An Insiders Guide to Zen on your Bike

THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO ZEN ON YOUR BIKE

This is a guest post by Susan Alexander.

It’s 5:30 a.m., still dark outside, and frigid. A block from my apartment, New York’s die-hard cyclists loop the Central Park Reservoir (neither rain nor snow nor sleet …). I’m not one of them. I’m the consummate insider. When it’s cold or wet or dark (or some combination), I’ll take a meditative ride indoors any day.

That’s right, meditation, on the bike, indoors.

central_park_snow

Too cold to ride outside in Central Park

This might be a little abstract for the average roadie or triathlete, but if you’re reading Victor’s blog, then you’re probably not so average. And you’re probably wondering why you’d meditate on a bike when you could hammer out some intervals, or just spin and watch TV.

As I’ll show you, the meditation I mean isn’t the usual kind. The process is different, and the outcome is more tangible. It lets you enter a whole new realm on the bike that impacts life off the bike. And it smashes boredom and makes time fly, which we all want.

Zen by trainer Zen Circle

Indoor Zen rides just came to me, without any trying. It’s become my own form of something I later learned about: zazen – the centuries-old Zen practice of seated meditation intended to bring the practitioner to nothingness and restore his true nature. As a non-expert, I think of zazen as the Buddhist version of hitting the reset button.

Bike zazen is its own phenomenon. You get on your trainer with an iPod filled with music you love. A dim or dark room works best. You close your eyes and start spinning your legs, and pretty soon – boom, you’re on your way to that true nature thing.

What exactly is that? It’s experiential. You’ll know it when you feel it. Here are some hallmarks:

  • Suspended thought
  • Acceptance of things the way they are
  • A mind left on its own to find calmness
  • A body doing what it’s doing, just to do it
  • A self not questioning or seeking to gain something

So what? 

On a Zen ride, true nature builds with every pedal stroke. Picture it: head down, eyes closed, cadence synched to Led Zeppelin, cascading sweat, unparalleled lucidness. Ideas and solutions start flowing, including those that alluded you before – all with such clarity that they hold once you’re off the bike (which is good, because a lot of it is hugely useful and worth pursuing).

Like what?

Well, for example, there have been many ideas for things I’ve made real, like my blog and the model it’s based on, much of which came to me in a succession of Zen rides. And there was the bike tour I did in France. It was on a Zen ride that I decided to go, which precipitated a rigorous training schedule and a high altitude cycling camp.

See what I mean by tangible? Want to make things happen in your life? Then maybe you should try this.

How does it work?

A confluence of forces is at work, so it seems – namely motion, music, and the mental blocking of external stimuli. Looking to neuroscience and psychology, it all makes sense:

Motion. The centers of the brain that coordinate physical movement also coordinate the movement of thought. When we activate the body, we activate the brain, which can help us solve problems we’re stuck on and sort out our thoughts.

Mental blocking. Riding indoors, eyes closed, frees up mental space for thought that might not otherwise occur. (Our nervous systems, after all, can only process about 110 bits of information per second. Listening to someone talk takes up about 60 bits, so imagine how much is taken up by processing what’s around us outdoors.)

Music. Music has the power organize us. It’s also emotionally transforming and mood enhancing. And it can foster a sense of trust and surrender (especially the music of the last 40 years). It sets in motion what one neuroscientist calls an “exquisite orchestration of brain regions” and a “choreography of neurochemical release” that blends logic with emotion. Moving our bodies to music (particularly good rock dance music with a beat) isn’t terribly bit-consuming. To the contrary, it limits our field of stimuli and induces the mental state known as flow

The takeaway

Einstein experiencing Zen on the bike

Zen on the bike is it’s own phenomenon, with its own purpose. It’s not intended to replace anything else you do. How cool is it that there’s an actual biological basis for why it happens? My suggestion: throw all care to the wind on a cold winter morning and do it, without trying to make anything happen, and without trying to gain something. If nothing happens, so be it. Do it again from time to time. You just might find your true nature, and who knows where that could lead.

Over to you

Are you an outdoor purist? Do you ever ride indoors? What’s your usual set up? How do you tackle boredom? What about Zen on the bike? Crazy sounding? Might you give it a try? How might you work it into your training schedule?

