Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cycling In The Zone

           While one form of contemplative prayer or another has been part of my spiritual life for almost as long as I can remember, a few years before I started cycling I more intentionally explored and started to practice a contemplative form of prayer that I consider a mishmash of Centering Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation informed in part by the writings of Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Merton. Now that I have been cycling for a few years I have discovered that contemplative prayer’s focus on the breath and clearing the mind as a gateway to solitude is akin to some of my cycling experiences.

            For example, one day I was riding along a rather wild section of a rail trail when all of a sudden I realized there was a thick branch sticking out onto the trail just a foot or two in front of my face. I did not have time to steer around it or stop. I simply ducked my head and let nature take its course. I ended up on my side in the bushes with a cracked helmet, a healthy head, and no damage to my bike.

            Reflecting on what had happened, I realized that for the first time while cycling I must have entered a meditative state. I had become so mindful of my repetitive peddling and steady, deep, rhythmic breathing that I become one with the bike and the trail and unaware of what was around me. I was “in the zone,” an “expression used to describe a state of consciousness where actual skills match the perceived performance requirements perfectly” and implying an “increased focus and attention which allow for higher levels of performance. Athletes, musicians, and anybody that totally owns a challenge of physical and mental performance can be in the zone.”[1]

            “In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.”[2] For me, this experience of being “In the Zone” while cycling was as a mystical experience, a loss of the ego in which I was more mindful of the flow of the internal momentary here and now rather than the external of what was coming or what has passed.

            The concept of “flow” or being “in the zone” has existed for thousands of years under other guises, notably in some Eastern religions.  “For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and later in Sufism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science.”[3] I think this is what Merton, Pennington, and Keating were talking about when they wrote about contemplative prayer.

            I have discovered that the attentiveness to breathing that I have cultivated through contemplative prayer aids my breathing while cycling. I have also discovered the deep breathing that comes with riding for a good pace for over an hour or more has contributed to my practice of contemplative prayer. As Esther De Waal has observed, “breath is life itself. To be aware of my breathing is to be aware of life.  . . .  Then, as I stay consciously with my breath, I may begin to see this gentle rhythm of breathing in and out again as a microcosm of my whole life:”[4] After riding a few miles at a fast pace, my breathing deep and rhythmic but not labored, I feel particularly alive and mindful of the life within and around me.

            I do not find myself “in the zone” every time I cycle. There have been instances since that first time, however, that I have experienced a flow but am aware of it only after the fact, never during. As soon as I become aware that I was experiencing the flow I am no longer “in the zone.” Similarly, I do not experience a truly meditative state every time I engage in contemplative prayer. I feel blessed when I enter a “the sacrament of the present moment” even if only for a brief time, but once I am aware that I have entered it, I am no longer experiencing it. De Wall writes ‘Living in the present with total attention is gift given to the artist and the poet, but it can equally well belong to any of us,”[5] including, I would argue, the cyclist.

            After a long ride, which for me now is thirty five to fifty miles, I will come home physically tired and sometimes sore but mentally and spiritually refreshed, even if I have not been in the zone. The repetitive motion of peddling, the rhythmic breathing, feeling the air blow across my face, arms and legs, and occasionally being surprised by a deer running out in front of me, wildflowers along the trail, or a particularly stunning view of a pastoral scene feeds my spirit and soul, renewing my awareness of being a creature in the midst of God’s awesome cosmos.

You might also be interested in a more recent post, Riding Solo Or With A Group.

[3] Ibid.
[4] Esther De Wall, Lost in Wonder; Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical press, 2003), Esther De Wall, p. 39.
[5] Ibid., 61.

No comments: