Grinding It Out

My wheels spin on this blustery day as I speed past the multicolored autumnal view in front of me. The day is warm, too warm for a late October ride, and I pedal my bike with a kind of fury I haven’t felt in a few days. The riders I pass smile through masks and sometimes wave. I feel a sense of urgency and the need to please as I encounter each rider, slightly raising my left hand in a common “Hello” as we pass each other. The headwind makes me really work for my progress and, on this day, I’m feeling prepared for it’s onslaught.

This Sunday ride, the kind of ride I’ve taken for the past three years, is my long, slow pedal around Albuquerque. The day moves slowly and the ride seems to drift or float as if it’s not really me pushing the bike forward. I slide in and out of daydreaming, recognizing that I’ve traveled miles not aware of exactly what has passed. I always wake from my slumber to half-raise my left hand at a passing rider, jogger, or skater. That one act is my only acknowledgement of the world around me. I am, as they say, in the zone.

On this particular Sunday, I’m wearing my Day of the Tread jersey. This one piece of attire represents so much in my present and past. I’ve survived a Heart Event, three years in the past, and this ride is significant in that it marks a milestone in my life. On this day three years ago, I rode about 50 miles on the annual Day of the Tread event in Albuquerque. Think of the event as kind of a party ride; people dressed in costume on their bikes celebrating everything from Halloween to the Day of the Dead, Dia De Muertos. We start in downtown Albuquerque to the sound of music blaring and riders excited at the prospect of a day in the saddle.

Day of the Tread, 2017

In that ride, now in my distant past, I felt good, pushing my Cannondale with my friend Rocky on that morning. It was the first long ride I joined that year. My body did not revolt, as I thought it would, and I came home feeling energized and happy about my progress. A week later, I was in a hospital bed in the ER, wondering if I would survive the night.

Fast forward to Sunday, October 25th. I’m riding along the trail thinking about that past and wondering about my future.

Day of the Tread, 2018

My heart and its physical health is one of the things that propels me forward on this windy morning in Albuquerque. The ride feels like a rescue effort, a personal reflection on the chances of death that I face on a daily basis. And. And. The reality is that we are all in that moment. We just don’t think about it, do we? At any time we can face the ticking the clock; you know the one, that big one ticking down your life. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that the clock will tick one final time for us all.

So, I ride. I ride for myself. I ride for my family. Literally, I ride for my life. The miles i Put in, the stress I put on my heart is a good thing. With each pedal stroke I think about all of these things that have happened and the reasons I ride. I imagine that each push on the pedal is me one step closer to being healthier. Each time I raise my leg and force it back down, I’m supporting my two daughters and hope for the chance at long years with them as they grow up and find answers in their own lives. Too, I’m working for my parents and the opportunity to step in when they need my support. For all of the reasons stated above, I am on this trail on October 25th in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Day of the Tread, 2019

Sometimes, it’s the easiest path to fall into the feeling of that grief reality of death. By contrast, however, I have the choice, we have the choice, to open up to compassion. Yes, we all face our own ends. In that knowledge we can take hold of that common experience and extend ourselves into the feeling of compassion for all folks facing this one stark reality. We are all in this boat, all of us alive today, and we can extend a hand of friendship and support to each other in this moment.

My ride, then, has become something much greater than me on a bike on a trail. Me on a bike represents the move toward something much greater than myself. It’s a meditation on impermanence. Everything changes. Maybe, in this moment, I can make a difference in the lives of those around me. I think that’s what my ride on the Day of the Tread ultimately was all about.

Day of the Tread, 2020

To See Yourself As You Really Are

Students are streaming into the Zoom call as I begin a lesson on Ancient Greek Philosophy. The “faces” that look out from their bedrooms, desks, or black screens with bright white letters are dull, virtual representations of students. Reactions are delayed; attempts at laughter or reaction fall flat. Screens click on and off a live view. We are all caught in this moment together; trying to learn something about the distant past in the present personal and community crisis we face.