Susan Alexander is the creator of app4Mind, a memorable model you store in your mind and use to enable any change you choose to make in your life. Her website is app4Mind.com.  You can follow her on Twitter at @app4Mind.

FURTHER READING: Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind at 1, 16-18, 24, 27, 37, 44, 53, 60-61. John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain at 356-63. Oliver Sachs, Musicophilia at xiii-xiv. Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music at 182, 243. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety at 104-05. See also Csikszentmihalyi’s Ted talk.

Comments

  1. SusanRPM4 says

    @jimsmith0912 Thanks, Jim. Would love to chat with you in the comments. Hope you’ll write one :-) Susan

  2. veryzenlife says

    I really enjoyed this biking zen article.  Can I also suggest a slightly different cycling meditation – a bit like what we call in zen ‘kinin’ or walking meditation? It’s a mindfulness practice really, where it is just you and all you focus on is putting one foot in front of the other at a steady rhythmic pace. Each time your mind wanders, as it inevitably will, you simply let the thought pass like a cloud and gently bring it back to your cycling. Any way, just an idea.

  3. says

    @veryzenlife Thanks for the comment. I think we do this every time we ride a bike. Especially solo rides. There is something about the rhythmic movement that opens a gateway.

  4. veryzenlife says

    @BicycleLab I agree. I think there are many practices that can have this result for us. For some it may be playing an instrument or some other creative endeavour. For a special few it is a solo bike ride! I guess I had in mind the indoor ride in particular when our minds may be more prone to go off and explore, instead of actually doing that when you’re on the open road. Either way, the journey is the goal :-) all good wishes to you.

  5. susanalexander says

    This is what’s so great about blogs, comments, Twitter, etc. We learn all kinds of things we probably otherwise wouldn’t have found out about (and we find each other too).

    Thanks, Julian, for the info on walking meditation. I didn’t know about it until now. It makes perfect sense to transform it to the bike. As Victor points out, meditative states happen in cycling. It’s probably part of the explanation as to why people can ride for such long periods under extreme conditions.

    I once heard Jens Voight say he often has no recollection of parts of long rides, even some of the most grueling parts. I’m guessing there’s something meditative going on there, alongside huge concentration on the task. (And I’m sure his mantra helps a great deal: “Shut up, legs!”) :-)

    As a great coach once told me (as I suffered on a very steep climb at high altitude), “it’s just one pedal stroke after another.” A far better strategy than what I had been doing, i.e. looking up at the switchbacks and wondering how I was going to finish.

  6. susanalexander says

    @veryzenlife @BicycleLab

    Yes, there are many practices that can have this effect. Czikszentmihalyi’s work bears this out. Music, dancing, rock climbing, and physical and intellectual pursuits of all kinds bring about what he has termed a “flow state.” I’m not exactly sure how that’s different from a meditative state. In any event, getting to total absorption in something is a path to a lot of good!

  7. susanalexander says

    @BicycleLab @SusanRPM4

    I’m delighted to be guest posting on your awesome blog, Victor. Thanks for having me!!

  8. jimsmith0912 says

    Great article.  I am fortunate to live in Phoenix, where the winter are quite mild.  I often take my fixed gear out early the morning, when the only sound you hear is that of your tires on the road.  The quiet “whoosh” and constant motion is mind cleansing.

  9. jimsmith0912 says

    Great article.  I am fortunate to live in Phoenix, where the winter are quite mild.  I often take my fixed gear out early the morning, when the only sound you hear is that of your tires on the road.  The quiet “whoosh” and constant motion is mind cleansing.

  10. susanalexander says

    @jimsmith0912 Thanks, Jim. Yes, you are fortunate to live in Phoenix! I’ve done some cycling in Arizona, and it’s definitely made me feel like I’m not in Kansas (i.e. NYC) anymore. Even the relative tranquility of Central Park is loud. It’s a very different experience to ride somewhere where you can hear that “whoosh.”

    I’ve never ridden a fixed gear. What do you like about it?

  11. says

    @jimsmith0912 A fixie is something special. Its really about letting go. If you fight it you will not win. For example if you are riding down hill you have to just go with the flow and relax otherwise the bike will toss you on the road.

