Bike to Allaire, Part 3: Brainspace

April 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

Forced Mindfulness

I watched a TED talk awhile ago by Andy Puddicombe about mindfullness, being present in the moment. You can watch the whole thing here. This guy got so stressed out that he quit his degree and went to the Himilayas to become a monk, so you know, he seems pretty trustworthy.

It’s … about stepping back, seeing the thought clearly, witnessing it coming and going, emotions coming and going without judgment, but with a relaxed, focused mind.

He challenges his listeners to remember the last time they sat and did nothing for 10 minutes – not waiting for a train or trying to fall asleep, not traveling somewhere or accidentally zoning out, but actually not intending to do anything, just pausing and watching the brain move. It was an interesting thought, and I definitely couldn’t remember the last time I actively did this (have I ever..?) so I decided to give it a try.

It was past 9pm in the office and I was (clearly) distracted anyhow, so I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling … my brain zipped back and forth, to the work I had to do, the people in my life, the errands I needed to run… but instead of trying to control it or streamline the thought to a solution, I just looked at it, recognized it. Hey thought! Yup, you’ve got a lot of shit to do. Oh, you seem to be stressed about that. Yes, you should call that person at some point..A the end of the ten minutes, I had a feeling of “welp, those are all just things.” I had a far better understanding of what was actually dominating my brainspace and the new feeling that just existing, that’s it, was okay.

It’s tough in modern society not be distracted, much less actually mindful. I’m an action person – what’s the problem? What can I do to solve it? What can I do to maximize this time right now? – and the iPhone, laptop, and iPad Mini combination is downright lethal to mindfulness (not to mention the cars and people zipping by my office window and the people walking in and out of the office randomly demanding my time). Having a moment of decompression, not even the full 10 minutes, can put the stops on whatever anxiousness or stress I’m feeling and help to direct my energy more efficiently and with more forethought.

This of course, was like two months ago. Before my bike ride, I’d reverted almost wholly back to my not so natural, but definitely dominant fast-paced, phone-checking self.

Enter nine hours of biking, 5 hours of walking, and three of staring at a fire. Here’s a sample of what totally unrestricted brain meandering might read like:

Get the Cliff bar… got it. This is delicious. I should get a water bottle holder thing. Right on Yellowbrick, right on Yellowbrick, nope not Yellowbrick. [daydream about hammocks on the beach]. This would be a good teambuilding activity. We should do more team building. [brainstorm teambuilding activities]. I’m awesome. This is awesome! I wonder if I’m going to get a sunburn. Mental note to read about skin cancer rates. Mental notes to get more books about science.

It’s not a novel concept, but I was just zenning out the whole time. There was nothing I could do about anything work related, so I had no reason to check my e-mail. I still had cell service, but I ignored work texts and used my phone only for directions. I smiled at the sun. I cursed the wind. I slumped next the fire and had to make hard choices about which stick I was going to burn next and whether I’d be happier if I got up to pee now, or in ten minutes. Other than the few moments of annoyance about my 2nd flat tire, having to hop a fence on our hike, and crazy New Jersey drivers, it was an entire weekend of mindfulness. An entire weekend of recognizing what my brain was doing, of just being, because there was nothing else but to be.

2013-03-30 12.31.51

Your eyeballs will be experiencing this and then some more stuff like this.

Here’s a snippet from the NYT on brain downtime:

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

My bikeride was a lovely detour from this day to day distraction filled existence and I clearly need to go out and do that more often, but I also realized that I need to make room for more mindfulness in my daily routine too.

Two minutes per minute

Did I mention that the whole endeavor felt like it was forever? In a previous post I wondered at how many posts I could write about this one weekend bike trip, mostly as joke, but it did get me thinking – I had so many new experiences packed into a day and half that it felt like it could have been a week. Week long bike tours to new places feel like a month. It’s the stretching perception of time as your brain works hard to take in a new or novel experience. From NPR in an interview with Neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine:

“…when you drive to your new workplace for the first time and it seems to take a really long time to get there. But when you drive back and forth to your work every day after that, it takes no time at all, because you’re not really writing it down anymore. There’s nothing novel about it.”