Who do these students see? What image an I projecting out into their worlds? My screen is always live, active, talking or cajoling them into some kind of response. How do these fellow humans see me and how can I see myself as I really am? Not as some kind of projection, but as some kind of authentic me?

Captured in a room prepping for the next class…

I think about how the COVID experience has changed the way I think and feel. We are all, I believe, subject to dependent arising; that what happens around us shapes our understanding and reaction to the world around us. We are caught, for better or worse, in these shifts in society and changes in the world around us. In fact, in a very post-modern sense, we are shaping each other around the world. For example, I planned to lead a trek in Bhutan this coming summer…the chances of that happening seems impossible. Not taking students to Bhutan will affect the folks who are counting on that income. Many people will be affected, economically, from the decisions we make in COVID land.

But it’s beyond all that, isn’t it. We are affected economically, and it’s the human interaction that is being reshaped by these quarantine and distancing rules. Who we ARE is molded by every decision in every moment by people we know and many who we do not. Who we really are is changing, moment to moment, into something else entirely.

Still, I haven;’t answered my own question: who am I to these students? What am I projecting to them? Doubt? Fear? Self-loathing? Or hope, a sense of calm, awareness in the now? Maybe, more directly, that talking about ideas can be a balm in these very difficult circumstances.

So, in the Zoom class, I pose questions, I ask about the connections between Plato and us…his idea of an individual verses how we now perceive the world. Can we find some way of making those contacts to the distant past and learn something from it? On this day, in this class, no. We don’t. Students are silent, dulled by their experience, driven to distraction by the very low hum of the computer screen and the glare of the LED lights brilliantly flashing into the eyes of those held captive by the classroom meeting. It’s the early AM and those blank screens shouting back at me, “leave me alone” are oppressive.

I struggle to make contact, emotionally, intellectually, anyway I can. And yet. And yet….the screens send back their forceful message…no, not today, sir. I imagine my students saying, “not in this moment as we are forced to endure this class by the powers that placed us here.” Tragically we both are struggling with these virtual spaces, each of us wondering at our own selves.

We all see the limits of human interaction in this electronic medium. At the same time, we experience the very question that is now a part of our daily existence: who am I in this virtual sphere? Where am I in this COVID land? Am I who I was or am I somebody else.

It is without question in my own mind that, yes, we are not who we were and, more importantly, we will never be who we were. That lesson could lead to a glimmer of hope: if I am not who I was, who CAN I be?

The Many Forms of Meditation

First and foremost, I do not claim to be anything or anyone but myself. What I mean by that statement is that I have no special expertise or knowledge in the areas of meditation and meditative practice. Like many of us, I am a practitioner without a degree, so to speak, in meditation. That being said, I have experienced meditation in a number of ways and some of those ways have been very valuable to my mental health.

Meditation, as traditionally taught and practices, involves sitting on a floor on a cushion for some period of time. At its root, meditation is a practice of recognition; recognition of your thoughts and emotions as they sweep across our fragile mental state. Once recognition occurs, then the practitioner can begin o play around with methods for understanding where the root of these thoughts and emotions is. As I am sure you have heard, at the core of this recognition is the knowledge that thoughts and emotions are, at their root, of empty essence. They are not tangible, hard and fast things that are permanent fixtures. Once we become aware of the fact that our thoughts and emotions are NOT ourselves, we are freed from the kinds of suffering that comes from those same mental formations. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

The thing is, sitting on a floor on a cushion is just one way to find the kind of recognition and awareness that meditation offers. We can, for example, find similar experiences in a variety of different methods that help us reach that same place. As the teacher say, of course, nothing really compares to just sitting and not moving for an extended period do time AND I can offer my experience as a kind of balance to that one idea about meditation.

