By Marv Zauderer
Three years ago in this Sport Psychology column, we looked at common threats to motivation – feeling tired after a long season, overtraining, feeling down about your results – and how you can sustain your motivation for cycling and your goals. For many of you, it’s the off-season now and the bad weather has arrived, bringing with it less outdoor riding and the possibility of experiencing the cyclist’s winter blues. It’s the time of year to get in front of those obstacles, and a time to go deeper: to move from motivation to passion, and to keep yourself there.
I had the pleasure of seeing some enchanting works of art recently – pieces that, for me, reflected intense desire and passion at their core, yet were constrained by their surrounding darkness. I gravitated to one piece, Rising, and as I reveled in the beauty and depth of its crackling fire, I flashed on The Promise, HBO’s new documentary about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. (I know fans of the Boss are smiling, and not just because of the “darkness” connection: his haunting, uplifting, post-9/11 album is entitled The Rising.)
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, a Springsteen concert is always an utterly riveting experience: part revival meeting, part soul-baring, and part an experience of our shared humanity. Bruce becomes the absolute, living embodiment of passion, and it’s an experience of feeling fully alive to be swept up in the energy that he and the E Street Band create.
In The Promise, he talks about his song Because the Night. He started to write the song for the Darkness album, but only got as far as the music and the chorus. He gave it to the great poet, artist, and musician Patti Smith, who finished the lyrics and had a huge hit with the song. Bruce recalls:
“I knew that I wasn’t going to finish the song, because it was a love song. I felt like I didn’t know how to write them at the time….A real love song, like Because the Night, I was reticent to write. I think I was too cowardly to write [it] at the time. But she [Smith] was very brave. She had the courage. She took it and turned it into this really beautiful love song…I have to thank… her for the intensity and the personalness and the deep love she put into it. Her work on it has been a tremendous gift to me.”
And in the August 2010 issue of Mojo magazine, Springsteen says of Because The Night,
“Darkness[on the Edge of Town]… was about stripping away everything – relationships, everything – and getting down to the core of who you were. So that song is the great missing song from Darkness.”
Desire, if you can find it and feel it, is at the core of who you are. And it’s the most powerful fuel – next to your instinct to stay alive – that you have. But it can get obscured, even for Bruce. What blocks it? What prevents you from going for – lusting for – your first race, winning a sprint, finishing those hard intervals, doing your first century, riding across the country, or staying on the wheel ahead of you up the hardest climb of your life? What prevents you from living Patti Smith’s words – “desire is hunger is the fire I breathe” – fully, in all aspects of yourself: emotions, intellect, body and spirit?
When the Fire is Doused
Longtime readers of this column have already guessed the first desire-squelcher I’ll mention. Yep, it’s our old nemesis, anxiety, and its siblings: fear, nerves, pressure, tension, and worry. Mark Epstein, in his book, “Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life,” writes:
“Anxiety and desire are two, often conflicting orientations to the unknown. Both are tilted toward the future. Desire implies a willingness, or a need, to engage this unknown, while anxiety suggests a fear of it….There is rarely desire without some associated anxiety: We seem to be wired to have apprehension about that which we cannot control, so in this way, the two are not really complete opposites. But desire gives one a reason to tolerate anxiety and a willingness to push through it.”
In years past, we’ve focused many times on how to deal with the Anxiety Family: how to manage anxiety, how to handle pressure, how to tolerate suffering. Those are all valuable skills, and sometimes they’re the right tools for the job. But just look at the verbs in those sentences: “manage,” “handle,” “tolerate.” If you stick with those, you’re not tapping into the full power of your mojo. The 17th century Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracian, in his book The Art of Worldly Wisdom, wrote, “When desire dies, fear is born.” Your desire is a huge anvil: in your clever, Roadrunner-like way you can drop it on the Coyote-like head of your fears and squash them. (We’ll get to the details of how to do that in a moment.)
