I bit off more than I could chew…almost. A few years back I joined a bike club to satisfy a long held desire to go on longer rides. My first ride with the group started at 30 miles and worked up from there. A bit of a jump for me (that’s an understatement), but I stuck with it. There are advantages to biking in a pack. I felt safe biking on busy roads that felt more like highways and there was always a sense of camaraderie and good cheer for going the distance.
Before joining the bike club I had developed a wonderful routine of biking at some of my favorite parks. I could slow down, speed up, zigzag or carve figures through the air with my arms, but what I loved most was taking in the sights, sounds, smells and the feel of the air rushing by me – pure joy!
Although I didn’t have the same kind of freedom biking in a pack I knew the pay off would be worth it. There was a particular ride that everyone was talking about and we were gearing up for it. Our group was going to follow a route roughly 68 miles long through beautiful countryside in central Washington. The roads would be closed to cars and there would be some designated rest stops along the way.
Unfortunately, on the day of the ride I had a commitment in the morning that I couldn’t change. That meant I wouldn’t be able to ride with my crew and I’d have to start more than an hour late. When I arrived at the event most of the cyclists had left, but there were a few stragglers like me starting to push off, so off I went a bit halfheartedly.
I don’t think I biked a mile before the route turned off the main road and headed up a hill. No big deal, I told myself, we had been on plenty of rides with hills. This was no hill, I was climbing a mountain side that kept getting steeper and steeper and from what I could observe there was no end in sight. I was a mile and a half in with 65 plus miles to go. I decided to get off my bike to catch my breath and access the situation. I watched some young cyclists fly up the hill, some hammered their way up and others groped their way up inch by inch.
As I stood at the edge of the road watching the other cyclists, I heard a voice from inside my head. It said, “You’re gonna need to put your head down and knock this thing out”. And the moment I had the thought, I began to morph into a willful and obedient creature. The visceral response to the thought was instantaneous. Every cell in my body understood what was being asked of me.
Hold on now, take a beat and step back, I told myself. I’m a middle-aged woman on a weekend bike ride, this is not a life or death mission. How do you want to play this out? A pastoral wonderland was waiting for me at the top of the mountain. The answer was simple. I wanted to enjoy every mile of the ride no matter how many times I needed to get off my bike to rest or take in the scenery. I would follow a similar strategy to the one I used biking through my favorite parks.
The scenery lived up to all that was promised. I was in heaven. I stopped several times to pace myself and then hopped back on my bike and took off. When I arrived at one of the designated rest stops, to my delight and surprise, I found my bike crew huddled together chatting and snacking. It was a welcome reunion, but how was it possible that I was able to catch up with them? They had left more than hour earlier than I did and I had made several stops along the way without any hope or intention of catching up with them.
The last 10 miles of the route was a slog. It was late afternoon and hot. The willful creature returned and I didn’t resist. My focus narrowed, my back, head and limbs took on an incongruous shape. No more rests for me, I wanted to be done. I lurched across the finish line, said my goodbyes to the crew and drove home.
Training with my cycling group in preparation for the event gave me the confidence to know I could finish the ride with or without them, even though my technical skills as a cyclist were subpar. Where skill played a role for me in this event was recognizing the pervasive and all consuming nature of my willpower and the ability to set it aside to choose a more pleasant and sustainable path forward. Had my will prevailed early on in the ride, I would have never caught up with my group and my overall experience would have felt more like drudgery than heaven.
Willpower marches ever onward like a good soldier. It is highly valued in our culture, but it requires effort – lots of it. Curiosity, compassion, creativity, free will, reflection and the ability to make distinctions fall to the wayside when we succumb to a willful state. Willpower has its place. The challenge is knowing when it’s beneficial for the task at hand or if it’s causing more harm than good.
Moshe Feldenkrais had his own views on willpower:
” If you rely mainly on your willpower, you will develop your ability to strain and become accustomed to applying an enormous amount of force to actions that can be carried out with much less energy, if it is properly directed and graduated. Both these ways of operating usually achieve their objective, but the former may also cause considerable damage. Force that is not converted into movement doesn’t simply disappear, but is dissipated into damage done to joints, muscles and other sections of the body used to create the effort. Energy not converted into movement turns into heat within the system and causes changes that will require repair before the system can operate efficiently again” ~ Moshe Feldenkrais
This does not mean that we should avoid everything that seems difficult and never use our willpower to overcome obstacles, but that we should differentiate clearly between improvement of ability and sheer effort for its own sake. We shall do better to direct our willpower to improving our ability so that in the end our actions will be carried out easily and with understanding.” – Moshe Feldenkrais
When and how does willpower show up for you in your life? What are some of the physical sensations and behaviors that accompany it? Is it serving you? Is it possible to choose a more sustainable and pleasant path forward? What would that afford you?
by Patrick Kavanagh
My soul was an old horse
Offered for sale in twenty fairs.
I offered him to the Church–the buyers
Were little men who feared his unusual airs.
One said: ‘Let him remain unbid
In the wind and rain and hunger
Of sin and we will get him–
With the winkers thrown in–for nothing.’
Then the men of State looked at
What I’d brought for sale.
One minister, wondering if
Another horse-body would fit the tail
That he’d kept for sentiment-
The relic of his own soul–
Said, ‘I will graze him in lieu of his labour.’
I lent him for a week or more
And he came back a hurdle of bones,
Starved, overworked, in despair.
I nursed him on the roadside grass
To shape him for another fair.
I lowered my price. I stood him where
The broken-winded, spavined stand
And crooked shopkeepers said that he
Might do a season on the land–
But not for high-paid work in towns.
He’d do a tinker, possibly.
I begged, ‘O make some offer now,
A soul is a poor man’s tragedy.
He’ll draw your dungiest cart,’ I said,
‘Show you short cuts to Mass,
Teach weather lore, at night collect
Bad debts from poor men’s grass.’
And they would not.
Tinkers quarrel I went down
With my horse, my soul.
I cried, ‘Who will bid me half a crown?’
From their rowdy bargaining
Not one turned. ‘Soul,’ I prayed,
‘I have hawked you through the world
Of Church and State and meanest trade.
But this evening, halter off,
Never again will it go on.
On the south side of ditches
There is grazing of the sun.
No more haggling with the world….’
As I said these words he grew
Wings upon his back. Now I may ride him
Every land my imagination knew.