I am still biking twenty-five miles a day, taking me about ninety minutes, not counting time spent applying sun screen, and I continue to hope the routine may ward off the Reaper for a while, and allow me along the way to eat rich dinners without assuming an altogether unseemly form. It is rather a lavish expenditure of hours and energy, though, and consumes, I figure, little short of ten per cent of my waking life, an alarming cost for one with little taste for athletics. Wishing to justify the practice on other than physical grounds, I have lately been contemplating the mental and spiritual rewards of this exercise. I like to think that without this more ethereal reinforcement, I may not have been able to keep riding so long.
Many thoughtful people have found running, jogging, or riding to be a useful time to contemplate concepts, or the order of words in either prose or verse. Scientists and engineers as well as poets find that inspiration may arise in such paradoxical moments when the mind is in one way totally engaged and yet in another altogether unharnessed. The mind can benefit from its removal from the concerns of everyday life. This benefit is functional and incidental and resembles the opportunity afforded by long distance driving, knitting, and similar occupations.
Yet it is true as well that any such repetitive physical action is, as the Zen abbots knew, a form of meditation and may assist the mind in its approach toward enlightenment. The mandala is of less importance than the focus itself in Tibetan sand painting. Surely the monks could be making images of Donald Duck.
Even without intention routine tends to empty the mind. I recall when I would be driving my old commute and would suddenly return to immediate conscious awareness after a space of mental wandering without ever losing total prudential driving alertness in one part of my cranium.
The liberating effect is purely dependent on repetition. There is good reason that devotees repeat formulae and the Sioux chanted their divine scat songs for hours. Surely the field work songs of the old South sustained cotton pickers through long days, and for all one knows, the minds of the home weavers of ore-industrial days may have soared in the most imaginative flights of fancy. The brilliant work and field songs of the old South formed the rich subsoil in which the blues grew. I have always thought the worst job would be on a production line, yet perhaps those laborers, too, could relax into an all-too-familiar routine and feel their minds float free. All conscious recourses to icons, mandalas, St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and all the rest are refinements of the technology of managing human consciousness which, however varied the imagery and assumptions, depend on a fundamentally similar method.
Those who achieve high levels of athletic performance must certainly be practicing a form of meditation, at the very least a single-minded focus on the task at hand which paradoxically may be experienced as an escape from the physical which under these circumstances continues without conscious attention. Concentration on the physical can vault consciousness beyond muscles and rushing blood. The push of ego can lead to ego’s disappearance.