One Method for Students and Ourselves

As a History teacher in middle and high school, I’ve had the chance to use these methods with students to help them become a bit more aware of themselves. For example, I’ll often find, when teaching 8th grade, that some boys will often poke, touch, or physically mess with other boys in a class. Some of that behavior is so automatic that they don’t even know they are doing it! Getting them to have awareness of their bodies is something that teachers have done for millennia. We don’t call it meditation practice nor, I imagine, would meditation teachers refer to the method of changing a behavior in class as a meditation practice. Nonetheless, here is one alternative method to sitting meditation.

I’ll often call for a break in class to reorient the room. Then, we will, together, walk in circles in the class, saying nothing. I make it a kind of game….stay an arm length apart, don’t touch the person in front or behind and just walk, slowly, around the room….I’ll gradually speed up the exercise. The students start giddy and silly, and as the speed increases and the rule about not touching gets harder to accomplish, they concentrate on NOT touching and on walking quickly. Soon, the room is silent expect for the patter of feet on the ground. Heavy breathing happens and in some students they start to sweat a little. After a couple of minutes we slow down the pace, walking ever more slowly until we are barely walking. Then we will find our seats and sit quietly for another minute or two.

Once the students are seated, a quiet calm extends over the room. Of course, it doesn’t last long…in 13 and 14 year olds NOTHING lasts very long and if it does their minds and bodies go crazy. Still, in that moment of calm I notice that the deed is done; they are now aware, for a minute, of who they are in their bodies.

Mild Exercise as Meditation

Moving or doing a physical activity is ONE method for entering a meditative state. It can be as simple as walking slowly and then faster and slower, changing speed and movement, until our thoughts are slowed and our minds are more clear of rising thoughts and emotions. It’s that GAP, that moment when we slow down, that the thoughts are still and we can feel the space between constant thought and emotion. It’s the very moment of awareness of that space where we can recognize the concept of emptiness. In that moment, we are not nothing, we are, in fact full. Full of potential and awareness, ready to take the next step in our practice.

Strenuous Exercise as Meditation

If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is a point in which your thinking mind turns off and you are one with the game, the team, the moment. It takes a bit of training and effort to reach this point. The training is really in getting your body to move in the ways it needs to to accomplish the game. So, in basketball, learning the shooting motion or dribbling the basketball without loosing it, those two actions, when learned well, allow the player to no longer think about the action. It’s in those moments that our minds empty of thoughts and the action becomes automatic. The trick is to stay in that moment of empty thoughts and emotions, and recognize that it is present. That moment in time is part of that same idea of recognizing the GAP between thoughts and staying with it.

With practice, the space between thoughts can grow to the point that any form of movement can bring about this experience…the space between thoughts…and expand the awareness of the present moment.

My Experiences with Meditation

I use many methods for meditation. When I first stepped into the stream of Buddhism, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, he said,

If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us… then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes’. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes… If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.

Meditation can be, in fact, washing dishes, vacuuming the house, mopping the floor, mowing the grass, weeding a garden, or any other daily act we do. Meditation can be the focus of any act in our lives.

What this all means is that rather than thinking of meditation as a separate activity, we bring the meditation to any activity. In those moments, meditation is an ongoing, constant state of mind rather than a cordoned off moment sitting in a shrine room in our house or attending a meditation practice in a place other than our own homes and outside of our lives.

Meditation becomes the source rather than the addendum. It can be the center of our lives.

For me, I ride bicycles. It’s my chosen form of exercise. I ride and ride and ride. It serves multiple purposes for me; to be exercising as a means of maintaining my body and a place of silence and stillness. A couple of weeks ago, I entered a complete state of meditation to the point that I had ridden many miles and they passed in a moment. In a blink of an eye I was miles down the rode in a state of mental stillness. I was surprised when I broke the meditation and found myself somewhere far down the road. Probably not the BEST thing to do on a crowded street, but on a country road outside of town, a perfect chance to just be in the moment. Riding my bike and doing nothing else.

Be well, my friends. Take good care of yourself and each other.