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What is Mindful Cycling?

Finding flow behind handlebars is easy.

How can you consciously remain mindful while you’re cycling, though? And then, how can you transition the mindfulness skills you’ve built on the bike and apply them to your real life?

I talked with industry professionals about the process of mindful cycling, including what it is and how you can use it to improve your non-cycling world. Let’s begin with a few basics.

Why Should You Practice Mindfulness?

Grant Giles, strategic psychotherapist and founder of Instinctual Athlete, describes the mind as a corridor that’s too narrow to absorb all of the input from the outside world.

In a 2020 interview on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast, James R. Doty, MD, a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, outlines this point by conveying our brain receives 6-10 million sensory inputs every second, but it’s only able to process 50 to 100!

Your Separate Self

As a defense mechanism against data overload, our mind limits our awareness and forms a conditioned belief structure called the “separate self.” Here, we remain trapped in a continuous cycle of self-absorbed judgments about the past, present, and future, never seeing things as they really are.

This is the “dream” of which Buddha spoke:

“Regard this fleeting world like this:
Like stars fading and vanishing at dawn,
like bubbles on a fast-moving stream,
like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass,
like a candle flickering in a strong wind…
echoes, mirages, and phantoms, hallucinations,
and like a dream.”

Gautama Buddha

Fortunately, Buddha also taught that there is a way out of our dream: mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness helps us wake up from our ‘separate selfs’ dream.

How Does Mindfulness Help You Wake Up from Your Dream?

Mindfulness is the act of consciously maintaining awareness of the ever-changing present moment. Doing so helps us come face-to-face with our thoughts and emotions, along with outside stimuli, and greet them as they are, without judgment.

In many instances, cycling puts us in a mindful state since we have to assess our environment quickly and how we must navigate it to avoid crashes.

Off-the-Bike Mindfulness Benefits

What’s really fucking cool is that, because cyclists know what mindfulness feels like, transitioning this skill into the real world can be easier than the general population. And as we practice and improve our skillfulness, we can also experience increased benefits like:

  • Balanced parasympathetic nervous system, which can help you relax, decrease stress, and even boost your cycling performance.
  • Reduced anxiety and blood pressure.
  • Improved mental clarity, longer attention span, and improved focus.
  • Increased self-awareness.

Melissa Balmer, the founder of PedalLove.org, adds that practicing present-moment awareness off our bike can help us realize when we “aren’t fully present in conversations, whether we’re at work, home, or with family and friends.”

There isn’t an aspect of human life where practicing mindfulness—remaining here and now—won’t “radically benefit you and those you interact with.

Instead of listening to the chatter in our heads and waiting for our turn to speak, what if we decided to remain fully present during conversations, as we do on the bike?

“You’ll connect more authentically with others,” she says. “You’ll really see and hear them. It can be an incredible experience.”

In fact, there isn’t an aspect of human life where practicing mindfulness—remaining here and now—won’t “radically benefit you and those you interact with,” she emphasizes.

Mindfulness, on or off the bike, reduces stress and improves mental function.

Is Cycling a Good Way to Build Mindfulness?

Since you remain focused on the present moment for long periods, Melissa Balmer, founder of PedalLove.org, says that “cycling certainly can be a good way to build mindfulness.”

Still, she emphasizes that it all depends on whether or not you make a conscious commitment to “remain as present as possible when you’re on your bike.”

In other words, your mind’s default state isn’t awareness, even while cycling. It quickly shifts back to thoughts and projections that place you back inside your dream.

“We are each living in our own soap opera. We do not see things as they really are. We see only our interpretations. This is because our minds are always so busy. But when the mind calms down, it becomes clear. This mental clarity enables us to see things as they really are, instead of projecting our commentary on everything.”

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Bottom line: “If you want cycling to be the meditation that it already is,” Grant says, “don’t focus on that argument with your boss, which is already in the past.”

Consciously committing to remaining as present as possible while riding is a great way to build mindfulness.

What Does it Mean to Cycle Mindfully?

Cycling mindfully simply means you consciously focus on the ever-changing present moment as you pedal, instead of losing yourself in your dream.

Grant explains this perspective gives you purposeful “permission to drop your separate, judgmental mind space, and allows your awareness to do what it does: naturally be aware.”

In this state, you tap into the body’s innate intelligence, which remains anchored and centered. Then, as you ride, you’re “aware of your surroundings—the corners, nature’s sounds, your body’s temperature, position, technique, and tension—all at once,” he concludes.

Cycling mindfully simply means you consciously focus on the ever-changing present moment as you pedal.

Mindful cycling is consciously focusing on the ever-changing present moment as you pedal.