That may be because the brain records new experiences — especially novel and exciting experiences — differently. This is even measurable. Eagleman’s lab has found that brains use more energy to represent a memory when the memory is novel.

And it’s true – there were times on my bikeride to Allaire when I thought “man, this flat is going to have me coming in at sunset, I’ve been biking forever!” but on the way back, I subconsciously logged landmarks and scenery, but mostly wasn’t paying as much attention and felt like the whole endeavor took about the right time.

When people say, “wow, I feel like college was just yesterday” or “man, that was a year ago? feels like yesterday” I usually think, “maybe you should go do something different.” I can’t remember the last time I felt that way. More often, I think “that felt like a trillion years ago, I can’t believe that was just last year!”

In the last nine years, I’ve moved 14 times (I count a move as living someplace for more than a month) and lived with 33 different people. I was terrified to make a three year commitment to a job because it meant I’d have to really challenge myself to keep trying new things, to keep confusing my brain’s perception of time so that when I’m 80, I feel like I’ve lived to 200.

Touring Bike

Any new scenery is good scenery.

No turning back

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and peanuts at the ballgame – a lot of this weekend was downright hard. I hadn’t been on a fully loaded bike in awhile and spent the first ten miles freaking out about the chances of catching a pothole and a wayward breeze at the same time and being thrown into traffic. We got terribly lost on our hike, my ankle hurt like hell, and a member of our group was getting more surly at every mile. We couldn’t get the dog to swim across the river. I was starving and dirty and cold while I waited for my chili to heat up at camp. I was biking home trying to beat a rainstorm on day 2.

2013-03-30 16.24.27

Cookie saying, “nuh-uh, you’re going to have to find another way
home on this little bushwhack of yours

The great thing about overnight bikerides? By the time it starts getting hard, it’s too late to turn back. It’s just you, your troubles, and your brain. Between the three of you, you have to figure out how to react to the situation because quittin’ aint’ an option.

It’s these moments that remind me that any thought that isn’t “this is how I’m going to fix it,” or “whatever, I’d rather be happy!” is useless.

So after my second flat, I just sat down and read my book in the sun until I felt like moving on. Whatever, I’d rather be happy!

2013-03-30 08.35.21

Me, my brain, and my troubles sitting down to read about germs
and eat a Cliff Builder bar.

Bottom line: The whole weekend was a wonderful reminder and testament to what our brains can do if we give them the time to do it.


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§ 4 Responses to Bike to Allaire, Part 3: Brainspace

  • This is why we so what we do pal! Not everyone understands!

  • Bike to Work says:

    I like your description of how we experience time.

    Also, a really random question: do you ride in the Vibram shoes, or are those just for relaxing off the bike? I know I guy who rides gravel grinders with Vibram 5-Fingers and platform pedals. Everyone else I know swears by clipless, but I’m intrigued.

    • facepalmword says:

      I have platforms with a very loose to strap (came with the bike) that I don’t use. It wasn’t a conscious choice, I just got the pedals with the bike & they seemed fine so I haven’t changed them. I generally ride with whatever shoes I have on; Keens, Toms, Vibrams – whatev. What do you ride with?

      • Bike to Work says:

        I use platforms and whatever shoes I have on, with a few exceptions. I consciously choose not to ride in shoes with no traction (bye-bye, leather-soled loafers) or that are not strapped/tied to my feet (no ballet flats). If I want to wear shoes like that, I throw them in a bag and switch at work. Also, the toe loop on my Chacos makes my big toe fall asleep after about 10 miles.

        My FAVORITE though, are my mom’s vintage Red Wing boots from the 70’s. The tread fits perfectly on the pedals that came with my ’79 Schwinn, making them feel closer to clipless. Best of both worlds!

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