What else blocks desire? Giselle Koy, in her forthcoming book, “The Modern Muse: How to Create the Ravishing Life You’ve Always Wanted,” writes:
“It is through our plain, simple, red hot, lip-burning, spine-tingling desire that we begin to understand. It is that pure desire that comes directly from an open heart. Not ego desire, but instinctual desire. The desire you were born with and which brought you to this moment.”
(Excuse me – I have to splash some cold water on my face. OK…I’m back.)
Giselle is pointing to the dangers of a constricted heart. Protecting yourself – from disappointment, embarrassment, frustration, anger, pain, hurt, sadness, whatever – obstructs your access to your deepest sources of desire.
Sadness. That’s an interesting one. The obvious reason to protect yourself from sadness: if you desire something and don’t get it, you could be sad, and that would be uncomfortable, so why try (or why try so hard)? More subtly, though, what if you desire something and you do get it? Sometimes there’s a sadness – at least a letdown – in getting what you want. Patti Smith was fond of quoting Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master, who said, “Never let go of the fiery sadness called desire.”
Giselle also points to the seductive power of your ego. If your desire comes from a need to puff yourself up, or shore yourself up, or depend on an inflated sense of self-worth for your internal solidity, then your desire is weakened. It becomes what some Buddhists call craving, which is beautifully illustrated (and successfully battled by Frodo) in the Lord of the Rings books/movies. But if your desire is “instinctual,” pure, for the sake of discovering your potential, and for the sake of having the fullest, most awakened experience possible on this Earth, then…you’re onto something.
In his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong tells the story of his famous ride in Boone, North Carolina during his recovery from cancer. Feeling defeated and despairing, and having decided to retire from bike racing, he had been convinced to do “one last race,” the U.S. Pro Championships, by his coach and close confidants. He decided to go to Boone to train with his friend, Bob Roll. As they rode through a steady rain for six hours, they began climbing Beech Mountain, a 5,000-foot climb with a snowcapped summit. He writes,
“That ascent triggered something in me. As I rode upward, I reflected on my life, back to all points, my childhood, my early races, my illness, and how it changed me. Maybe it was the primitive act of climbing that made me confront the issues I’d been evading for weeks. It was time to quit stalling, I realized. Move, I told myself. If you can still move, you aren’t sick….As I continued upward, I saw my life as a whole. I saw the pattern and privilege of it, and the purpose of it, too….Some weight…was no longer there….I was restored. I was a bike racer again.”
Say what you want about Lance, but this is undeniable: he has purpose and passion. Purpose. It’s desire’s soulmate: each is meant for the other. Not coincidentally, teaches author James Hollis, the word “desire” derives from the Latin desiderare, “to long for,” which derives from de sidere, “of the stars.” So find a star and point yourself toward it.
And passion. Are you as hot for your riding as you can be? Passio is the Latin word for suffering. Go out and suffer on the bike, and search within for your desire. It worked for Lance, and it can work for you.
Notice that Lance identifies the fundamental importance of self-awareness as well. It may be time to ask yourself: What have I been evading?
Relationships can also be great sources of desire. No, I’m not talking about that kind of desire. I’m talking about feeling seen and supported in your cycling by people who are important to you. I’m talking about choosing to compete and using your intense relationships with competitors to find out what you’re made of. I’m talking about being inspired by people. Like your coach, or your family and friends, or… Bobby McMullen.
In the film The Way Bobby Sees It, Bobby takes on racing the hardest downhill mountain bike course in America. And: he’s blind. But he has a friend who rides in front of him, calling out obstacles and turns. He trusts his friend. He’s inspired by his friend. He fights with his fear; desire wins. Says Bobby: “Sometimes, the hardest part of a race is getting to the starting line.”
There’s a starting line waiting for you. It’s a ride, a workout, a race, that new bike in the shop window, finding a coach, joining a team, leaving a team, asking for support, or that climb you always get dropped on. It’s rising up, breathing fire, freeing yourself of darkness. It’s feeling yourself come alive, and having the courage to show it and act on it. Go finish that song, and sing it. Loud. And stay hungry!
Marv Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental/emotional skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marv co-leads the Mental Skills Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology previously, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Marv would love to hear your thoughts on this article – you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.marvinz.com.