Media, Religion & Culture lecturer Johan Roeland is passionate about cycling. Quite a common sport, but with a unique perspective. ‘I know: I should be ashamed, and I am.’
For the past few years, I’ve belonged to a growing and often unloved group of people on the roads: the cyclists. Most of us do it for relaxation or health reasons, but two other motives also play an important role: performance and contemplation. Aren’t the two incompatible? Often, yes, but perhaps not for those who learn how to cycle spiritually.
As with all sports, performance is important in cycling. It’s about pushing your limits: cycling faster, for longer distances, over steeper inclines, and finishing races like Limburgs Mooiste, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and of course, the Ventoux. This performance-focused cycling is encouraged by technology. Strava is an app for cyclists that records how many kilometers you’ve cycled, how many meters you’ve climbed and it monitors your heart rate and carbohydrates burned as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, in principle. But you can also follow other people and comment on their performance. The app records who has cycled the fastest over certain set routes. The fastest man is King of the Mountain (KOM), and the fastest woman is Queen of the Mountain.
I should be ashamed
An app like that brings out the best – and also the worst – inside me. Strava turns individual rides into competitions. I start riding faster, and I’m competitive enough to regularly test my limits trying to earn a ‘KOM’. And that makes me an unpleasant participant in traffic. If I see two people ahead of me cycling side-by-side, then I start ringing my bell like an idiot when I’m still 50 meters behind them. When a car in front of me is driving too slow, then I ride up against its bumper. I should be ashamed of myself, and I am. It’s like the devil is on your heels, and the devil is of course just the urge to perform and to prove yourself.
Cycling can also be a means of reflection
It doesn’t have to be that way. Cycling doesn’t have to be about setting speed records. The surroundings are more than just asphalt, and the wind is more than just resistance. Call it a contemplative manner of cycling, in which the monotonous cadence can generate a meditative state of mind. That helps you focus more sharply on your surroundings, and cycling becomes a means of reflection. You become aware of your environment and part of something larger than yourself – the landscape, nature. We call becoming part of something larger than yourself ‘transcendence’. Add the fact that contemplative cycling is no longer about the performance, but about ‘the road’ itself, and you will understand why I use the concept of ‘spirituality’ to describe this manner of cycling.
Cycling as modern meaning
‘Spirituality’ does not have the implication of modernity that is often associated with cycling. In fact, the contemporary combination of technology, time and performance is often experienced as the antithesis of spirituality. That idea has been especially dominant in the field of sociology for a long time, and can be found in the work of great sociologists such as Max Weber and Peter Berger. However, at the moment they are being reconsidered en masse, because we have noticed that modernity actually creates new forms of meaning, religion and spirituality. Surprisingly enough, these new forms are often combined with everyday activities: cooking, walking, mountaineering, eating, and yes, even cycling. After centuries of muddling with what once provided existence with meaning as a matter of course, spirituality seems to provide a modern alternative to organised religion. It is a way to search for meaning in answers to issues we are confronted with in a modern age: stress, insufficient calm and space, pressure to perform, and the lack of transcendence. And that search exists by grace of much of what that same things that modernity has brought us.
You only see it once you understand it
However, it appears that for practiced Zen masters, the contrast between contemplation and performance is not necessarily that sharp. In fact, exceptional performance is actually the result of absolute contemplation – a form of contemplation which, paradoxically enough, is not concerned with performance.
In Zen and the art of archery, author Eugen Herrigel tells about his long apprenticeship in another sport: archery. In the beginning, he did it the way that any reasonable person would do: practice, mastering the technique and training the body. But all of his training failed to achieve any success. The master’s analysis was: ‘The right art is purposeless, aimless. The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.’ In order to learn how to shoot a bow, he had to let go.
In the same vein, I imagine that there is a contemplative manner of cycling that will allow you to cycle fast for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s clear that I’m not there yet. For the moment, every time I climb onto a bicycle, I have to choose between performance and contemplation. I’m most content in the contemplative mode, but I regularly find myself selling my soul to the devil, because that KOM still has my buddy Kees’ name on it, and I can’t just let that be.
Johan Roeland is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Religion & Culture at the VU Amsterdam. He has published on religious change in the Netherlands, lived religion, religion and (social) media, and religion and popular culture, in periodicals including the Journal of Contemporary Religion, Social Compass, International Journal of Practical Theology and European Journal of Cultural Studies.