I am one with the Force…the Force is one with me

I reorganized my DVD collection last week and ran a Star Wars marathon first thing afterwards. To paraphrase Master Yoda, very fortunate I was to have a partner whose interests in entertainment closely matched my own! Seriously, it was a rare occasion when she was interested in a movie that I just did not care to see…and vice versa. She was into sci fi before there was a sci fi channel…she was into fantasy/dungeons and dragons before the abundance of board games and Game of Thrones knock offs….she was into alternative history and historical fiction…the list goes on. So we built a Star Wars collection…and Star Trek…and Stargate (SG-1 and Atlantis)…and Harry Potter…and Game of Thrones…and Tolkien…and….

Anyway, one of the last Star Wars films we saw together was “Rogue One.” Like the rest of the franchise, this movie disappoint me it did not! Sorry…so easy it is to slip into Yoda-isms! What I’m trying to get at is the abundance of quotable lines from the various movies…”Luke, I am your father…”…”So this is how democracy dies…with thunderous applause….”…Don’t believe me? Re-watch the movies and keep score every time a quote pops up you have seen on social media or in everyday language usage. I dare you, because…”I find your lack of faith…disturbing!”

What struck me in Rogue One was not so much a quote but a mantra…”I am one with the Force. The Force is one with me.” Here is this blind character in the midst of a heavy firefight, calming his mind and summoning inner strength by chanting this mantra before he goes out to try and turn the tide of the battle. Impressive to me because I’ve seen it before on the road…and I use the same Jedi mind trick myself…maybe not that exact quote, but….

Yes, I ride a lot. And when I do ride, I cover a pretty decent amount of mileage. Last year, I went on exactly 200 rides outdoors, covering 9634 miles, for an average of just over 48 miles each ride. That is fairly consistent with what I have done in the past, the difference is primarily that I went out more frequently last year than in years past. My wife used to marvel at how I kept from getting bored out of my mind, and how I could will myself to the finish. She, herself, loved the IDEA of exercise. She loved how she LOOKED in her matching kit on her aero, high-end carbon bike. She loved the admiration she got from students and colleagues when she would come back and tell them that she had knocked off 25 miles on a fundraiser ride for charity over the weekend. But she hated the work! I couldn’t get her to ride indoors at all, and rarely would she climb onto the treadmill (just in winters a couple of times each week because it was too cold to walk outdoors!) Then she witnessed first-hand one day how I did it…how many of us do it, actually.

In June of 2015 we had just finished our second PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan annual week long bike tour) that covered 425 miles over six days and immediately hightailed it to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a two day bike tour for the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge network. These facilities are intended for usage by cancer patients and their families while undergoing treatment at a local hospital. This was a cause very dear to my wife, as she had lost almost every female in her family – grandmother, mother, aunts – to cancer. She had just been diagnosed as BRCA-1 positive and was undergoing prophylactic surgeries to eliminate the threat (or so we thought). How could I not do this ride? It was “just” another 180 miles – that started the day after the 425 mile trip had ended! But…rather than tent like we had been, there was to be an overnight stay in the dorms of a university that graciously donated usage and meals to the American Cancer Society for rider benefit. Besides, as my wife pointed out, she would be far from bored on the trip…while I was escaping Hershey with the other riders, she would take the opportunity to explore her own version of “the happiest place on earth!”…the Hershey chocolate factory and museum!

We arrived late Friday night, checked in, and I fell asleep immediately. The next day, we went to the starting line and picked up the final map for the day, filled my water bottles, grabbed a few snacks, and she started writing dedications on a huge banner that was to be kept in the Philadelphia Hope Lodge for the following year. Tears rolled down her face as she wrote the names of all her loved ones. The morning was already emotional…it was chilly, raining, and a strong wind coming in from the east….I would say it was a classic Nor’easter, but it was the last week of June, for crying out loud! Regardless, how could I be a wimp while she was grieving her losses? Then we (the riders) were each handed a personal note. People who were currently staying at Hope Lodges had written personal thank you notes to each one of the riders, describing what the Hope Lodge network meant to them. Oh, God! Now I was crying reading this note from a woman about her fight to keep her husband with her and her children. No way on this earth was I stopping or abandoning the ride after such an emotional send off.

I’d like to say that it got better. It didn’t. According to my Garmin, the average temperature that late June day was 44 degrees (we were headed into the mountains). The wind speed was a steady 15mph out of the north east (guess which direction we were headed into?). There was over 5000 feet of climbing in my 101+ miles that day, and the rain was constant and heavy. I had to change my kit in Rehrersburg, after meeting my wife there for a brief rest, lunch, and a warm-up in the car.

She tried talking me into abandoning and letting her SAG me and a friend I had made along the way into Kutztown. I was shivering like Han Solo coming out of the carbon freeze, and I was just as soaked! She told me that most people were abandoning on the road, or had decided to take the shorter route to Kutztown (a 67 mile route was available, but most hard core cyclists wanted the 101 mile route due to the climbing and the distance). There were less than 30 of the more than 150 century loop riders that opted to stay with the original plan. She told me I had nothing left to prove to anybody…that she was beyond impressed when she saw me motor up a Cat 2,  8% grade climb, leaving everybody in my wake while her little Kia Soul struggled at times to do the same climb! Sobbing and shaking, I told her I couldn’t. How could I? Her family didn’t call it quits midway thru treatment. The woman I got the note from wasn’t calling it quits. And she, my badass, beautiful wife wasn’t calling it quits when she got her diagnosis. No way was I giving up. Besides, I had learned a trick from this guy, who was just pulling in to the Rehrersburg church we were at for the moment.

This man was an oncologist. He was of Indian descent, and he also had been doing the 101 mile route. I had passed him twice that morning. I stopped for a break each time afterwards and he passed me by while I was recovering and re-orientating my priorities. I noticed each time I passed that he was chanting. The third time I caught up to him, I pedaled alongside for a while and struck up a conversation. He said that the mantra he was chanting helped him to maintain a cadence, focus on something other than the wind, rain, and pain of climbing, and helped him maintain a connection to the conscious circle of humanity he was pedaling for. Wow. Being relatively new to the art of long distance cycling, I thought I would give it a try myself.

Prior to this, I had been using music to get me thru the longer rides. I have a custom built 240 GB iPod that is full of music (yes, I own all of the CD’s that are on it!) and I piped this through a speaker on the front of my bike, or had earbuds. As I rode more frequently and on roads that were more heavily traveled by cars, I quickly realized this was a dangerous practice that interfered with my ability to hear/notice approaching traffic. The rhythm/cadence my doctor friend was speaking of, I was well-familiar with, of course. This practice goes back millennia to military usage – the Romans were particularly adept at using music and rhythm to pound out a cadence for the oarsmen as they entered a naval battle. There is an abundance of sea chanteys and railroad work songs that were used by workers to unify their efforts and complete tasks. Of course, in modern times, even The Big Bang Theory acknowledged the usefulness when Sheldon helped Penny improve her manufacturing efforts for her “Penny Blossom” hair accessories!

What I didn’t have, though, was a mantra of my own. Or did I? Just before Rehrersburg, knowing that my wife was waiting for me there, I applied this lesson. You may recall that my mother had read to me “The Little Engine That Could” as a child while I was overcoming a crippling leg injury. For some reason, “I think I can, I think I can” popped into my head as I was trying to figure out what to use. At that point in my life, I was aware of Buddhist teachings, the practice of mindfulness, etc., but had not yet begun to apply them myself. This was as close as I could come. So I started with each rise on the road. Each time the wind came up in velocity. And as I greeted her for lunch after 10 miles of this, I knew it was working. So I explained to her what my plan was…she wasn’t going to let me leave without one, as the wind and rain were not letting up and my shivering had her concerned.

