Wednesday, August 19, 2015

No-mind Mountain Biking

I've been meditating again lately.

I did it for years back in the 90s and early 2000s, then got distracted. It's great to be back. When I sit down for a morning meditation, I feel oddly like I do before I climb on my mountain bike at the trailhead: a sense of anticipation. "Let's see what this brings!" I look forward to the challenge of allowing discomfort or relaxation or numbness to arise and pass, without shooting off into worries about the day, or thoughts of when this will be over. 

Full awareness is one of those undersold treasures of life: It doesn't cost a penny, yet even a drop of it enriches my life immensely.

One of the places it does that is on the trail. It's long been fashionable in mountain biking circles to talk about the Zen of riding. For me, that's more than a metaphor. Let’s look at a ride at my local haunt after work recently:

Swooping through a turn I used to skid through on the brakes, my heightened alertness allows me to notice my center of gravity shift slightly forward to stay over the bottom bracket. I press my feet into the pedals at the apex of the turn, and  feel the weight coming off my hands just a tad, the tires sinking into the dirt, and the front wheel adjusting its turn angle minutely in each part of the turn. Best of all, none of this is calculated; it just happens—again and again, turn after turn. I feel like I’m surfing. Because my mind isn't clouded with worry about my abilities, I swoosh over rocks and roots I used to walk around.

As a beginner, I've absorbed many technique tutorials that sometimes when I ride, my mind is like a swarm of gnats. Those well-meaning guides can make a simple sweeping turn into brain surgery. In those precious moments when my mind is off-duty and I'm tuned into my body, that turn becomes a sensual experience. My body teaches itself what it needs to cooperate with the bike, with the terrain, with gravity. All those elements become a river, flowing smoothly downhill.

Is this refreshing emptiness of mind a benefit of riding so much that the complex parts of technique come together on their own? Or has this leap come from my increase in awareness off the bike? There's no answer in that chicken-and-egg question, and I'm not asking. I'm too absorbed in the moment -- this rock to hop, this slight dip to pump, this opening of the trail at the bottom of the hill, where I zoom out into the clearing and let out a whoop, exhilarated and rested at the same time.

Tomorrow morning will find me sitting in my room, marinating in the silence, letting go into the adventure.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Backdoor Wild

On a weekend camping trip 1.5 hours from our house
I’ve been reading a bit of Alastair Humphreys’ wonderful blog today, and thinking about wildness.

Humphries is a professional adventurer with all kinds of major expeditions under his belt, including cycling around the world and sailing solo across the Atlantic. After writing and talking about these for a few years, he realized that most of the people who loved his work never got to do the grand adventures he specialized in. So he changed career directions, and started undertaking what he calls microadventures: small escapes not far from where you live. They don’t cost much, don’t require much time off, and are scalable to one’s skills and fitness. He says this idea has really taken off with his readers.

After perusing his thoughts this morning, I did a few hours of work, changed, and rode off to the local trail I use for quick weekday morning rides. It’s just a mile or two from my door. I adore this trail, almost too much. Sometimes I have to avoid riding it for a week or two, because I get tired of it. I know where every rock and root is. Today was my first time back after such a break.

It was a sunny, humid day, but not overbearing; just enough to create that deep summer feeling. I was sore and tired from recent hard rides, so I decided to take it easy up the climbs. Moving slower and breathing easier, I was able to notice that the light is changing as we move into August, becoming more stark and silvery, a little taste of the amazing autumn light in New England. Ferns were dark green, lush, and thick throughout the lower, parkland portions of the reservation.

At the top of the trail, resisting the thought that I “should” pedal through and start the descent right away (the tough-guy thing to do), I dismounted, leaned the bike against a tree, and took a few minutes to open my senses and take in what Momma Nature had laid out for me this morning. A woodpecker was taking single, isolated whacks at a tree not too far away. Odd—they’re usually fast as jackhammers. The water in the vernal pool far below the trail was scant, dark with tannins, and green with seepage from soaked vegetation. Late summer was showing off everywhere I looked.

I asked myself, as I took in the deep colors and soft sounds, how much farther away from civilization I’d need to be to feel satisfied at that moment. The answer, at that moment, was “I’m satisfied here and now.”

Wild is where you find it. In the right frame of mind, I’ve found it in a vestpocket park in Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong; all kinds of great benefits come from creating a novel-length packing list and launching off to parts untouched by humans. But many of those boons can be had, in smaller but much more frequent doses, a mile or two from my house.

Maybe yours, too.
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