The Wisdom Project

Zen and the art of bicycling to work

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

Story highlights

Driving to work has been shown to increase levels of stress, anxiety, depression, back pain and blood pressure

Biking forces you to be present and aware of your surroundings, and in touch with deeper meanings of life

CNN  — 

No possession of my childhood bestowed more freedom to me than my bicycle.

The circumference of my life on any given day increased tenfold when I traded in pedestrianism for pedals. On weekdays, I would ride 2 miles each way to school in Baltimore on my beloved Orioles-colored orange and black Team Murray BMX. On weekends, I tore it up it up with a Goonies-like tribe of friends taking over the neighborhood with our wheels and collective imagination. Occasionally, I would rise before the dawn and take long, thrilling solo rides through nearly empty city streets that smelled like fresh bread, and liberty.

When my wife and I moved to New York, I commuted to work on a Dahon Boardwalk D8 folding bicycle that fit under our tiny dining room table in our tiny East Village studio. I pedaled across the narrow waist of Manhattan island though Greenwich Village and up along the Hudson River, parking it under the desk of my cubicle at Random House.

Fifteen years later, I’m once again commuting to work on two wheels, through the increasingly bike-friendly streets of Atlanta, this time on a Bianchi Strada (Italian for “street”). It has been the fun and fitness combination I hoped it would be, at least until I was hit by a pick-up truck that came to a stop on top of my back tire. I was scratched and bruised, but unthwarted. The driver took me home, where I got on another bike and headed back toward work.

I’ve had other bikes over the years. One had three speeds and a banana seat. Another had 10 speeds and curved, dropped racing handlebars that made me feel like a character in the film “Breaking Away.” I still have the scratched-up beast of a Specialized Hard Rock I bought in college that looks like it has bagged the peaks of San Francisco, kicked up the dust of desert trails in Arizona and completed several 40-mile tours through all five boroughs of New York City – because it has. It was ready to roll in when my Strada was laid up after the accident.

I don’t look like a cyclist. I’m not lean, tough or cool. I don’t wear skin-tight bike wear, use a messenger bag or even go very fast. I’ve never owned a bike that costs more than $800. I don’t know much about the history, brand or mechanics of bicycles. My repair abilities conclude with adjusting my seat, popping a chain back into place and fixing the occasional flat. And yet my love of these mechanical marvels runs deep.

I love that on a bike you are passenger as well as engine. I love that it is five times more efficient than walking when you compare the energy consumed to travel each mile. It’s good, clean adult fun, connected to the land, the air and weather.

I love that biking is good for my body and the environment. Cars aren’t just a major contributor to global warming (75% of carbon monoxide pollution in the US, according to the EPA, and 27% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions according to the Environmental Defense Fund), but bad for your personal health as well. Research has tied driving to work to increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, neck and back pain and heart attacks. And whether you’re in a car, train or bus, we know the life-shortening effects of too much sitting and not getting enough cardiovascular exercise (such as, say, biking).

I encourage you to experiment with a bike commute. Borrow or rent a bike, helmet, lights and lock if you don’t yet own the only three things you need. Then plot out a route and see how long it takes you and how it feels to ride alongside cars. I have three routes I take, for variety, and they evolved in the first few months to maximize speed and safety. My 7-plus mile commute takes me about 45 minutes each way, though I’m getting increasingly faster as my legs get in shape. Taking the subway took me about 35 minutes, the car closer to 30 but could spike depending on traffic. About 50% of my commute is on a dedicated bike line or protected path. The more of us that bike to work, the more bike-friendly streets our home cities will build. Having a gym at work where I can leave sweaty clothes is a tremendous perk in the summer, but don’t let a simple problem like lack of laundry service be your reason not to join the revolution, bicycle comrades.

If you live too far to commute to work, maybe you can bike partially – connecting to public transportation. Or bike before work, or make a new routine of early morning weekend rides. Are there errands you run or places you go on the weekends that can be reached on two wheels instead of four? There is no reason to deny yourself this fun, healthy, ecological and inexpensive mode of transportation.

Holy spokes

My favorite side benefit of my commute is how mindful riding forces me to be — present and aware of my surroundings, and even in touch with deeper meanings of life.

“The bike … teaches us to be aware of when we are overworking or cruising comfortably, when all we need to do is apply a little more effort, and when it’s time to make a shift,” writes Nick Moore in “Mindful Thoughts for Cyclists: Finding Balance on Two Wheels,” a profound and delightful pocket-sized book that encourages a Zen-like acceptance to biking challenges. “Gears also remind us that simply having more doesn’t necessarily make things easier. As with so much in life, it ain’t what you got, but how you use it.”

The wheel is not only one of the great (and literal) turning points in human evolution, but a metaphor that ties us all together. Our life is a circle that begins and ends with our existence. Every year is a cycle of seasons in weather, farming and sports. Watches, planets, washing machines, violence and businesses run on cycles. History repeats itself. Even fortune spins upon a wheel.

