walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Few Thoughts About Perception

I think I mentioned that I somehow managed to wind up +1 pound in February -- which makes either an inauspicious start to my 'lose 30 more pounds' campaign, or sets the bar a little higher and makes the challenge a little more exciting, depending on how you look at it.  Depending, that is, on how you perceive it.

It also makes me feel, well, fat. Which is silly, because one pound of difference is really no big deal, and for all I know simply represents water retention or some similar phenomenon*.

On Sunday, DD wasn't feeling well at all, so I kitted up and rode over to church. Before I left, I glanced at myself in the mirror and decided that I looked generally tubby and embarrassing, and maybe like I was trying too hard. I briefly considered whether or not one can ride in a muumuu, and if so, where one can find a muumuu at ten o'clock on a Sunday morning (preferably en route to church).

Perhaps as a result of my 'meh-tastic' attitude, the ride wasn't one of my best. I failed to inflate my tires before heading out, so ran about thirty PSI low (jeez ._.).  Then, instead of feeling grateful for the extra challenge of the head- and cross-head winds, I spent a great deal of time privately whinging about them. There were more cars out than I had hoped for (one does hope to ride with less traffic from time to time), and for most of the ride I didn't see even one other bike (after church, I saw a few, and even got a friendly wave from a serious-looking roadie on a really nice bike).

Things did eventually pick up, of course -- it's hard to remain grouchy while riding a bike.  Riding gets the blood pumping, something I am convinced that we super-athletic (ha!) cyclists with our ultra-low heart rates need to get adequate blood to the brain ;)  I relished my newfound confidence on Eastern Parkway's climb into the Highlands, which used to be one of the few local climbs that I didn't like (I think, honestly, I used to gun it too hard at the bottom in an effort to maintain my usual riding-in-traffic speed).

That being said, I still felt like a walrus in a body-stocking when I walked into church.

At church, though, one of my fellow handbell ringers said I looked like a pro.  The ringer in question is one of the fittest, leanest people I know, so it was pretty confidence-boosting to hear that from her.  At the time, I choked back a reflexive, 'Nah, I'm too fat to look like a pro' and just kind of basked in the moment and let it percolate (while tooling around on bikes and eating pizza with my friend Robert).

This morning, things of settled into place.

I realized that it all boils down to perception.

Take, for example, hills.  I say that I'm a pretty good climber, but historically that statement represented something more like a magical incantation ('If I say it as if I believe it's true, it will be true') than any real self-confidence. 

There were a few climbs in this, my fair city, that vexed me.  Eastern Parkway was one of them.  Though I didn't understand why, I often found myself winded after riding them.  I was particularly annoyed by my performance on these climbs because I understood that they shouldn't be hard for me: there was no logical reason that I should find them challenging at all.  There were a number of other climbs -- longer and/or steeper -- that I routinely rode without blowing up.  It simply didn't make sense.

Then I went out for a hilly ride with RCCS.  I realized afterwards that I felt great on the climbs (even the two longish ones with steep, punchy finishes) -- and that I felt great on the climbs because I wasn't thinking about climbing.  I was just riding, talking bikes, and generally having a good time. 

Moreover, none of the climbs I routinely ride are much, if any, steeper or longer than the best ones we tackled.  I decided that if I didn't find myself winded on the climbs I rode with RCCS, there was no reason to reach the top of any of my regular climbs spent and out of breath, and that if I did, I must be doing something wrong -- possibly something mental, possibly something physical, but probably both.

I decided the familiar hills were no big deal, and I resolved to remain loose and calm even on the climbs that frustrate me.  I rolled the dice on a little mental admonishment ('Calm down, it's no big deal.') when needed -- and it worked, and it worked well.  Surprisingly well.

On Sunday, at the bottom of the Eastern Parkway climb, instead of feeling that knot of worrisome anticipation in the pit of my stomach and steely tension gathering in my arms and legs, I stayed calm and loose: and then, suddenly, I was at the top, then over.  I sailed up the two small climbs that follow at a very nice clip, with a blithe and easy heart.  Experientially, it was similar to the courier runs I did this winter from downtown to the highlands -- because my mind wasn't on the hill, the hill was behind me before I noticed it.

This surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn't have.

I believe in the power of words, even though I am almost entirely a non-verbal thinker.  In fact, my belief in the power of words may be so potent because I'm almost entirely a non-verbal thinker: to put my thoughts into words requires translation; it's an act of conscious will.  Since I believe deeply in the power of will (at least when it's coupled to faith), when I want something to be true of myself, I simply make a declaration: "I am x."** 

When I decided, initially and with a totally insufficient body of evidence (excepting one 60-ish mile solo ride which logged some 3,000+ feet of climb, which didn't really seem like that big a deal until much, much later), that I had the makings of a decent climber, I simply declared myself to be one: "I see by my outfit*** that I am a climber."

