They say an addict can’t begin to recover until he or she hits rock bottom. Read the literature. It’s full of the tales of men and women who have stared into the abyss, who’ve seen their own death writ large, in vivid color across the insides of their eyelids. Profound things happen. Human minds, roiling chemistry sets of hormone and electricity, change slowly, heal themselves, become worthy and admirable again. The word miracle gets thrown around like poker chips in a casino.
We say here at RKP that ‘to suffer is to learn.’ There is a parallel.
On the bike, we confront our limits. We push ourselves out to the edge of what we think we’re capable of, find trap doors, move on into undreamed of places. We do super human things.
What addicts do by virtue of their disease, cyclists do by their own volition. They empty themselves out and root around in their exhausted minds and bodies to see what’s left, panning for gold.
I struggled for a long time with the whole notion of spirituality. I’d never heard anyone define it in a way I could take seriously. I imagined spirits, floating and diaphanous, at the fringes of a room. I conjured religious iconography, saints with bright gold halos, garish depictions of the crucifixion. I shook my head and chuckled.
But then someone said to me, “Spirituality describes the connections you make to the world around you. You connect to your friends and family, but those connections are invisible. You can’t touch them. You can’t see them. They are spiritual.” Made sense to me. Finally.
Spiritual growth, then, is the strengthening of your connections to the people around you and the world as a whole. The stronger your spiritual connections the safer and less alone you feel. You gain mental strength. That strength may express itself as respect, considerateness, love, compassion, forgiveness, wonder, etc. I’m a cynic and skeptic by nature, but even I can buy into the value of that sort of spirituality.
My neighbor is a cyclist, until recently more of a mountain biker than a roadie. In fact, the other day he was talking about how much more he enjoys riding on the road than he’d expected to. For years, he had loved the feeling of being out in the woods, finding his rhythm on the trail, communing, as it were, with nature. He was surprised to be able to feel some of those same feelings on a skinny-tired machine, on the pavement, with a group of friends.
I told him, I think it’s about where the bike takes you. Whether your front shock is clicking and popping down a rooted section of single track or your freewheel is singing down a twisty stretch of asphalt, you are out at the edges of yourself, mind focused, senses saturated. This is our version of getting high, the absolute zenith of cycling, what my friend Padraig might call a ‘flow state.’
Buddhists have an interesting way of talking about these spiritual moments. They believe that we, as humans, draw a false line between ourselves and the world. We willfully sever the connection. And, the more we hold ourselves apart from the world, the more we suffer. The greater our connection to others and to the world around us, the greater our serenity.
The pivotal moment in recovery from addiction, that moment at which we hit bottom and see that we have to turn back, is a moment of spiritual awakening. I have been there, down the bottom of the mine shaft. It is not pretty. It is dark and terrifying.
Is this not like what we feel on the bike, when we’re in the red, when we’ve been in the red for too long. Our physical strength breaks down. We grow afraid that we can’t go on. The top? The bottom? They are just words that describe the edges of our experience. Our defenses are down. We’re too exhausted to keep them up.
And then, if we’re lucky, the line between our self and the world blurs, and we understand, if only for a moment, what’s really important.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International