Cycling and the Beginner’s Mind

Over on Twitter, I’m internet friends with this woman, Lauren Giles. She’s a lawyer, runner, amateur gravel bike racer, and all-around nice person. In Soflete’s Knowledge is Power section, Lauren wrote about her experiences with a concept in Zen Buddhism called shoshin: beginner’s mind.

The beginner’s mind is free of preconceptions.  Everything is exciting and new. The beginner’s mind is receptive to whatever comes, because the beginner doesn’t know what can and cannot be.  As Shuryu Suzuki wrote in the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

When you first start doing something new, when you have the beginner’s mind, you learn constantly.  There’s no shame in ignorance, so it’s easy to ask for help. Crashing, falling off, breaking something, or otherwise screwing up is expected.  When you start using clipless pedals on a bike, for example, you absolutely will, at least once, get to a stop sign, forget your foot is attached to the bike, and fall over, generally in front of a lot of people. So long as you’re not hurt, it’s funny, rather than embarrassing.  Unfortunately, as we develop expertise – as we become good at something – that newbie’s lack of fear is easy to lose.

The gift cycling has given me is to give me an opportunity, in my late thirties, to return to being a beginner.  The joy of discovery – even discovering terrible things, like that riding through a snowstorm feels like having ice water poured over your head – has reminded me, even outside of cycling, of the importance of releasing preconception.  Outside of cycling, I found my tendency was to tell people why something couldn’t be done. When I started cycling, I was learning every day, and I started to see possibility, rather than certainty. The longer I rode, the more I found that my closed mind began to soften, began to become a beginners mind – even off the bike.

Lauren Giles,

I remember when I first transitioned to clipless pedals and I kept a count of how many times I fell over (5). I take it for granted now, which per Karma, means the next time I go out on my bike I’m going to fall.

I had the beginner’s mind experience again when I started riding rollers. My first time was all of about 10 minutes and even though it was near freezing outside, I had to go for a spin on the road just to make sure I still knew how to ride a bike. Rollers, while relatively fun now, terrified me then.

How do I keep my balance without gravity? OMG I’m gonna fall over! How the hell does that tiny girl Ruby Isaac get on hers by just rolling over them?!

I was out of breath within 30 seconds, but I LOVED IT. It took me about two weeks to become proficient enough to ride 30 minutes without having to stop, but I still can’t reach for my water bottle or anything else except to scratch my nose.

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