How Can Cyclists Transition Mindfulness from the Bike into the Real World?

Transitioning the mindfulness skills you’ve built behind the handlebars into your everyday life is relatively simple. Melissa explains that you simply need to:

1. Be Here, Now

Breathe deeply. Remain aware. Accept the ‘gift’ of the present moment.

Notice how the air feels entering your lungs. Is it cool? Warm?

2. Mindfully Monitor

As you maintain presence, mindfully monitor your body’s reactions to the different stimuli (thoughts, emotions, external sensations).

For example, pay attention to how your hands feel. What about your sit bones? What about your leg muscles as they rest, instead of applying force to your pedals?

Further, calmly scan the area while you walk or drive—not always looking for danger like you might when cycling, but to notice new details—seeing your neighborhood with fresh eyes.

3. Express Compassion

“Like when you’re riding, annoying, angry, anxious, and busy thoughts will come up,” Melissa explains. “They’re used to running the show, and they don’t like to give up control,” she warns.

When you encounter these thoughts, you must resist the urge to fight them or flee from them. Instead, just compassionately notice them, and return your focus to the here-and-now.

Related: What is Compassion, and Why is it Important?

Transitioning mindfulness from the bike into the real world involves 1) being here, now, 2) mindfully monitoring input, and 3) expressing compassion toward whatever emotions you encounter.

Can You Meditate While Cycling?

Meditative Experiences

On the one hand, “turning a bike ride into meditation only requires that you maintain awareness of the present moment; the mindful process of cycling,” Grant advises. Thus, mindful cycling can be a meditative experience.

In fact, you can practice mindfulness at any point during your day, regardless of the activity, whether riding, driving, walking, cooking, washing dishes, cleaning the house, bathing, or almost anything else.

Formal Meditation

On the other hand, meditation is typically thought of as the formal—and often more profound—practice of mindfulness. We set aside a specific amount of time, remain still, with our eyes closed or our gaze downward, and intentionally explore our “formless nature of the self,” as Grant puts it.

Related: What the Fuck is Meditation?

Consequently, although you can practice mindfulness on the bike, Melissa emphasizes that you “shouldn’t try to meditate while cycling. Keep your eyes open!”

While you can remain mindful on the bike, you can’t formally meditate.

Are There Any Meditation Tips for Cyclists?

Grant says that meditation is ‘anti-action.’ A transformative state of being, not doing, which “opens a doorway to profound meaning,” less suffering, and a much richer, more relaxed, and enjoyable life.

In other words, meditation is what you are. Therefore, all it takes to meditate is to focus on the state in which you already exist.

“You’re already aware,” he says. “That awareness is fully formed, fully awake, and completely meditative in its pure nature.”

Meditation isn’t something you do; it’s what you already are.

Specifically, practicing meditation only requires temporarily quieting the mind and removing the separate, thinking self, which Grant calls “the most transformative non-action a human can take.”

Why? Because it “opens a doorway to profound meaning,” he explains, along with less suffering and a much richer, more relaxed, and enjoyable life.

Related: What is Suffering in Buddhism?

What About Guided Meditations for Cyclists?

Grant says that meditation is a very personal space, and some practices and teachers will resonate more than others.

While he prefers silence and focusing inward without distraction (which takes some practice), he believes that guided meditations can be an excellent start for beginners. 

“There are a million options on YouTube, for example,” he recommends. “Listen to a few and find out what rings your bell.”

And these meditations don’t have to be based around sports, either. Grant says that he’d “go as far as saying you’re better served by a general meditation.”

Tracking the Fruit of Your Meditations

While practicing your meditations, Melissa recommends keeping a special notebook. Here, you can jot down the new things you noticed while meditating or maintaining mindfulness in the real world.

When beginning, “you might also write down how you feel after a few days of doing this,” she says. “Do you feel more grounded? Centered? Alive? Happy?”

When off the bike, you can meditate at any time by simply quieting your mind, focusing inward, and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings.

What’s the Bottom Line About Mindful Cycling?

As cyclists, the mindfulness we build while riding is a gift that we can use to better our lives once our pedaling ends.

And like so many other things in life, it’s a cyclical relationship: transitioning mindfulness into the real world can improve our experience off the bike, and vice-versa.

All it takes is intent. You must consciously choose to remain mindful, on or off the bike, instead of slipping back into your comforting dream.

Resist the stories fabricated by your mind—the lies you tell yourself, the tales you weave that exist only in your head.

But don’t get it twisted: cutting through these dreams, instead of taking the long way around them, can be uncomfortable. Downright painful, at times.

But the lessons you learn in the process can prove invaluable and worthy of sharing for all of humanity’s benefit.

Why not start your mindful revolution today?

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