  12. susanalexander says

    @BicycleLab @jimsmith0912 Must try sometimes. What if you’re going up a hill? How grueling it it? That’s the part I’m concerned about :-)

  13. jimsmith0912 says

    Susan, you should give a fixed gear a try. I do suggest starting out with one that has brakes. It is cycling in its purest, most simple form. It does require a bit more focus, but, you truly feel a if you are one with the road.

  14. says

    @susanalex @jimsmith0912 Up hill can be tough. depends on the gear you use. My around town bike is a fixed gear titanium mtb. Years ago I raced on the track where all of the bikes are fixed. There is something about racing on the track that is special. It is pure sport. If you want to go faster you just pedal faster. No gears no brakes just fitness and skill.

  15. jimsmith0912 says

    @susanalex @BicycleLab Susan, you will be surprise how quickly you acclimate to the fixed gear bike and how to negotiate grades.

  16. susanalexander says

    @jimsmith0912

    Must give it a try. Hope I find one somewhere I can take for a spin, as I’m trying to acquire less stuff these days. (So far I’ve managed to keep from becoming one of those multiple bike folks.)

    Oh, and you mean some of them don’t have brakes? And why not?

  17. cyclingart says

    @BicycleLab liked the post, I don’t ride indoors anymore my zen is riding outside even in our west coast rain cheers!

  18. susanalexander says

    @BicycleLab @jimsmith0912

    Cool. Yet another thing to try. As I think about it, maybe riding a spin bike is comparable to track riding? I have one in my apartment. Obviously, it doesn’t go anywhere (so no particular skill). But no gears and no brakes. Just fitness. And music! And you don’t have to pay attention. Hence the zen-like experience :-)

  19. John Falchetto says

    Zen can be brought into any activity, as a mountain biker and a adventure racer there are certain times where I use relaxation techniques to get past a tough hill or a dip in performance.

    Saying that I never train indoors and prefer to face the hard,bitter cold than watch a wall for hours.

    I just did a MB ride on Wednesday and ended up in knee deep snow towards the highest point, focusing on my breathing, visualizing myself climbing the hill and keep that goal in mind helped me finish that ride.

  20. SusanRPM4 says

    @JohnFalchetto Very cool. Have you been before? Perfectly timed – great excuse to skip a wedding I don’t want to go to :-)

  21. susanalexander says

    @John Falchetto

    John:

    Thanks for writing. Good to know that others have gotten meditative on the bike.

    Knee deep in snow, huh? Way to stay focused! I admire people who can endure the cold and the wet. I just can’t. My body gets too stiff. And falling is more of a concern for me than others, because of surgeries I’ve had (whose good results I need to preserve).

    What about darkness? Now that you know about my zen-bike-music approach, think you might every give it a try? Beats watching a wall. :-)

    Susan

  22. fitink says

    @SusanRPM4 love that zen-on-the-bike theory though I’m riding indoors in Chicago. Something about spinning produces good writing ideas :)

  23. SusanRPM4 says

    @fitink Thanks! So interesting to find that others have had a similar experience! Do you listen to music?

  24. fitink says

    @SusanRPM4 I agree! And I almost thought I was crazy before. Yes on music…rely on it when I’m running, too, keeps me focused

  25. Jerry_DurhamPT says

    @BicycleLab forget the trainer…. more return on your time than any other activity out there!!

  26. Jerry_DurhamPT says

    @BicycleLab forget the trainer…. Hit the Rollers….more return on your time than any other activity out there!!

  27. SusanRPM4 says

    @SteveLeveen Thanks, Steve. Ever train indoors? Guess there’s not much need, where you are :-)

  28. SteveLeveen says

    @SusanRPM4 You’re right. Not much need to workout indoors in South Florida. All best, S

  29. fitink says

    This was a really interesting read, I never considered what I did was zen until I read this but it totally makes sense. Always have much better thoughts for work productivity, and better spin sessions. I used to not be able to stand long periods on my trainer but it’s gotten much better…I tune out and an hour’s gone by. And I don’t trust myself outside this time of year to weather the elements. Just have to remember to do it more often :)

  30. susanalexander says

    @fitink

    Thanks for commenting! It’s cool you’ve noticed improved flow thought too, as well as the perceived accelerated passage of time. Do you find that that mental state just happens, or do you have to try to make it happen?

