Buddha on a Bike: Desert Dharma
By Dharma Doc, the Bicycling Eco-Hermit
I recently returned, maybe survived would be a more accurate word, from my first, and maybe last, bicycle tour. This one was out to the Chihuahuan Desert of far southwest Texas. A desert I’ve been to many times, grew up near, and periodically return to for spiritual renewal. I have traveled across her by car, motorcycle, truck, and now on bicycle. I have done a Native American Vision Quest, camped, and hiked on her.
Over the last several decades I have returned to her every few years for cleansing, renewal, to charge my “spiritual batteries,” and to regain my perspective on my life. I draw energy from her. Her wildness both calls to me and intimidates me—and quickly brings me to my knees. On her, I step out of my everyday life to recalibrate and get perspective. In her, I can breathe again. She is enduring, seemingly endless, where you can see far off on the horizon in her daytime; incredible stars, moon, and heavens in her nights. Simplicity at the extreme: where life is quickly brought down to its basics: survival. Being out on her, directly, intimately experiencing her, she can be harsh and unrelenting, even as her desert flowers can be exotic and beautiful. She gives no quarter; takes no prisoner. You must play by her rules, or you won’t play at all. She will take you out in a heartbeat. Natural Selection is her henchman: cold, swift, and deadly as a rattlesnake bite. No mercy. Being out on her for me is very much like a sesshin: relentless, renewing, and not kind. A bicycle tour, especially out on this desert is a metaphor for life and for our Zen journey.
I only made 160 miles, far shorter than I’d planned. Was trying for Del Rio (423 mi), maybe even New Orleans (1,111 mi), or Austin as a compromise. I didn’t make either of them. Well, I made them, but not on my bicycle. My limited lung capacity, which has always plagued me in doing long-distance, strenuous exercises like running and bicycling, coupled with a 4,500 ft altitude, mountains, headwinds, and weight of gear, bike, and myself, was just more than I could do, even with over two years of preparatory training. This was my 74th birthday present to myself, so age may have also been a contributing factor. Here I am getting ready to head out from El Paso, my starting point:
A bicycle tour is a metaphor for life with its ups (hills and mountains), downs, headwinds, and level roads. The uphills for me on the bike are often grueling as I struggle to get enough air (breathe). Headwinds only add to the difficulties. Metaphorically, uphills and headwinds are the challenges in our lives. The hard times in our lives when we struggle to keep going or sometimes, just survive or hold on. On a bike, the downhills are exhilarating as you rocket down them, depending on their slope, or just glide/coast down: no effort, no sweat, no work. You are thankful for the tailwinds that help push you along in the direction you want to go. Even those flat, level stretch can be wonderful.
On these level, flat stretches, and even carrying a lot of weight, the level places can be blessings. True they can be boring where nothing much seems to be happening, where we seem to be stuck, no progress being made. Like a long, seemingly endless desert highway: a mirage that keeps receding as we pedal toward it. We peddle and peddle, going somewhere, going nowhere. Just peddling. These flat, level stretches can also be relaxing. Where we are just cruising along, enjoying the scenery, able to hear the birds singing, smelling the flowers. The “level places” in our lives can be like this: nothing much seems to be happening; we are just chopping wood and carrying water, trying to remember to be mindful in each moment. Just doing zazen.
For me, a bicycle tour is also a metaphor for my Zen journey. On my many training rides before my trip, I often thought, gees there are so many hills to climb going this way. Coming back should be great because it will have a lot of downhills. Wrong! It seemed like when I came back the same way I had come, there were just as many uphills again that I had to climb. What the f***!? Likewise, with headwinds. Going, I’d think, gees, this this is hard, but boy, coming back it should be all tailwinds pushing me home. Again, wrong! I can’t tell you how many times on returning, the wind had betrayed me. Surprise! It was headwind coming back too! How can this be? Did the wind switch around and start blowing in the opposite direction? Zen for me has been a lot of work: headwinds and uphill struggles, with only very brief downhill runs. And then those long runs where nothing seems to happen. I’m just sitting there, doing zazen. These are the level places.
What great Dharma did the Desert teach me on my bike tour? (Maybe, dharma, little-d, is more appropriate, but go with me.) As I was bicycling up yet another of her mountains in her thin desert air, I asked myself many times, “Where’s the spiritual here?” Is all this pain worth it? It was hard, hard work. What words of wisdom did her winds whisper to me as I battled her headwinds, her mountains, her thin air? She was silent. She smiled as I peddled along. An enigmatic, smiling mystery. Her wisdom would come, but not in bits and pieces though. It was in the mesquite and cacti, the many desert plants and animals, in her wind. They all knew.
Here’s her secret, her Dharma: I keep coming back because in so doing, I grow! I strip off more and more onion layers of “stuff”, becoming more and more translucent and transparent. Its Dharma is not in the pieces, it is in the Gestalt, the whole of the experiences—and you can’t know that until you’ve done them, until it’s all over. Then one day it hits you, “My God, what an adventure that was!”
Right now, I am processing through endorphin withdrawal that comes when you undertake a huge physically demanding adventure like this. Hikers call it a post-hike depression. Marathon runners, post-marathon depression. When you are pouring all that energy into a physical activity like bicycle touring, day after day long rides, the training, all the effort getting ready, then the doing, it keeps the endorphins flowing. It is like an addiction. And, when you stop the drug (high energy activity), the endorphins drop off, and you go through withdrawal symptoms. That’s where I am right now. Working my way through these. A lot of anger came up yesterday as I settle back into my everyday life: chopping water/carrying wood. Anger is not unusual either. It will pass. Impermanence, acceptance, mindfulness… and the dance goes on.