Moving Meditation: How Riding A Bike Can Keep You Grounded

I’ve been trying to meditate more. It’s not a New Year’s Resolution. It’s a necessity.

I think too much. Partly because my PhD requires it. But, a lot of my “thinking” is actually just worrying. Often about things I can do nothing about. It’s always been this way for me. I’ve learned to “cope” with it. But, coping doesn’t suffice. I want to transition from surviving to thriving. And, I believe that meditation and mindful living is part of the solution.

Each morning, I wake up, brush my teeth, splash some cold water on my face, and then sit down for 15–20 minutes to meditate. I occasionally use the Headspace app, or the Muse, both of which are great ways to get your foot (or rather, head) in the door of meditation. Lately, I’ve been trying it without assistance. I’ll sit in a comfortable position and focus on my breath, and, if I’m lucky, in the 20 minutes of meditation, I’ll have a few seconds where the thoughts cease. I’ll stop ruminating about past events and forecasting the future. It’s a wonderful feeling. But, it’s fleeting. And, that’s alright; I’ll take what I can get.

I’ve found that meditation isn’t the only method of making those thoughts stop. Being deeply engaged in a task also helps. Some would call this “flow”. The term was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes it as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” “Nothing else” includes anxious thoughts. When I’m in flow, the worries cease to exist. For me, at least.

According to Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow involves the following elements:

  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
  • Loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions; that is, a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.

I’m lucky to experience all of these elements on a regular basis when I ride my bike. Especially the last point. I often find excuses just to go for a bike ride.

“As cars increasingly become automated, the bicycle still requires your attention, or if you choose, your absorption.”

I don’t own a car, so I ride my bike to work almost daily. There’s something truly magical about riding a bike: the body is in motion, all senses are engaged, and the exercise (and associated endorphin rush) makes you feel good. If you can get into a flow state while you ride a bike, it gets even better. As cars increasingly become automated, the bicycle still requires your attention, or if you choose, your absorption. I find that whenever I drive a car, I get in my head due the lack of engagement with the “task”. Driving a car just doesn’t provide a challenge that can provoke the experience of flow. Unless you’re a race car driver.

The bike commute is a wonderful way to bookend my workday. My morning ride is my way of continuing the meditation practice I started earlier in the day. I arrive at my destination with the intention to stay mindful while at work. And, the ride home is a way to wash the day off and ensures I arrive at home with energy. I notice that when I take the bus, I arrive at home feeling groggy and I almost always end up sinking into my couch. Conversely, my mindful bike ride home invigorates me and allows me to spend my evenings engaging in other activities where I experience flow, like writing, making music, or my hobby-of-the-moment, pastel drawing.

This is all not to say that riding the bike will magically cure you of your anxieties. But, it’s an excellent way to practice mindfulness. And, I’m convinced that mindfulness is the antidote to worrying. It’s just not possible to worry and to be mindful at the same time. So, how can you mindfully ride a bike? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Before you ride, set an intention and start with 10 deep breaths.
  2. Wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t constrict you. It’s hard to experience flow if you’re uncomfortable.
  3. Observe your surroundings. Riding a bike is a wonderful way to see the world around you. But try not to think about your observations. To meditate is to watch the thoughts as they come, not to engage with them.
  4. Attend to your other senses! Feel the wind on your face. Smell the air. Feel the road under your bike. Listen to the birds, if you can hear them
  5. Try not to think about what you need to do when you get to your destination. But, don’t be hard on yourself if you do.
  6. Plot a safe route that is (mostly) free from cars, if you can. Unfortunately, many cities don’t have the cycling infrastructure to allow us to move freely and safely. But, there’s hopefully part of your journey that allows you to not worry too much about the threat of vehicles.

The benefits of the bicycle are many. Mindful living is just one. Stay tuned for more blog posts about how the mighty bike can support our wellbeing!

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