However, that RCCS ride made me realize that it works better when coupled with experience.

That's where perception comes in.

In psychology, we differentiate between sensation and perception.  Sensation is the process by which we receive input about the world around us from our sensory organs; perception is the process by which our brains interpolate that information and make sense of it.

Thus, perception -- already a much more nebulous thing than sensation -- is subject to the slings and arrows of neurology, mood, memory, and mental state.  It is shaped by experience -- so much that if we have no experience with a thing, we may not even perceive it (imagine hearing a foreign language for the first time: it sounds like a meaningless stream of syllables; often, we can't even perceive individual words in the stream of sound).  In matters of perception, one's frame of reference -- the sum of one's experiences -- is everything.

I live a life pretty much immersed in the world of cycling, where I personally fall more or less in the 'roadie' category.  Thus, when I look at myself as a cyclist, my frame of reference tells me that I'm still pretty hefty; that I could stand to put in more miles; that I'm not really trying that hard.  Even in my winter kit, which is now basically all slimming black and charcoal except for my neon-green long-sleeved jersey and my rain jackets (one orange, one yellow and blue), I think I look tubby and totally not pro and like I should buy a pair of shoes that don't have laces (the shoelace-induced crash has become my new obsessive worry).

Meanwhile, a friend at church who rides a bit but isn't what one would call 'into bikes' sees me decked out in my winter kit and says, "You look like a pro." 

In other words, when I look at myself, and compare myself to the vast universe of cyclists who are stronger and faster than I am, I think I look like a schmuck.  But when she looks at me, instead of seeing my shortcomings, she sees a dedicated (if slightly insane) rider in a pulled-together kit.  Interesting.

Likewise, prior to the RCCS Hills-n-Coffee ride, I had a fair sense that I was okay at climbing, but the experience of the ride in question gave me a better set of data.  It showed me what happens when the perceptions you might have had are replaced by good company and conversation.  Suddenly, you can simply brush by your the limitations you have perceived yourself to have, when perhaps your senses were trying to tell you something else (like, 'Relax, it's just a little hill.').

I think this is one of the reasons that group rides are invaluable for any rider who wants to race or ride long distances.  Riding alone, you may focus on overcoming the burning of your thighs or the fact that you feel like your lungs are going to explode as you fight to slay your personal best time on a given ascent or that after sixty-odd miles you really kind of want to take a nap -- but riding with a group, you don't focus on the burning thighs or the exploding lungs at all, so you don't feel them nearly as intensely.

Riding alone, you may create difficulties where there are none, as I kept doing on Eastern Parkway.  Riding with a group of friends, you don't tense up at the bottom of a climb that normally worries you, because you're probably not even paying attention to the climb in question.  You relax and roll with your peeps.

There is safety, but also strength, in numbers.  The social reality of the group means your focus turns outward, away from yourself -- where, in my opinion, it belongs (...he said, writing in this, the most navel-gazing of blogs).  Like the practice of meditation, like saying the rosary, riding in a group quiets the monkey-mind and fixes the mind's eye on the present moment, which is -- as Thich Nhat Hanh observes -- the only moment, and a wonderful moment.  Breathing in, I am one with this flock of colorful birds.

Even if you're fighting with every fiber of your being to keep up, you've turned your mind's eye away from your own human weakness and towards a worthier goal. 

Though you may not realize it, as you go, you're coming closer to that goal and perceiving the experience.  After, you might remember the ways in which you surprised yourself -- especially if, after a group ride you didn't perceive as particularly challenging or hilly, you learn that the course involved 1,229 feet of climbing over a short 27 miles -- not a staggering percentage, but healthy enough that a good many riders would call it 'challenging.'  You may realize that you rode stronger than you thought you did, simply because you weren't focusing so very hard on your own effort.

Later, having banked those experiences, you can generalize them, and sometimes this makes your life radically easier.  It is one thing to guess that you might possess a given strength; it is another thing entirely to experience that strength without even realizing it.

We are at our best when life lifts us up and out of our narrow frames of reference; out of the close little canyons of our own perception and up onto the high and lovely ridges of experience, from which we can really see.  Each time this happens, we gain an opportunity to widen and raise the canyons of our perception, until at last perhaps we might lift ourselves high enough to live lives of continuous experience, in which our own imagined limitations are burned away like fog by the bright morning sun.

Iroquois Park on Tuesday: the climb is worth the descent. So is the view!



** This,  by the way, works much better than "I will become x," for me.  My guess is that the "I will become..." formula is too vague; you can put it off indefinitely as long as you're making just a little progress.

*** With apologies to Peter S. Beagle for borrowing the title of his life-changing book, I See By My Outfit.

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