detail on it that a cursory glance cannot provide.
We can in the same way check our bike out. Notice the tread of the tyres, the thickness of the chain, how shiny it is, what the cables are like, where are the marks and the wear and tear. Appreciating what such a simple machine can allow us to do. Delighting in its amazing mechanics before we jump on it and pedal away again.
And as we ride away we can escape from the fast pace and pressures of modern living, quieten our minds. Focusing on the feeling of riding is one way to do that. We can feel our breath go in and out, the pressure going through our feet on to our pedals, the different muscles moving in our hands, our legs, our shoulders. And when we do we are slowing down the other thoughts in our mind, riding away the strains and stresses. Replacing the whirling of our worries with the whirling of our wheels.
I don’t know about you but I have enjoyed a state on some rides that was close to flying I felt so connected. Some descents particularly fall into that category. You need to concentrate ferociously on a downhill if you’re going at any kind of speed, and the sound of the air rushing past your ears creates mindlessness if not mindfulness. Nothing else matters but the road beneath you, the view ahead and the feeling of freedom. And it is exhilarating, uplifting and definitely distracting. I’m not often fretting about what to give the in-laws for lunch next Sunday, or whether I completed my tax return on time at moments like that.
All these moments help to build our trust in ourselves and reconnect us with our instincts. We make lots of intuitive decisions on our bikes and often we challenge ourselves. This boosts our sense of self and helps us feel more confident. These are all outcomes that mindfulness promotes. We find it easier to have confidence in other areas when we have enjoyed it through something that we can do well and that we love.
I’m not sure that the mindfulness gurus would believe everything I think about how cycling can help us achieve the sort of contentment that they enjoy from meditating. But the quiet revolutions I enjoy when out riding certainly work for me. I feel a greater sense of simplicity when I’m on a bike ride. Not always of course. But often.
So, I’m promoting Bikefulness for a happier life. Cycling to make me chirpier and smilier and more content.
There is a Zen saying, ‘When you drink, just drink. When you walk just walk’….and so I say every now and again… ‘When you ride just ride’.
Be Buddha on your bike.