Updated: Mar 4, 2020
"Slurp." I took another sip from my reservoir and hopped back on my bike. It was Saturday and I was riding Mt Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. The ascent is only 9 miles, but I was out of shape and the trail climbs 4400ft with little opportunity for shade.
Twice before, I had tried this summit. I made the first attempt during a 113-degree heat wave—and turned around when I began to feel dizzy. I made the second attempt after a snow, which blanketed the mountain range bordering Los Angeles (it does happen). Although more fun than the heatwave, eventually the deepening snow slowed my progress to a hike. At dusk, I again turned around to descend though I was only a couple miles from the top.
However, this time was different. The sun was shining, but the temperature was moderate, and even the wind at the summit was light. I also had a lot of thinking to do.
At the time, I was about to finish my PhD and begin a clinical residency. Six years after college, I would finally enter the world as a non-student. I was also about to move to Texas—a geographically flat and geopolitically conservative region totally alien to my mountainous and liberal west-coast experience. Most poignantly at the time, I had just ended a two-year relationship the day before. Stress was shouting and a quiet morning on a bike sounded nice.
Pushing the cranks on my hardtail provided a slow rhythm for thinking. Like my tires, my thoughts circled slowly and I made only halting progress. Climbing, I lost my breath and tried my damnedest to catch my thoughts.
Mostly I failed.
The problem with understanding my life was not that it was incomprehensible. Several years later, I understand my thoughts and feelings about that season of life as well as one can. What confused my attempt was a haggard brain trying to understand a haggard life. Unfortunately, many people feel the same way, year after year, with little change. Feeling distant from one’s own life, rather than engaged, is tragically common.
Three hours of pensive pedaling and I was at the top.
I spent some time walking around the Mt Wilson Observatory, admiring the buildings and the views. It is an old and important place. The Carnegie Foundation built the observatory in 1904. In the nineteen thirties, Albert Einstein toured these instruments with Edwin Hubble. Their genius, though still lingering on that mountaintop, did not reveal any answers to my life. I remained unable to figure out my problems.
At the time, “figuring out” was how I framed any reflections on my life. I suspect that many of you approach problems the same way. We tend to think about problems and then work very hard to solve them. This serves us well, but it is only one tool for self-improvement and understanding.
After half an hour at the top, I began to descend.
The ride down was much quicker, and involved far less intentional thinking, but it produced the type of clarity that my ascent could never manage. I felt less burnt out. I was happy. Honestly, at the time, it was an unfamiliar feeling. I have come to understand what happened on that descent as an example of outdoors mindfulness.
Many have heard the term “mindfulness." Somehow, this quiet practice has become a popular trend. As a psychologist, I am pleased. Here is how many define mindfulness: nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Broken into two parts, mindfulness is (1) nonjudgment and (2) awareness of the present moment.
First, nonjudgment allows us to choose according to our values and the available information, rather than unconscious, pre-formed feelings. For example, you may judge unicycling as a “bad” sport. However, the judgment precludes you from trying it out and seeing for yourself—it eliminates potentially enjoyable, productive options.
Second, awareness of the present moment is a state in which you pay attention. No numbing or ignoring, but rather paying attention to the sights, sounds, and sensations of one’s body in its environment. The outdoors is great for this. Importantly, you must pay attention to the immediate moment. What we remember of the past and imagine for the future are mere reproductions of reality. They are often no more than false memories that twist our actual past, or anxiety-fueled caricatures of the future that will actually happen.
For some reason, it seems that children and animals naturally attend to the present moment. However, for adults, it seems to require either intentional practice (e.g. a sitting mindfulness routine) or some external pressure. It seems that staying upright on a mountain bike, during a difficult descent, is one such condition that forces a person to pay attention to the present moment. To get distracted about the past is to fly over the handlebars.
This is why the outdoors are mindful. Riding a bike, for instance, requires the fast, unconscious part of our brains to take control. Specifically, the somatosensory and motor cortices balance the bike without our choosing to do it—it is impossible to “decide” to balance a bike. The same is true of rock climbing, skiing, kayaking, and most other outdoor sports. Descending a mountain at a fast pace (for me) occupies my brain completely. Riding my bike that day, there was no bandwidth available for judging a root or rock as bad—it was just there for me to deal with. And the present moment? The consequences for being unaware of the present moment would be swift and painful.
That day on Mt Wilson, I went up the mountain thinking I would figure things out. My mind just raced. I came down the mountain, spending 40 minutes in forced mindfulness. What did I do instead of berating myself for staying in a relationship too long, wondering what I missed in the past to lead to such a relationship, and worrying if I would do it again? I made quick, nonjudgmental, present-focused decisions to keep myself balanced. Instead of numbing myself to the world around me, I paid attention to the spaces between rocks. Instead of ruminating about my relationship or trying to predict how I would like Texas, I rode happily in the present moment. It was mindful. I was mindful. Some deep, primal part of myself was satisfied.
Forty minutes of gravity and my mind was clear.