Empty Pedaling

In 2015, I rode my bicycle a thousand miles across the Great Plains, from Minneapolis to Malta, Montana. I was riding with Bike The US For MS on their cross country trip from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Seattle.

As we headed into North Dakota, some of the riders in the group despaired at the miles of unrelenting sameness, and tried to ease their way across the expanse with the aid of earbuds and rock music.

But I loved the silence and stillness of long, straight roads that stretched through open land to the horizon. It wasn’t boring. It just had a longer rhythm and cadence that required me to adjust mine to it rather expecting it to accommodate mine.

It also had a deeper lesson to teach. It was a lesson I’d learned and relearned many times over while studying taijiquan.

It’s not about speed, it’s about stillness and being present. It’s about knowing the difference between surrendering and giving up. The truth is, no matter how fast we pedaled, it was going to take us several days to cross the Dakota prairie. And once across, there was still Montana. Fighting the landscape was not a battle we were going to win. But embracing it presented gifts we couldn’t lose.

In taijiquan, there’s a principle called wuwei, which translates to “actionless action” or “empty stepping.” The name taijiquan itself literally means “Supreme Ultimate Fist”—the kind of name you’d expect from a martial art. And yet, taiji draws its power and strength from wuwei, which is the absence of effort.

This paradox goes to the heart of why taiji is often called meditation in motion. The taiji forms are designed to be effortless, their slow, fluid movements an out-picturing of inner stillness. When they are, when I’m actually practicing wuwei and not fighting miles of unchanging landscape and other dragons, that stillness amplifies and cultivates qi energy dramatically. Rather than exhausting, actionless action can be sustained indefinitely, and is, by its nature, restorative.

This is certainly true in cycling. At the heart of all the movement generated on a bicycle is stillness. If I’m holding unnecessary tension, or making extraneous movements unrelated to or misaligned with my pedal strokes, I expend far more energy to accomplish the same result, and arrive exhausted.

On the other hand, if I keep every muscle relaxed that’s not immediately needed for movement, and keep my body still, except for my pumping legs, I can sustain my energy far longer, and am much stronger when faced with the challenge of a long climb.

I’ve been on two other multi-day rides with BTUSFMS—from Seattle to the California Redwoods, and from the Redwoods to San Francisco. That terrain is definitely not unchanging. Or flat. It provides its own lessons in wuwei, in empty pedaling.

Learning the dance of rhythm and cadence, power and pacing, gearing and timing on a winding road of rolling hills and long climbs and descents is a more active form of meditation than the contemplative reverie of the Great Plains. But it is a meditation. Or can be.

Finding a sustainable and effortless cadence, using momentum, timing and terrain to smooth the ride are all part of keeping the body relaxed and still in the saddle. And when it all works together, when my mind and body and bike are all in sync and we’re riding through the living terrain as one organic whole, a meditative stillness permeates the entire experience.

Both taiji and cycling are about the simplicity of stillness in motion. It’s a magical and transformative combination when we empty ourselves of unnecessary effort and action. It’s a little like the Buddhist practice of abandoning the unskillful—letting go of those things or ideas or patterns of behavior that don’t contribute to our essential being and the task in front of us.

Surprisingly, when we do, we arrive unrushed, unhurried, and filled to overflowing—often more quickly than we realized. But then, as Richard Bach wrote in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “Perfect speed, my son, is being there.”


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