What I Think About When I Think About Riding

whittier narrows
Today while riding I thought about what I think about while riding.

It was a great example of the self referential pointlessness of most thought.

A thought is a form conceived in the mind, rather than a form perceived through the five senses. Humans think a lot. 60,000 or more individual thoughts per day. [1] More than any of us can keep track of.

As we walk, run, drive, meander, trudge, ride through this world, we spend an extraordinary amount of time in our own heads. Some of those thoughts are pretty basic: get up. make coffee. brush my teeth. feed the cat. go to work. Many of those thoughts are not so pleasant: imagined fears that we are going to get fired or our partner is cheating on us or that we have no talent…or maybe judgments about others: does that guy ever shut up? what a loser. I wouldn’t wear that outfit to mardi gras.

In Buddhism, this stuff is known as monkey mind: the untrained mind’s incessant chattering that sounds like a room full of screaming monkeys, all competing with each other and clamoring for attention. It’s noisy, exhausting, crazy, restless, and reckoned to be a cause of 95% of our dukkha, or suffering. (The other 5% is caused by reality).

One method for dealing with monkey mind is to try to soothe it through a mantra (as in T.M.). Another method is to carefully observe the chatter, as in mindfulness meditation, or Vipassana, which is what I practice. I observe my thoughts with detachment, without engaging, just letting them emerge and then fade. Using a labeling system devised by Shinzen Young, I note my thoughts, labeling the verbal chatter “talk” and the visual thought “image”.[2] Detaching and observing shows me a chunk – maybe 10 – 15 minutes worth – of those 60,000 mentally conceived forms. It can be an avalanche of chaos. One benefit of observing this chaos through meditation is that I get to witness the intensity and inanity of my monkey mind, which makes me a little less inclined to listen to and believe those injurious thoughts. I can trace back the strands as an observer rather than engage as a participant.

When I’m riding early in the morning on an empty bike path, I’ll lock into a cadence. I can maintain that cadence more easily than I can when running because I can adjust the resistance by shifting gears. The path is flat, I can work up some speed, and my motion is in a nicely uniform groove. Everything is so smooth. There’s really no room for chaotic monkey mind, and my thinking while riding about the things I think about while riding is too circular and self referential to possibly be chaotic.

Shinzen writes about a process called echoing talk, where the meditator mentally repeats the thoughts he hears in his head, intentionally echoing the conscious part of his spontaneous verbal thinking process. The effects are said to be more silence, increased clarity to the thoughts, (which become slower and easier to follow), a greater distance between the meditator and his (or her) thoughts, less involvement in the content, and a greater appreciation not of the words but of their qualities as sound. Thinking about the things I think about while thinking has an echoing quality.

Part of why I run and ride is because I love the feel in my body. I love the sensations in my legs, even when they are the pain of tiredness; I love the gulping of fresh air, the expansion of my lungs, the feel of sweat, the smell of flowers, or of cedar, or of clay. I especially love the flow of those sensations. It’s a bit symphonic the way one sensation or another will swell and take its turn in the foreground.

The other reason I love to run and to ride is because of the harmony my mind can achieve with my body, and with itself. These are the hours when I am not going to be tormented by my thoughts about a boss’s temper tantrum, or worries about the future and that time is running out and there’s nothing in savings for retirement and the usual refrains that haunt me these days (those would be them). Instead, I am free.


[1] This is a wiki, hive-mind figure – in other words, it is widely quoted on the internet, which means it’s commonly accepted as true, but I can’t find any authoritative citations.

[2] A good article on this can be found here.

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