“Do you have a spiritual practice?”
Of the many questions I expected a psychiatrist might ask me, I hadn’t expected that one.
I was in his office seeking help for my depression, anxiety, and irritability. For more than a year I’d been struggling with some of my personal relationships, but most especially with my wife Shana and our young sons, who are 8 and 5. I could go from calm to explosive almost as quickly as a firecracker. My boys thought me angry, sometimes mean. Shana and I had been distant for months; I couldn’t recall the last time we’d kissed.
At 53, I had already been through four depressive episodes. I had always resisted taking medication, wanting to feel the full range of my emotions. But with the well-being of three other people at stake, I was open to seeing if I could be medicated into a more placid version of myself.
Before I had a chance to stop blinking, the psychiatrist elaborated, asking if I was a member of a religion and went to church, or if perhaps I meditated. He explained he was simply curious to know what sort of outlet I might have.
“Yes, I do.”
I drew a deep breath and explained it was the bicycle.
The only people who ever understand such a statement are cyclists.
More and more we know that repetitive movement—activities like knitting, bread kneading, and drumming—can help people achieve a meditative state and stillness of mind. Meditation is meant to wake us, to drive our attention into the present. Nothing in my life has done this as well as the rhythmic motion of pedaling.
Yes, I have a spiritual practice.
I gave him that workable answer, and in turn, I suppose he gave me one as well. I walked out of that office with a prescription for the antidepressant, Wellbutrin.
What I didn’t mention was that I was going deep on this idea, that I was already planning a bike tour with a religious underpinning. A month earlier my friend and former teammate, Eric Romney, had asked if I wanted to come along on a 10-day reconnaissance of Shikoku, the smallest of the four major islands in the Japanese archipelago. Eric had been living in Japan for the past eight years and leading bike tours on the island of Kyushu. He was scouting Shikoku for a possible new itinerary for his guiding company, Japan Cycling Tours.
Shikoku is home to more than 100 Buddhist temples and a pilgrimage that goes back more than 1,200 years. The pilgrimage is a tradition within Shingon Buddhism, an esoteric sect of the religion, in which Buddhist seekers, called henro, walk more than 750 miles around the island—it takes most about six weeks—to visit 88 of these temples. The objective is to achieve enlightenment and eventually nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism, a state in which one is released from worldly suffering and desire.
Two henro at Ishite-Ji, Temple 51, in the city of Matsuyama Brian Vernor
When I learned this, the trip seemed like just what I needed—a spiritual pilgrimage of my own. I understood that central tenets of Buddhism include the principles of serenity and acceptance. These qualities were attractive to me. A calmer, more centered me could make me a better partner, a better parent.
We decided to follow the Buddhist pilgrimage as closely as possible. We wouldn’t hit all 88 temples—that would involve too much urban riding to be enjoyable—but we could stick to the general route, taking the best roads for cycling and detouring from them to visit temples when it made sense. Eric Romney’s then-fiancée (now wife), Soco Kitamura, would drive support for us. My friend, Eric Smith, a radiologist in his 40s, would tag along, wanting to expand his understanding of Japan. I looked forward to an experience that would take me out of myself, help to exorcise some of my demons. And riding in a place so relatively unaffected by Western influences seemed as far from my life as I could imagine.
These wooden plaques, called ema, bear prayers from the henro. Brian Vernor
But that was in October. By the time the trip rolled around in April, the situation had become more urgent. My marriage was falling apart. Even with the help of the medication, I was much too depressed and disappointed to dream of a life in which I would be free of suffering. Hell, as a cyclist, it seemed the very opposite of the thing I’d worked so hard to accept, to embrace—suffering itself. But I’d welcome enlightenment, if it could give me the solution to a better relationship with my family. I hungered for a harmony as simple as all four of us snuggled on a couch together. I wondered whether it was too much to ask, or just too much for me to ask, and I couldn’t decide which answer was more depressing. But I wasn’t yet ready to give up. I needed answers. Why couldn’t my wife and I bring ourselves to touch each other? Why did getting the boys dressed require negotiations? Why did bedtime have to be a siege? Could any of this be fixed?
I left for Japan hoping for at least one day to get sideways—separated from the group, lost with the sun going down, bonking. This felt most likely to lead to some epiphany. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think a difficult bike tour could give me this kind of clarity. But all the big decisions I’ve made in my life have come to me as I pedaled.
“We’re off the fuckin’ map.”
Eric Romney says this with a chuckle that suggests equal parts amazement and frustration.
The road we’re on continues with serpentine wiggles until it bends out of sight. To our left another road shoots up at a startling pitch. It’s eight feet wide, at best, and doesn’t exist on Eric’s GPS or any of his Japanese maps.
