“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of the mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
In my imagination, there is an ideal of what it would mean to be perfectly mindful. There is a notion, a concept, of always being in the present – fully aware of what is going on around me, fully conscious, awake, and attentive to my external environment and my internal thoughts and emotions. My therapist tries to tell me that to be always mindful would not be mindful, but that makes little sense to me. As I gradually make my way through my book on mindful self-compassion, I draw encouragement from learning that the moment we become aware that we are not being mindful, we become mindful. (I know that I’ve been writing about this same book for months. I’m a slow reader, okay! It also doesn’t help that I jump from one book to another, then onto a third, then back to the first).
One afternoon, last weekend, I set out for an autumn bike ride along the paved trails near my house.
The fall is one of my favorite seasons, and it always stirs up some very strong memories and emotions. They swirl together fluidly, making it impossible to follow a linear ribbon of thought or recollection. Light and dark, faces and names, places and ideas, happiness, joy, gratitude, nostalgia, pain, loss, guilt, delight, sorrow, shame, laughter, tears… they all mix together like so many disparate ingredients poured into one giant bowl. Flour, sugar, eggs, and milk form a smooth batter, never to be constituent parts again, but richer for their joining.
My mind was fluttering with activity as I pedaled along the tree-lined paths, legs pumping, lungs heaving, and heart nearly bursting with all the glory of that autumn afternoon. When I returned to my apartment, I was in danger of falling into self-criticism for being so mindless. Though I did notice the sparkling rays of the setting sun, the fresh current of the air, and the smell of damp earth, I could not deny that I was largely preoccupied during my ride. As I stretched my sore quads, I turned on the television to a biopic of G.K. Chesterton. Not knowing much about this British author, I continued to watch, and I found myself presented with the above quote. It gave me pause for deeper consideration.
Perhaps there is more to this practice of mindfulness than I am allowing.
In the back of my throat, I can taste the faint but distinct tinge of iron. Marsha peers over her narrow horn-rims and scans the room from left to right. I marvel at her ability to keep the plastic frames from sliding right off the tip of her sweaty nose. Her face is flushed and ruddy, and she is grinning enthusiastically. Demonically. I struggle not to choke on thick mucus and indiscreetly wipe my own nose on my sleeve. My goblet cells are doing their part to protect my fragile mucosa against the hostile, dry air.
As I close my eyes, I focus on the bouncing of the heavy shock of hair against my damp forehead. It marks time like a metronome, synchronized to each turn of my feet. Marsha bellows at us, “Take the bounce out!” and I am suddenly back in high school marching band. Mr. Hernandez is hollering into his megaphone, “Roll-step! Roll-step!” I imagine my upper half floating like a cloud above the line of my waist, my hips and legs moving entirely independently of my trunk. My body is eerily disconnected and yet fluidly whole. My eyes are still closed, and I feel the rickety fan shifting the air irregularly across the room. I look at the clock. I can’t believe there are still another twenty minutes remaining.
It’s my second spin class. Outside of yoga, spinning denotes my first foray into organized, structured exercise since well before I went away to Walden. By the time I began partial hospitalization last Thanksgiving, I was already so sick and hurt that my last participation in sports was a distant memory. July 20th, 2013. That was the date of my final race, a 10K. The trophy for placing third in my age group sits on one of my bookshelves to commemorate the event. What was the price? I can’t say that it was worth it. At the same time, it was a treasured experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. However, I’m not going down that road again. This is different. I’m different.
Eyes gently closed once more, I visualize every strand of muscle cooperating in unison, linked by my vascular and nervous systems. Warm blood pumps from my heart, courses through my arteries into capillary networks, bathing my myocytes. Together, they shorten, squeezing the blood back through my veins, toward my right atrium, and the cycle repeats. My chest expands and collapses with each breath that rattles past my raspy pharynx. My body was made for this movement. Purposeful. I contemplate the word. There is mounting strain as L4, L5, and S1 arch backwards, carrying a bit too much load. I tell my abs to contract, and they oblige, pulling me erect. My shoulders slope down, away from my ears, relaxed. My fingertips rest gently on the handlebars. “Head up!” Marsha calls.
“Some of you could be working haaaaarder!” Marsha roars. She isn’t talking to me, I tell myself. My body knows what it needs. “Don’t cheat yourselves! Give me a turn and a half! A full turn!” she yells. I understand that her role is to motivate and to push the class, but that isn’t why I’m here. Once upon a time, yes, but not tonight. I give the resistance knob a nudge so that I am just driving hard enough to feel a moderate heat in my quads. There’s the suggestion of an ache in my left knee. I’m more sensitive to the plantar fascia on my right foot compared to the left. I take a moment to notice the absence of tenderness in the area of my peroneal tendinitis. I recite to myself the words that my therapist and I settled upon during our many conversations about my anxieties surrounding re-injury and my hyper-acute response to painful stimuli, “I am OK. It is not in my head, but just because I feel something does not mean that I am hurt. I am being moderate and attentive. I am not going to do anything to myself during these forty-five minutes that I won’t recover from. Here is where I build my strength and prove to myself that I am OK.”
After the class, Marsha asks me if I’m a cyclist. I ask her if riding my bike over the summer counts. She asks me if I would contemplate becoming an instructor. I have great form, and they’re looking for people, she tells me. My immediate thought is, Whoa, let’s slow this party wagon down. I want to blurt out, “I have an eating disorder!” Instead, I thank her for her compliment and explain my long recuperation from injuries and need for gradual rehabilitation. I stop myself there, but it’s so much more complicated. I am afraid of exercise. It’s a threat. It’s something that might derail my recovery.
When I return to the car, I am still so hot that I am forced to roll the windows down to keep from fogging the glass, even though it is mid-December. The cool air refreshes my radiating face as I pull away from the parking lot. It feels like hope.