    The weather is problematic for me too. Some people are pretty fearless. Good for them. My take on it is that it’s not worth the risk of injury – but to each his own, you know?

  31. BekkaScott says

    I am a thinker. In that I sometimes sit around for hours just thinking. And I enjoy it, but I also hate it because I’m SITTING. But when I’m on my bike doing the same thing, it’s like the thoughts have motion. Because I have a goal (even if it’s just to “that one tree out that road that is so interesting”), it seems to make my thoughts more linear, or at least it seems that way. This post is exactly what I’m feeling.

    Your other point, about listening to my favorite music, or music in general, while finding this “zen” is not something I can do. I am a musician, so any music playing is music I’m actively listening to and analyzing. So for me, I have to get away from the music, the way music makes others get away from work and stresses of life. :)

    Either way, on the bike is definitely they way to go!

    -Bekka

  32. Loretta Henderson says

    I have been cycling around the world since 2009. Outdoors only. I long ago discovered that cycling in itself is meditative. With traditional meditation, there is a focus on breath, rhythmic breath. Cycling does this on it’s own. I used the go to mediation workshops. Since this pedaling the world business began, I find I already spend most of my days mediating because of the inherent nature of rhythmic pedaling. Cycling regulates and focuses breathing. I can’t say enough about the healing balance that can be found by pedaling day after day. There’s a wonderful book that looks deeply into this called “Cycling Into the Soul’ that can be found on my WOW(WomenonWheels) Wall here

    http://www.skalatitude.com/p/wow-women-on-wheels.html

  33. skalatitude says

    @SusanRPM4 @BekkaScott Nice post, I commented. Very interesting read. Thank you for asking me to participate.

  34. susanalexander says

    @BekkaScott Bekka: Yep. I completely agree. I’d rather be thinking in motion than thinking and being still. Motion changes thought for sure. It’s cool for me to find out (after all this time thinking on the bike) that others are aware of this too.

    Especially interesting about active listening when it comes to music. I hadn’t thought of that. Makes perfect sense: one who knows the actual structural elements of music (like you) experiences it differently from one who doesn’t (me), so it changes the music-bike equation I’ve written about here. Fascinating.

    Thanks Bekka. Rock on (with or without music)!

  35. rodwhisnant says

    @susanrpm4 I’m more of an “outdoor purist” as you put it. You have some interesting thoughts however. #cycling

  36. says

    @susanalex @BekkaScott Very interesting about listening to music. Beccas point about the experience of listening to music and analyzing the technical aspects. I can relate to that because I am very technical about bicycles. But I don’t have the same experience. I rarely find myself thinking about my bike, or anything else ride related. When I return from most of my rides I can rarely recall the route I took or even how long I was riding. I do recall snapshots as well as a few thoughts.

    Victor

  37. says

    @BekkaScott Thanks for commenting fellow thinker. I find my best “thought” comes when I am not actually thinking. As Susan mentioned in the article some of her best thoughts have come from her Zen time on the trainer. I might be riding, working, walking or even just sitting. That’s when the real magic happens for me.

  38. WVUMSIMC says

    @SusanRPM4 I’ve been there and it’s a wonderful place. Thanks for the reminder and giving it a name. I will go there this morning!

  39. stephdavidson says

    @Snotdok thanks! I’ll definitely check this out. I’ve yet to have a good trainer ride. #cycling #zen

  40. zenbiking says

    My indoor riding sessions normally have a focus other than just sitting and spinning. While I do think I’ll give this a try, I personally prefer to ride outdoors. I have been able to enter a similar point of zazen occasionally on my solo rides, and during a long (12+ hour) races. 

  41. says

     @zenbiking I completely agree. Though this is just another great focus that you can put into your workout toolbox. Thanks for the comment1

  42. susanalexander says

     @zenbiking Thanks.  Cool that you’ll give this a try.  Please check back in and share the experience(s).  Victor told me that he has a similar feeling on his solo rides as well.  So perhaps I shouldn’t just seek it indoors.  I’ll revisit my outdoor experience and see if I can get zazen-like.  You racing for 12+ hours?  You must know a lot about mind management.  Maybe you’re next for a guest post here. :-)  I’d love to read about it.  

