The Dark Night of the Bike Rider’s Soul

I went on a 30 mile bike ride yesterday. The one before that was a 100 mile, before that a 65 mile, and before that a 25 mile. Regardless of distance, they all involve a dark-night-of-the-soul.

The traditional dark-night-of-the-soul experience involves transcending some facet of the ego in favor of the spiritual. It’s a two parter: purification of body and then of spirit. Here’s how it looks on a bike…

Distance cycling is not a ride around the park, literally or metaphorically. When one mounts a bike and will not be getting off for the better part of an entire day, pacing and patience become important companions. So at first, the focus is on the body, the bike and the environment. Muscles need to warm up, kinks need to work themselves out, and the weather needs to be fully appreciated (or cursed). The purification of body has begun, and is aided by sweet fresh air and oxygen and sweat. For a time, this is enough. The motion of pedaling, the feeling of sun, wind and muscles, the sound of gears, companions and wildlife; it is enough to “be here now” as Ram Dass advises.

And then the rider is propelled further into the dark-night-of-the-soul. The body begins to protest, and discomfort arises. A hunt for the perfect riding posture ensues. Shift butt on seat, sit up straight, turn knees in while pedaling, slide back on seat, lean forward over handlebars, hook thumbs, unhook thumbs, shift butt on seat (and repeat).

The mind naturally tries to figure out how long this will go on: “10 miles an hour, on average and it’s a 65 mile ride, so that’s 6 1/2 hours without breaks, probably 8 hours total.” Shift butt on seat. “But maybe we’ll go faster sometimes.” So maybe 7 1/2 hours.” And we’ve been riding 2 hours.” “Crap.” Sit up straight, unhook thumbs. “5 1/2 more hours.” “More than twice as far as we’ve already gone.”

At this time in the dark-night-of-the-soul, nature usually provides some environmental assistance in one of two forms: head-winds or hills (sometimes they occur together). Head winds blow against bike and body making everything more difficult, thus speeding up the bodily purification process. Every spot at which air meets body is a spot that must be pedaled through. More effort and strength are required to keep the pace. It is similar to running in soft loose sand – so much effort for so little gain. The mind does more math: “OK, so we can’t keep this pace with these head-winds, we’re gonna lose a couple miles per hour.” Shift gears. “It’s gonna be like 6 hours – Against wind like this?!?” “I wonder how many pedal-rounds that is, I should count how many revolutions are in a minute, and then an hour and then six hours…”

Hills present even greater opportunities for bodily purification. Hills announce themselves on the horizon, you know they’re coming and you have time to prepare (or curse). But regardless of how optimistic the self-talk is, or how much speed one gains prior to approaching the hill, any hill worth its weight (not to mention wait) will eventually hurt. Quad muscles maxed out, lowest gear possible, a biker’s mantra on the exhale: “all-most-there-all-most-there” or “keep -go-ing-keep-go-ing” or “insert-profanity-of-choice.” If enough speed is lost, balance follows. If balance and speed are available, it is at the expense of glucose and oxygen. The purification process continues.

Thankfully, also typical of dark-nights-of-the-soul are fleeting sweet moments of mercy. The hill top is reached. A 45-degree turn reduces the head-winds to a mere breeze. Lack of pain is pure pleasure. For a time, the mind is still, content in the “now”. Then, inevitably, the bike turns into the headwinds, or the mind returns to the math, or another hill taunts from the horizon.

This cycle of hard, harder, very hard (curse words) followed by the bliss of simplicity can happen many many times in a long ride. Each one feels like the worst one yet, until eventually, the really worst one yet arrives. It is here that the dark-night-of-the-soul process shifts from bodily purification to spiritual purification.

Most spiritually profound moments (regardless of religion or tradition) can be boiled down to one of two inner-states: acceptance or fortitude, a.k.a. being in the moment, or trying to change the moment. In the dark-night-of-the-bike-rider’s soul, these states can be peddled through time and time again. Acceptance of the distance, the discomfort, the head winds: “ok, just pedal, just breath, there is no destination, there is only now…” Then a fierce battle with the hill, or the pain, an anger at the absurdity of trying to defy gravity and nature when the game is rigged in their favor, “(Insert curse word) hill, you can bite me!” Pedal while standing up. “You will NOT take me down.” The inner cheerleader tries to help, “It just looks impossible, just keep peddaling, just don’t stop.” “You can do this.” “Just don’t stop.” A moment’s respite. Ride. Repeat.

On this last ride, headwinds aided MY purification process. We rode for miles and miles against a hot September wind that blew over even more miles and miles of corn and hay, bringing with it crop dust and animal dander and the smell of fertilizer (a.k.a. shit). For a time, I was able to be with the challenges. Then suddenly I would be filled with rage and feelings of vicitimization, and I would need to shift (again – figuratively and metaphorically) into a tougher gear, a fighting gear, a gear of fortitude. Just as suddenly, I would reach my physical edge, recognize that acceptance was the only option remaining, and rest for a time in the enough-ness of cranking the cog.

In this – the darkest part of the dark-night-of-the-soul – it became clear to me that acceptance and fortitude were simply other words for yin and yang, for receptive and active, feminine and masculine, lunar and solar. And while this insight excited me, it also worried me.

Years of working with people in psychotherapy has taught me to beware of polarized or dichotomous thinking, as things are rarely that simple. Falsely created division is responsible for much of the evil of the world: the division of body & spirit, heaven & earth, entitled & disenfranchised, right & wrong, white & blue collars, perfect & failure, Christians & Pagans, U of M & MSU… the list is endless.

Yes, polarities are present, both on the bike and off the bike. And while there are only TWO polarities, there are countless variations where the two overlap. There is a sweet spot to be found in the unification of acceptance & fortitude. I call it wisdom. It’s larger than either state, able to observe both, and intuitively knows how (and when) to move between the two. It does not attach to one or the other as better. It rolls with the landscape, sort of like a bike.

Once the place of wisdom is reached, dawn breaks the dark-night-of-the bike rider’s soul. This does not mean that the hills and head-winds go away, or that the reminder of the ride is without strife. It just means there is a faith that this moment is a good enough moment (even if it’s not really) because it’s the only moment available. It is a settling in for the ride.

This dark-night of the bike rider’s soul is present in every ride, and if familiar with the concept, most riders will tell you when it occurred for them: “that one big-ass hill that came after those two other hills”, or “my gears were stuck in high and I didn’t want to stop and fix them, but after like 8 miles I just lost it.”

I frequently consider the possibility that I hate distance cycling, despite the many trips taken each year, but I keep going, so I know I don’t hate it. I just hate the dark-night parts. Yet, just like clients in therapy, I recognize that these dark-night experiences give me the opportunity to feel the abstract polarities of acceptance and fortitude in a very concrete fashion. Try 100 miles in one day and you’ll see what I mean.

Spiritual purification in service of enhanced soul-contact? Not sure what that looks like (or how to get there). The moment of truly settling in for the ride? That one I know. It looks like riding a bike, and I get there by pedaling.

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