Zen and the Art of Bike Maintenance

jason straussman, LCSW on Feb 14, 2023 in Mood and Feelings

“The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

I barely survived my first solo bike tour. I traveled up the California Coast with bungee-tied bags and a $40 mountain bike. I was giddy with excitement and brimming with adventure — then the dread set in as I crawled up the first hill. An all-too-familiar voice starting saying, “You’re never going to make it… This is the stupidest idea you have ever had… You’re an idiot... You have no idea what you are doing!”

I was listening to Robert Pirsig’s audiobook Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the time and felt a deep kinship with Pirsig's character. Pirsig’s fictional autobiography is a mindsweeping journey of philosophy, adventure, and a bit of madness. In the book, the main character uses motorcycle maintenance as a doorway into the profundities of life.

While my rickety mountain bike was far from a motorcycle, I couldn’t help but feel I was also learning about life and myself out on the road.

I’ll admit I’m obsessed with cycling and a bit nuts. But my fanaticism continues to be the most practical and transformative way of engaging with therapy and psychology. So today, I’m here to offer some of the lessons I’ve learned on the road in my version of Zen and the art of cycling maintenance.

Mindfulness in Motion

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”

― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Cycling, especially long distances, launches you into the present. My friend likes to joke, “If you stop paying attention, you can daydream off a cliff.” Whether it’s biking through the cliffs of Big Sur or popping over to a local grocery store, biking keeps you locked into the present. It is mindfulness in motion.

Mindfulness and meditation are nothing new, and certainly there are many far more qualified scholars who provide wonderful introductions and even critiques of the Westernized commodification (see Ronald Pursur’s book McMindfulness). While mindfulness and meditation is a complicated subject, as someone who has chronically struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, the best medicine has been to focus less on thoughts/thinking. One method of therapy I incorporate is acceptance and commitment therapy, which teaches that the quicksand of anxiety feeds off of our need to “think.” As the founder of ACT states, “Get out of your mind and into your life.”

If you are like me, you might be saying, “I can’t meditate. I get restless. I can’t focus.” You are not alone. Many find it difficult in the modern world to engage in traditional and spiritual forms of meditation. If I’m realistic with myself, I don’t sit down and do regular meditation. However, I know I can hop on my bike, head up the hill, and zone in almost any day of the week.

I think exercise, biking, running, pottery, painting, and any other engaging activities invite the present. Instead of meditating, I often ask my clients, “Is there anything you like to do where you lose track of time? Where you just get so engrossed you forget to eat or sleep?”

As someone who has benefited immensely from mindful practice, my goal is to help people cultivate or find practices in their life where they can totally immerse themselves. Sometimes this is traditional meditation or maybe it is building D&D storylines. Whatever it might be, biking has helped me “get out of my head and into my life.”

There Are No Shortcuts

Lets talk about the less glamorous aspects of biking. Sometimes it SUCKS. I can’t count the number of times I’ve bargained with the wind that I’ll give up drinking and be a better person if it would just stop blowing. I’ve been close to the point of tears because when you are in the mess, it feels hopeless!

I’ve learned after many trips that there are no shortcuts, and the only way out is through it. When you bike, you have to pedal every mile. The more energy you spend wishing it were over, the more in the mud you get.

The road teaches radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is taking full responsibility for the present. You might hate the moment you are in, and that is okay. I was taught to push down my feelings, to just “get over it.” Radical acceptance has taught me the opposite is true. It is not by trying to bypass my feelings that I overcome them, but by accepting them, softening into them, and dancing with the discomfort.

On one of my trips, I was huffing and puffing and fed up with a day full of riding against the wind. If you’ve ever rode against the wind, you know how frustrating and painful the experience is, and it can really wear down your psyche. While I was stopped for a water break, a man started telling me about his bike trips around the world. “You know I used to believe in going against or with the wind, but then one day in the desert, when I was close to tears, I realized I can go ‘through the wind.’” I thought he was crazy at the moment and prepared myself to drudge through the rest of the miserable day. I figured it was worth trying on the idea, so I imagined myself going through the wind like Moses parting the water. Don’t get me wrong, it was still challenging, but I realized most of the pain came from wanting to make the wind STOP. It’s not like it got physically easier, but the psychological pain of warring against the wind softened, and there were parts of the day I truly enjoyed.

Radical acceptance is self-honesty — accepting the frustration, pain, hurt, anxiety, and opening up to the present experience. In Buddhist practice, it is our fear and anxiety about suffering, not the suffering itself, that causes pain. True, we suffer, but we suffer double when we try to bypass that suffering. And this is a lesson that can only be learned through experience and in the body.

Somatics and Body Trust

The third lesson I’ve learned from biking is how to accept and trust my body. When you are on the road alone, all you have is you. The first 10 days of my ride down the West Coast was full of extreme anxiety and self-criticism. Even though I had been on many trips at this point, it didn’t mean I stopped catastraphizing after every jolt of pain or missed turn. What did happen is that day by day, the voice began to have less and less impact. Over time, the voice became less afraid and became more of a coach, helping me understand and check in about my limits.

Body trust is not a solid state but a conversation. It is dynamic. If you have chronic health issues like me, you’ve had the humbling experience of running up against your limitations often. And many hold much more difficult body experiences than I can ever imagine. I used to believe in “pushing the limits” and “breaking through.” But now I believe it is a rubber band that requires gentleness, stretching, and elasticity.

Yoga first taught me the importance of how to stretch in kind ways. It helped me see my body as a place of possibilities and growth rather than an unruly beast that needed to be tamed. With biking, I used to burnout racing up the first hill. Instead, I take it slow, waiting for the moments when my body feels good and gives me permission to push it.

Body trust is a lifelong process and often more of a moving target than an arrival point. But when I stopped seeing my limitations as enemies and more as messengers, it changed my relationship to my body. The funny thing? I’m capable physically of doing more than I ever imagined possible… and why? Because I trust my body. I know what it feels like to push a little too hard or to come to the end of the day with my full reserves.

Body trust is not a metaphor… I mean actual bodies. These are the trust sites of the self… Whether you believe in a soul or not, our body is how we experience the world. Movement at any level is some of the best therapeutic work you can do.


These are just some of the musings I’ve had while riding my bike, but what about you? Do you have experiences with other activities that have taught you about life? What do your practices look like? Let me know what you think, and happy riding!

jason straussman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Berkeley, CA.

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