Biking, as fun as it is, also requires a heightened level of awareness, mindfulness and living in the moments that complements a Buddhist practice. “As in yoga, maintaining a steady, focused gaze ahead aids concentration,” Moore writes. “Fix your eyes on a spot on the road about a bike’s-length ahead, and what lies beyond ceases to exist, or matter.”

Two tired?

If there are two things you are keenly aware of while riding, it’s hills and bad weather. Most bike commuters don’t look forward to either, even if they are opportunities for increased exercise, perseverance and meditative awareness.

“Mindfulness requires us to tune into one thing – usually our breathing,” Moore writes. “Happily, this is also the key to riding uphill, so every climb can truly become a meditation.”

The bigger the hill, the greater the gain. First your body works hard as you try to expand your horizon and then the exertion is doubly rewarded with a new view, or perspective, from the top.

Gliding downhill requires even more awareness as you recapture the fear and fun of taking a calculated risk. “To descend mindfully is to cross the magical threshold from simply riding the road to reading it,” Moore writes. Going fast requires all your wits, even being able to predict what’s about to happen.

There is Zen practice in accepting whatever comes on your ride: hills, wind (aka “invisible hills”), rain, cold, heat, a flat tire.

Riding in bad weather requires added concentration and safety accommodation, but also a specific joy that recalls childhood summers. When I greet fellow bike commuters during a downpour, we are both usually grinning.

Hot and cold temperatures are no reason to avoid riding either, just the added preparation of gear and water. “There is no such thing as bad weather,” said English guidebook pioneer Alfred Wainwright, “only unsuitable clothing.”

Even flat tires – that scourge of the city commute – are opportunities to consciously turn the frustration of that moment into an acceptance. It’s also a lesson in problem solving, whether it’s a repair or just getting home. I recently got bent out of shape one morning when I had a flat before I left the house, but the antidote to that frustration was riding my back-up bike.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. – Japanese proverb

As a kid, I wiped out on my bike too often to recall. I once flipped over my front tire riding into a chain I didn’t see at night. Another time, I dove straight off a 10-foot cliff in a city park, my chest landing in the handlebars and knocking the wind out of me long enough to see the tunnel vision of passing out just before finally catching by breath.

In college, I once wiped out on a patch of gravel, leaving a foot-long gash on my arm. More recently my wheels slipped on a patch of golf ball-sized sycamore seeds and I landed on my ribs which took weeks for the sharp pain to abate.

As a kid I was hit by cars twice while on my beloved BMX, neither seriously. Thirty-three years have passed since I was hit by another vehicle, when the driver of that pickup plowed into me and my Bianchi. Refusing to accept fault or the cost of my repairs the driver told me I should pay and “chalk it up for a life lesson” in being more careful.

He’s wrong about fault, in my opinion, but he’s right about the life lesson. I’m lucky (and so is he) that I was not seriously hurt, and that I only walked away with a refresher course in awareness. I need to pay fuller attention while sharing the road with cars, many of which are controlled by drivers who are not paying full attention, often failing to signal a turn or distracted by the tiny computers in their hands instead of watching out for bicyclists.

“Paying attention is one of the underlying feelings of mindfulness,” Moore writes. “Focusing on the present moment – the here and now – is the hook on which the practice ultimately hangs. And it is never more critical than when you’re riding in traffic … engaging eyes, ears and instincts.”

‘The bicycle is the noblest invention’ – William Saroyan

When I drive a car, I’m usually moving faster than my bike but I’m also shut off from the world, disengaged with my surroundings. In a city “there is so, so much life that cannot be sensed through a windshield,” wrote Daniel Behrman in “The Man Who Loved Bicycles.”

Public transportation has its conveniences, but also unwanted service delays and often the sour moods of fellow passengers. On my bike, I never curse bad traffic, never miss a train or get stuck on one, never need to stop for gas or fret over parking. “Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish,” wrote novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch well before today’s massive traffic logjams in most cities. “Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

I am alone with my thoughts (or a podcast or audiobook through a Bluetooth speaker) while I ride, but I’m also in touch with the temperature, topography and the people around me. The bicycle bookends of my work day are respites from my email and most other cares. My commute is a 45-minute connection with trees, sun and fresh air and my own thoughts, twice a day.

All this biking is helping me become a better person. “Cycling trains the mind, as well as the body, making it stronger and more resilient,” Moore writes. “Overcoming hills, bad weather, mechanical problems, close encounters with cars – all require us to draw on our reserves of fortitude, patience, hardiness and courage. Just as exceeding our muscles’ capacity makes them stronger, so stretching our mental resources help them grow in size and power – a training that equips us for life itself.”

Subscribe to this column

  • Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

    And what I love most about biking to work is how much fun this fitness class and wisdom lesson can be. The ecstasy of a straightway or zipping through a patch of woods is as close as most of us get to flying, or even floating, as only a few square millimeters of a wheel touches the ground.

    “Transcendent,” is how Moore describes going downhill. “The sheer delight of all that free, effortless speed is matched only by the delicious thrill of being on the edge of control and commonsense, which captivated us in childhood and never really leaves us.”