The last time I rode the trail at Merrell was Day One of this yoga journey. It was snowing that day, one of the first sticky snows of the season. That meant the terrain which had become pretty familiar after many summer rides looked and felt completely different—risky in a new way, challenging in a new way, lovely and awful both in new ways. I remember thinking then about the Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind, Shoshin--the practice of seeing things as a beginner would, with novel enthusiasm and without the kind of limits that history and routine can construct and reinforce. What great irony to end the season with a ride that felt brand new. That same day, I entered my yoga practice as a true novice with a 30 day goal.
Today, Day 156, I come back to Merrell and back to beginner’s mind. Merrell Trail was last summer’s biggest biking challenge, the goal I worked up to, starting with the purchase of my trusty Specialized 29er mountain bike, then hitting pavement, getting my bearings, relearning the gears and the posture I knew by heart
It was not a graceful introduction nor a courtship without its challenges, but it was love at first ride. Although Luton and I remained close friends, by August I only had eyes for one trail. After the exhilaration of Merrell’s downhills and the heart palpitations of its climbs, nothing else really compared for the rest of the season. My step-dad Bill, my friend Keri and I, or some combination of us, tried to make it there whenever the sun was shining and the workday didn't interfere. I’ve been anxiously awaiting our reunion for 155 cold, grey days. Today was chilly and windy but dry, with some blue sky even, and Bill and Keri and I decided to get reacquainted with the trail.
I felt nervous and shy riding in, wobbling between boulders and tipping between trees. A beginner again, all shoshin, with just the memory of having known once what was coming, but without any of the actual knowing. The terrain was practically brand new, and the exhilaration too. The heart attack after the biggest hill was absolutely brand new, a testament more to my lack of winter cardio perhaps than to my eager beginner’s mind. But you get the drift. Butterflies. Giddy first date stuff. Sweaty-palmed anticipation and eagerness.
And my beginner’s mind, my sweet shiny shoshin, brought me back to basics, back to the yoga-goes-biking fundamentals waiting around every turn. Here are a three of the lessons that returned to me as I road the trails and tried not to die:
1. My body is wise. While my mind told me stories about how unlikely it was I'd make it up the next hill, my body pushed on and amazed me. While my mind couldn't move fast enough to plan for the obstacles that appeared quickly and frequently, my body responded intuitively, navigating with skill beyond thought. This is so often the case--on the trail, on the mat, at the desk, on the date. My body is wise, it informs me if I listen. Yoga and biking both teach me how listen by eliminating the obstacle that my thoughts can sometimes become. There's no time to think about how to fit through a gap between trees that's as narrow as my handle bars. It just happens. Or it doesn't. Sometimes it definitely doesn't. But the lesson stays. And it remains on the mat where there's no space for critical thought when I'm flowing from asana to asana, matching the rhythm of breath.
My body knows when it's time to stop eating or drinking, when it's time to go to sleep or wake up. My body knows that the guy's a creep far before my mind gives up it's chatty negotiations and hopeful delusions in order to end the bad date. My body knows when I shouldn't answer the phone or respond to the email before taking some deep breaths or doing some cathartic swearing at the ceiling. It's shoshin beginner stuff, this body wisdom. Which is maybe why my spoiled, learned little brain so often feels superior and tends to get really loud and bossy when my body tries to speak up.
2. Full expression is reached through a combination of effort and ease. My legs will be sore tomorrow from the shaking, quaking effort they offered today, carrying me over hill and across vale. That’s the good news. The bad news is that my shoulders will probably also be sore, and my neck might join the party as well. I haven’t found those moments of ease on my bike that have become natural in my yoga practice. In yoga, I’ve discovered trust in my body’s agility and stability. On my bike, not so much. Not yet. For the most part, I hold on so tight that my arms become shock absorbers zinging with hit after hit, or I brace myself into weird shapes and lower back spasms.