  43. zenbiking says

     @susanalexander Far from knowing a lot. My first 200 mile unsupported race resulted in a complete mental breakdown about 130 miles in, and a post-event promise to my wife that I will never call and leave a message on the answering machine again. I still managed to finish tho. People definitely underestimate the mental stamina required to be truly by yourself with no distractions for hours at a time. You discover a lot of things about yourself. :)

  44. susanalexander says

     @zenbiking 
     
    I agree with you about the mental stamina needed for long solo rides.  I’ve never gone as long as you, but I just may have been more vertical, and there was often the added stress of (possibly) being lost.  It was in the French Pyrenees, badly mapped.  On one ride in particular, I really managed to complicate things for myself – see http://bit.ly/qo9S3C
     
    It’s quite something that you finished.  What was it like, 130 miles in?  How did finishing make you feel?  What are your thoughts about it now, looking back?

  45. zenbiking says

     @susanalexander 130 miles in was lonely, hard and dark on rural gravel roads in the middle of Kansas. A town and checkpoint was another 20 miles away, so after I made the call to my wife, I ate, took a moment to catch my composure, and then got back on the bike. I was ready to pull the plug at mile 150, when the organizer told me that I was actually 152 miles in and that I only had 48 left to go. After taking that particular bait ;) I just started counting backwards in my mind as the miles ticked off. 
     
    Climbing in the mountains and being lost would definitely be just as bad. Col d’Aspin and the Pyrenees? Sounds like a dream week. :)
     

  46. susanalexander says

     @zenbiking I can see how having only 48 miles (vs 50) to go could make a big difference to a tired body and mind.  Counting is a good strategy.  That’s one thing the French have nailed – regular and reliable markers.
     
    My group was in the Pyrenees at the  same time the 2010 TdF was riding through there.  We rode parts of stages a few hours after they were done. Got to see them up close many times, including at the finish in Paris.  :-)

  47. says

     @zenbiking  @susanalexander  Great conversation! You should both listen to this interview with an ultra runner turned cyclist. Very cool the way she copes with the daunting task of running 100miles http://bicyclelab.com/interview-with-sallie-ultra-runner-turned-cyclist/
     
    The real issue is that most of us are not comfortable just being with ourselves. It is one of the hardest things we can do yet at the same time the easiest thing we can do.  Tich Nhat Hanh describes the process and state in his simple book Peace Is Every Step: http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Every-Step-Mindfulness-Everyday/dp/0553351397
     
    Thanks for commenting

  48. WhitneyEOliver says

    @BicycleLab I have found zen on the bike to be true, I’ve had very good meditations while riding on the trainer. #cycling

  49. BicycleLab says

    @whitneyeoliver Thanks Whitney, I think we can have those moments anywhere. But there is something about the bike for me

  50. WhitneyEOliver says

    @BicycleLab completely agree, there something about finding that peace while on the bike, be it an actual ride or the trainer.

  51. susanalexander says

     @BicycleLab  @zenbiking I’m delighted to have these links, Victor.  Thank you.  What a great resource you are!

  52. zenbiking says

     @BicycleLab  @susanalexander Agreed. It’s taken me a few years to stop constantly comparing my performances to those of others (some who are 20 years my junior) and focusing on improving my personal performance. 

  53. susanalexander says

     @zenbiking  @BicycleLab The tendency to compare ourselves to others is probably evolutionary.  But we can control it, if we practice taking charge of it.  Comparison seems to have its place in competition.  But what about when we compare ourselves to others in non-competitive situations, like group rides and and other events for enjoyment, and in our observations in general?
     
    A fascinating book is Start With Why by Simon Sinek, which I blogged about here http://gooddisruptivechange.com/the-why-of-change/  His thesis is that it’s essential to know our Why for everything we do – because our How and our What flow from it.  
     
    Consistent with that, in cycling, we can ask, for each ride: Why am I riding? Figuring out our Why can tell us whether there’s any usefulness to comparing ourselves to others.   If there’s a competitive reason, then some comparison may have it’s place.  If we’re not, then what’s the point?  Can’t we just let ourselves enjoy the ride?
     
    What do you think?

  54. veryzenlife says

    @SusanRPM4 yes a particularly cool post and a popular one. Let’s hope it made some converts. The way exercise should be done :-)

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