She pulled over about every 7 miles to wait for me along the 34 miles to our overnight destination. It worked. The length of the phrase matched perfectly with my cadence/pedal stroke. The reminder of making it through impossibly difficult times helped focus my energy to overcome the present circumstances and calm my mind. It was the single roughest day in the saddle I have EVER known….but it ended well, and she was able to observe me doing it.

I believe anyone can apply this lesson, but it is important to understand what and how it is useful for, and then discover your own mantra/chant that works for you.

First, the mantra must connect with your breath. If the mantra is too long, it will not help on a task that is so physically demanding that the breath is significantly strained and shorter than the phrase.  “I think I can” is still my go to for climbing hills and mountains. It matches my cadence and breath intake/output very well, and the syllabic stress matches my pedal mashing tendencies!

Second, the mantra must focus and calm your mind. If you are struggling for words, or if the mantra is too complicated or not suited to the task, then you will allow the circumstances surrounding your task to overwhelm you. I have a couple of chants I like to use depending on the situation on the road. Earlier today, for example, I was approaching an area where I have been chased multiple times by a dog whose owner who allows it to run free. I have the dog on video, snapping at my heels, and have confronted the owner about this with little support or concern on his part. It has gotten to the point that I have found alternative ways of circumventing this property to avoid the conflict. Today, however, it was cold (26 degrees F) and windy (10 mph) and I wasn’t in the mood to compromise. I found myself tensing up as I came within a mile of the property. When I noticed I started having an imaginary confrontation with the owner, I checked my mind and convinced myself to not buy trouble before it happened, so I started chanting “Om shanti om” (a call for universal peace) to myself. Yes, it matched my cadence and breath. It helped me focus on what I wanted and off from what I was afraid might happen. And it worked. Not saying the dog was inside because some Buddhist deity heard my prayer. But what the chant DID do was help me relax and enjoy the ride. The tension in my shoulders lessened. The death grip on the handlebars eased. My breath came back under control, and I was able to enjoy the ride.

Finally, I believe as my oncologist friend does, that a mantra should help you connect with the conscious circle of humanity. This is really important for me. It is very easy as a cyclist to get pissed off at motorists who zoom past you with a foot to spare…who call you vile and filthy names due to your kit or the fact that you slowed them down for 0.5 seconds…who roll coal…if I were to respond to each of these instances, I would be lowering myself to a baser level, and increase the anxiety I feel. I get to go outdoors and ride my bike because I want to. Not everybody can say that. I do feel that there is hope for the human race, even though we are apparently going through some rough times as a species right now! I saw a meme yesterday that said “The best way to ease communication between you and another is to realize that many people are just born stupid!” Funny…not true…but funny. However, many of us are indeed ignorant of others’ needs and as a cyclist, I hope to change that dialogue.

As a reminder, I was nearing home late yesterday afternoon. It had been a particularly gloomy day, but warm for January (40 degrees F). It was not dusk, but, of course, I had all my lights going…my helmet was on…and I was wearing bright clothing with a reflective vest outside my jacket. Pedaling down the road, I was feeling pretty good. First ride on my cyclo cross bike in a while as my dog has been seriously ill and our roads were just recovering from a heavy ice storm. It was a flat stretch of the road, so I start chanting “Om mani padme om” to increase my cadence (wanted to make it home before dark) and express a oneness with the world I had felt during the ride. Then it happened.

A red SUV made a turn shortly after I had and sped up to overtake me. About a quarter mile down the road, I noticed it pulled off into the driveway of an abandoned house and the driver got out quickly. I’m thinking “Crap!” My mantra instantly changes to “Om shanti om” as I have been assaulted before by drivers before who overtake me, pull off the road, and attempt to pull me off the bike simply for impeding their desired speed. Just before I get there, however, the driver starts applauding. I cocked my head and thought “Sarcasm?” Nope. She and her passenger, a young girl who she was taking out for a practice drive on her learners permit, shouted out “Thank you so much for making yourself visible and noticeable!”

Faith in humanity restored. I am one with the Force. The Force is one with me!

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Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

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