But I’ll get there. And in life, too. I’ve found yoga-balance for my social work self—the mostly competent professional who senses when to push and when to hold, who can usually lead an escalating patient gently back down to earth or talk a terrified parent into some sense of relief, and who has generally realistic expectations and good boundaries. Then there’s my dating self, still holding mountain-bike tight to extremes—that ungraceful version of me who’s pretty much entirely ambivalent, awkwardly vacillating between fiercely independent and secretly needy, grandiose and insecure. A recipe for muscle pain--whether from holding on too tight or bailing out too early, either way.
3. If there are people around, and especially if they look like experts or cute single men in my age bracket, I will almost certainly fall down so I may as well get used to it. Even from standing still on completely flat land, it’s really likely that I'll manage to tip over or generally make an idiot of myself in some fashion. If I’m approaching an obstacle and simultaneously aware that someone, especially someone very capable or attractive, is watching, I may as well shoot for the most spectacular failure I can muster and then see what I can learn from it.
There’s no need to extrapolate this lesson. It’s self-explanatory and it’s a hill I’ve not dared climb to the top until this point in my life, thirty years into the ordeal and just completely, utterly exhausted from trying to pretend I’m not a silly spectacle half the time. Or two-thirds of the time when I really care who’s watching. So there it is. Here I am, stunning and graceful sometimes, even in difficult poses. Wide open heart, a glutton for adjustment. And here I also am, holding on too tight while I’m jerking around and racking up a chiropractor bill, or laid out on my ass in the springy spring dirt, maybe fractured and hopefully having a good laugh.
After the shoshin trek into Merrell, in Dean’s Sweet Vinyasa class, he rearranged the placement of mats so that we were all facing center, forward folding toward our classmates' faces rather than their perhaps more familiar booties. Ah, Dean. You must’ve known it was a day for unfamiliar terrain. Embrace the awkward, he said. Embrace the discomfort and offer the person across from you a good intention. With eye contact. Thank goodness I had already learned my public humiliation lesson for the day, back on my bike in my shoshin. It left my beginner's heart wide open to give and receive good intentions, with eye contact, and then to move on to doing something well or not well, smiling and growing either way.
Zen teacher Shunryu Szuki says, In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. That seems pretty true to me; I can see it on the mat and on the trail. And when I'm feeling really brave I can watch new possibilities unfold in my relationships as I approach them with shoshin. Life has given me the opportunity lately to bring a beginner's mind to some of my most established relationships--the ones I've studied and experienced deep and wide enough that I might consider myself an expert--and thus, of course, effectively put them into neat little limited boxes in my mind. Mostly my attempts at shoshin in my relationships have felt really uncomfortable--very exposed, vulnerable and scary. But authentic. Accepting, defenseless, honest and somehow, deep down, still safe. And I've felt surprised, over and over, by the spectacular ways my oldest friends and closest relatives have busted out of the boxes I stuffed them into, revealing sparkly and shiny and injured and aching parts of themselves that my expert eyes may never have noticed. It's a gift no matter what comes out when the box breaks open, I think.
I’m grateful for the beginner’s mind that accompanied me into all sorts of new terrain today, and for the reminder that I’m on the pursuit of more than just mastery. There's gratifying progress that happens with practice--be it 156 days on a yoga mat, a season full of more and more skillful rides, or an active commitment to maintaining connection. I love the expansion and the intimacy I've worked for--I'm not about to trade that in. But expertise will never really satisfy if it also limits--if knowing replaces wondering. While I'd like to someday do a hand stand for more than two seconds, and I hope to one day ride the whole Wynalda loop without stopping to catch my breath, I'd also really like to practice beginning again each day, each moment even--to soar and to crash both, and to come back to stillness in shoshin once in a while at every elevation. I imagine I'd find at any height a perfect view of the horizon, stretching far beyond what I could have predicted, maybe even beyond my wildest dreams. But I'm just guessing here, I can't know for sure. I'm no expert.