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On Cycling as Meditation and Prayer

After reading about filmmaker David Lynch in The New York Times and his plan to raise seven-billion dollars to create Transcendental Meditation centers around the globe to transform the human condition by sitting still, twice a day for 20-minutes, we started thinking about the similarities between cycling and meditation and prayer. We literally sit on saddles for much longer period of times and in an effort to accomplish the same thing and it doesn’t take seven-billion dollars. Silence, repetition, escape. Health. Community. We asked avid cyclist and the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ross, CA, to offer up his thoughts on the spiritual side of cycling. 

Words: Chris Rankin
Images: Specialized/Gruber Images

On the similarities between riding, suffering, climbing, meditation and prayer …
Riding is definitely a form of prayer for me and there are a lot of similarities. Part of prayer and meditation is opening up your consciousness and I just feel like my vision and sense of things is larger when I’m riding—at least when I’m riding just to ride. When I’m going really hard its more a sense of transcendence. A key to prayer or mediation, even in a group, is setting aside the time for only that. I ride with a phone for safety but riding is Sabbath time. It’s getting away from everything for a while. So much of prayer and meditation is about breath and controlling your breath. I feel I focus on my breathing a lot on the bike—especially trying to not let it get out of control or even just listening to my breath. Sustaining a certain cadence, power, or heart rate feels very similar to me. I love riding places I’ve never been, but I think I get the most prayerful or centered response on rides and climbs I know well. I know what to expect so I’m freer to enter into the rhythm of the ride. I prefer to road bike but mountain biking or riding on low-traffic roads is key to entering that state where riding is prayer. As much as I love it and use it, I’m not sure anything undoes the prayerfulness of a ride more than obsessing over a Strava segment while you ride.

On the unconscious, repetitive turning of the pedals as a mantra …
A smooth, constant cadence is like saying a mantra. Same thing as the breathing. Holding a pace on a ride or in a group. Really hard efforts or long, challenging climbs require, or at least create, so much focus I feel I get into a zone much easier than sitting in prayer where my mind wanders a lot.

On the “kit” or dress code of cycling …
Getting all kitted up for a ride is definitely like putting on vestments for a liturgy. The vestments in liturgy signify roles, authority, etc. A group ride with everyone in the same kit is pretty awesome—a sense of community. There is also a lot of judgment and evaluation about what kit you wear, shaved legs or not, etc. Sometimes this aspect is a mixed bag for me. At the church where I serve we had cycling kits made up for the church with crosses, the church name and our motto, “Hydrate your soul,” on them. They are really popular. Even folks who don’t go to the church have asked for them. The “Hydrate your soul” motto is something I came up with that tries to express what belonging to a church community is about. Athletes are so focused on hydration. Faith and prayer is hydration for the soul. At the same time, cycling is hydration for my soul.

On suffering …
Suffering is such an important part of cycling and is really essential to spiritual development. True spirituality is work and it demands something of us. Fulfillment isn’t just about affirmation, but about breaking down and building back up stronger. I’ve found that recalling the times I’ve really suffered on the bike help me face challenging situations in other parts of my life. Preaching at the funeral for a suicide or walking with a family through a tragic death is a bit like going back up Mt. Figueroa. Of course, it’s also important to turn some of this over to God. Times I’ve suffered and failed on the bike are important lessons in humility.

I would love to find a way to connect cycling with community service. Suffering in a spiritual sense is also about humility and compassion. I find God riding up on Mt. Tam as much as anyone, but I’ve yet to do a mountain bike ride where folks said, “That was great, now we should go volunteer at the homeless shelter.” Suffering on a bike is very important to me, but its important to remember that suffering on a bike is a privilege.

On the community found on group rides …
A good group ride is like a liturgy—all the people together doing the same work. Even when the hammer is down, people are riding with a responsibility to keep others safe. My community at the gym or a group ride with friends feels like church to me, especially because I’m always helping to lead church.

Parting words of wisdom …
There are two lines I love from Tim Krabbé’s The Rider:

“Climbing is a rhythm, a trance. You have to rock your organs’ protests back to sleep.”

“On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work the smaller it gets.” 

This is really true with hard efforts, but like with the small consciousness of prayer the point is to strip away the excess so you are focused on a deeper reality. In the end, it’s really about expanding your consciousness. Karl Rahner said that the more you submit to God the freer you become. I’d say that is my theology of suffering on the bike.

The Rev. Chris Rankin-Williams is the Rector of St. John’s in Ross, CA. Chris is married with two children, an avid cyclist and surfer and a big fan of IPAs.

From issue 20. Buy it here.