Bikepacking as a spiritual practice

As I mentioned in my last post, I went on a week-long bikepacking tour along the Lost Coast in Humboldt County a couple weeks ago (pictures here for those interested). I found the bike tour to be a surprisingly spiritual experience, so I wanted to share a bit about my experience.

I realize that “spiritual” can be a loaded term; it certainly was for me throughout most of my life, as I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian town, where being spiritual meant shackling your thoughts to the church under threat of hell, and even at a young age, I wasn’t willing to do that. I then went to MIT, which was aggressively anti-spiritual with its scientific, “objective” viewpoint, that dismissed anything that couldn’t be easily measured and analyzed.

But as I grow older and meet powerfully present people, I realize that there is some timeless wisdom in spiritual traditions of how to face the eternal challenges of human existence. Norman Fischer’s book, Training in Compassion, which I started reading on this bike tour, starts by laying out four key points to orient students as they start their Lojong practice:

  1. The rarity and preciousness of human life
  2. The absolute inevitability of death
  3. The awesome and indelible power of our actions
  4. The inescapability of suffering

Learning to face these uncomfortable truths of human existence is a spiritual journey. There is nothing in a physics or engineering textbook that can help with coping with these truths. But religious texts, whether the Lojong of Tibetan Buddhism, or the Torah, or the Bible, or the Qur’an, have all been addressing these subjects for thousands of years, as they are an inescapable part of the human experience. I particularly enjoyed reading The Book of Joy, a discussion between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu about how they find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering; I was surprised by the overlap in their spiritual guidance despite coming from the different worlds of Buddhism and Christianity.

So what made bikepacking a spiritual experience for me?

One aspect is in realizing how much of my experience on a day-to-day or even a minute-to-minute basis is driven by my expectations. My last post mentioned the three poisons of buddhism, attraction, avoidance and delusion, each of which is an attempt to not engage with what is real. I can deny my reality (delusion), I can try to avoid it, or I can desire something that isn’t available (attraction/greed). Each of these creates suffering for myself, as Buddhists identify suffering as the gap between my expectations and what I experience.

What happens if one can instead fully accept what is rather than indulge in the three poisons? David Cain tells the story of how Japanese Buddhist monks who are trained in staying present and accepting of their experience can immerse themselves in freezing water in the winter, or complete outlandish physical feats such as hundreds of repeated double marathons. Bikepacking is easy in comparison, but it tested my ability to accept the experience of constant grinds up steep dirt climbs with a 90 pound bike, of sleeping in a tent on hard ground in the rain, of eating only food that we could fit in the bear canister for three days, and of shivering while riding downhill in an unexpected downpour. And it was empowering to realize that I could accept those experiences that others might consider unpleasant, and even enjoy them by remembering that I had chosen this experience and all of its consequences, both the beauty of the wilderness and the associated hardships to get there.

One specific example is that the tour included an out-and-back, where we went one way for two days and then retraced our path for two days, so we knew that every time we had a big descent on the way out, it was going to be a painful climb on the way back. There were two in particular that we were dreading, but I realized that dreading those climbs was just wasted energy – worrying and being anxious about that future experience was keeping me from enjoying my present experience. So when I caught myself thinking ahead to those climbs, I gently redirected my focus back to my present experience and the beautiful wilderness all around me. And during the climbs, instead of trying to avoid the sweaty grueling slog, I reveled in the challenge of seeing how much of the climb I could ride vs. having to get off and push the bike. I could have suffered, constantly questioning why I was there and desperately wishing for the exertion to end, but instead I was able to stay present with my experience most of the time. And that created a sense of peace and acceptance that I continue to remember even a couple weeks later.

How does that acceptance show up for me? I notice more often when I am trying to avoid an experience or emotion, and can confront it directly. One example was on Sunday morning when I woke up tired and cranky after not sleeping well, and when my wife asked me about something, I was curt and dismissive, and she asked me what the problem was. Instead of snapping at her and escalating the situation, I was able to notice my state and say “The problem is that I am tired and cranky”; acknowledging my present state rather than trying to avoid it and pretending that everything was okay (delusion) allowed for a more constructive dialogue. Other examples are noticing more often when I am procrastinating by playing on my phone or surfing the web; I have been trying to use that as a signal to start meditating – if I’m wasting time anyway, let me at least be present to my experience rather than avoiding it.

Another aspect of the bikepacking trip that was surprisingly satisfying was filling the day with mundane tasks. Each day started with a couple hours of getting breakfast together by boiling water and assembling our meals, packing up the tents and equipment, loading the bikes, and figuring out the plan for the day. Then several hours of physical exertion in the form of biking to our next campsite. Then a couple hours of setting up camp, making and eating dinner, cleaning the dishes, and pumping and purifying water when necessary at the more primitive campgrounds. With sunset being around 7:30pm, we were often in our tents by 8pm and asleep by 9pm, and yet I felt quite satisfied with the day due to my body being physically tired, and with having managed all the necessary mundane tasks.

Why was this simple life so satisfying? A few reasons come to mind:

  • We were out of cell phone service for most of the trip, so there was no FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) on some activity that I could be doing online.
  • Physical exhaustion: my body felt tired and well-used each day in a way that it doesn’t when I sit in front of a computer all day.
  • Self-sufficiency: I find it very satisfying to carry what I need with me and power my own journey from point A to point B.

But I think another part of the satisfaction relates to this Zen teaching:
“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” In other words, my actions do not create satisfaction or enlightenment; instead, my ability to approach those actions mindfully is what determines my experience. Somebody else doing the same trip could have had a profoundly unhappy experience, complaining about the endless climbs, and the rain, and the crappy food, and the hard ground, and the tedium of spending hours each day packing and unpacking. Same actions, different experience. So part of what made the tour so satisfying was my mindset and my ability to stay present and understand the choices I could make about my experience; as my last post noted, was I focused on what I didn’t have (greed) or what I did have (gratitude)? By practicing focusing not on what I couldn’t control about my experience (rain, climbs, terrain), but on what I could control (my expectations and my mindset), I was able to have a wonderful, peaceful experience that I will treasure in my memory.

Hopefully I will be able to continue to carry those lessons of mindfulness forward now that I’m back in my “normal” life where I spend less time on mundane tasks (running water! dishwasher!), and where my body rots in inactivity as I sit in front of a computer all day with a tab open to an endless to-do list that can stress me out. My ability to stay mindful has been intermittent since the bike trip, but I feel I am doing a little better than before the trip, and that’s progress. One of my coaches once gave me the mantra “Progress, not perfection”, meaning focus on whether I’m moving in the right direction rather than whether I’m achieving my goals perfectly. So this post is a reminder to myself to continue to pay attention to my attitude and my mindset and maybe I can get a little bit better at staying present and mindful each day, even when I’m not bikepacking through the wilderness while reflecting on Buddhist mind training slogans.

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