Before COVID put us in Work From Home mode, I bike commuted for several years. With only occasional exceptions, I rode the same route every day. Now that my workplace is my home space, the rides I take early each morning aren’t bound to a particular direction or path. But I still tend to follow five or six routes over and over.
I began to feel self-conscious about that, and slightly bored with the repetition. “Have I become such a creature of habit?” I asked myself. I wasn’t happy with that idea.
But then on one of those early morning rides, I thought of something my taijiquan teacher used to say. “If you’re bored, you’re not paying attention.”
Taijiquan is stillness in motion, an art form grounded in simplicity that treats habit as both teacher and adversary. The movements are structured down to each turn of a hand and placement of a foot. They follow an undeviated sequence set by centuries of tradition. And yet the purpose is not to repeat the pattern mindlessly but to train the senses and awareness to be fully present and vigilant in every moment.
Like taiji, bicycling is a stillness in motion activity; and like taiji, it repeats patterns intentionally. Part of the reason for this is to internalize—habituate—the mechanics. But ultimately, the goal is to move into that state where action and interaction with the body, the bike, and the environment become one breathing dance. This is the opposite of the boring, anesthetizing effect of ordinary habit.
Cycling and taiji use their repeated sequence of actions to create habits and to challenge our need for entertainment. They want us to form habits so we don’t have to think about what we’re doing. Then they force us to face the simplicity and familiarity of the repeated sequence in order to confront the surface chatter of our minds and our incessant need for distraction. They actually dare us to be bored, hoping that we will wake up instead.
They are like the Zen practice of meditating in front of a blank wall.
But neither a bike nor the taiji forms are necessary. Stillness in motion can be practiced anywhere, at any time, doing anything, or nothing at all. In the end, it is the mind becoming still that lifts motion—any action—into an unforgettable experience. More to the point, it is our presence—mindful, awake, attentive—that changes any experience, whether an entirely new one or an often repeated one, into something transformative.
If I grow tired or bored of riding the same route, I can, of course go another way. But I can also treat this as a sign that I’ve slipped into a kind of sleepwalking riding, waiting for the world around me to show me something new that will entice me to wake up and pay attention.
My taiji teacher would have called this getting stuck halfway through the habit process. “Repetition is only the beginning,” I can hear him say. “For it to have value, you have to stay present.”
New route or old, good weather or bad, in company or solitude, with music or silence, it’s all just window dressing. Being here is the key.
Being here is the gift.