Shikoku is a place where a person can get lost either accidentally or deliberately. To navigate, Eric had to use two different smartphone map apps, a GPS in the follow vehicle driven by Soco, and a map book—the Japanese equivalent of a Thomas Guide. Even that method wasn’t foolproof. Though the Japanese give highways numbers and name bigger streets, it’s as if the government found the prospect of naming every street in the country too daunting and gave up. In the mountains, we’d turn onto roads that simply didn’t exist on any of our maps, which were connected to other roads that didn’t show up. (Later, however, I’d find that they did appear on Strava.) To top it all off, the only English I saw while on Shikoku was on my phone, my computer, or in the book I had brought.
The effect was infantilizing. I was zero help on navigation and all communication had to be translated for me. I had to rely on others for everything except pedaling. Eventually, I had decided to surrender to my vulnerability—it felt like part of my Buddhist journey.
So I laugh as we survey our options. It seems the only appropriate response. I have the funny feeling that the steep road is our lot.
“Yeah, I think that will take us to the town our hotel is in,” Eric confirms.
During the first four days of the trip, we’d established a daily pattern of riding flat, coastal routes out of the towns we were staying in, and into the interior of the island. There the mountains rose and fell with drama, and were forested a deep green, with peaks draped in moisture. We’d know we were approaching the mountains when the roads would start to get really small. The rule of thumb I began to live by was that as soon as we turned onto something eight feet wide the real climbing was about to begin. Two-lane roads never seemed to get steeper than about eight percent, but once the road shrank to the width of an SUV all bets were off; pitches steep as a groomed ski run, curtained by bamboo or pine forest, were routine. Eric Smith described it aptly, “In Europe, you take the road that looks most promising. In Japan, you take the road that most resembles your neighbor’s driveway.”
The writer (left) with Eric Romney, in the mountains south of Touyou, before their reward for the day: a 22-mile descent Brian Vernor
As we follow Eric’s hunch, I hug the guardrail on the left (road use is reverse what it is in the US). Evergreen forest rises around us. The sky is aircraft gray, the air as damp as a dog’s tongue.
At the top, we rest and snack on sandwiches and Cokes, then zip up for the descent. We give up more than 1,000 feet in just two miles, and I lose count of the switchbacks. I take the whole of the road, looking as far ahead for cars and trucks as the steep walls of the mountain permit, watching Eric disappear into the mist below.
On day four, in the mountains above Kochi, about to descend to the town of Ino Brian Vernor
Forces Larger Than Me
On our fifth day, it rains. Our route cuts across the southwestern tip of the island and takes us into some of the most remote territory we’ll encounter. We pass farms with no signs of animals or people—no smoke rising from chimneys, no power lines.
After riding for more than four hours on narrow roads and up one climb that lasts for 26 miles, we are all desperate to get out of our wet kits. Our final descent leads us to the town of Uwajima.
Descending in the rain terrifies some people. But I’ve had some of my most spiritual experiences while guiding a bike down a wet road. Brazilian racecar driver Ayrton Senna once said that he “saw God” while racing in the rain. On this long descent to our hotel I, too, feel guided by forces larger than myself, as if I have a supernatural intuition for my limits. I tuck my head to keep the rain out of my eyes, but my shoulders are relaxed. I have the sense that I know exactly what to do. Despite the chill, I arrive in Uwajima feeling elated.
Inside the ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel) we enjoy what had become our standard practice for rides that ended in rain: a soak in an onsen, or public bath house. American jazz is the soundtrack of the onsen, and we walk to the locker room to the sound of swing. (I never heard koto music while in Japan.) That night we sleep on futons rolled out on bamboo mats. I dream of fish and the kanji characters that represent the Japanese alphabet.
The next morning we are served a traditional breakfast including rice, a two-bite salad of greens and pickled vegetables, some squid and a whole fish that seems to stare at me with one baleful eye. I think about how Shana would be feeding the boys without me. It strikes me that I experience a constant pull to travel, then feel guilty that I’m not with them. There’s an irony to using a trip away from your family as a spiritual quest to become a better parent.
The Japanese breakfast can’t be more than 800 calories, certainly not enough to get me through five hours of riding, so on the way out of town we engage in what had become another ritualized practice: stopping at a Lawson convenience store for Cokes, little chocolate-filled buns, cookies, seaweed-wrapped rice cakes, and fish sandwiches on white bread from which the crust had been trimmed.
Near the end of the day, we approach Temple 58, which is nestled in a tiny nook atop a rocky butte. It was always easy to tell when we drew close to another temple on the pilgrimage. We’d begin to see henro clad in white robes wearing their wide conical hats (called sugegasa) and carrying their wooden staffs (kongōtsue). A sign with a number would indicate the turn-off.
The road leading to Temple 58 begins by casually looping up the hillside, but by this point, I can do little more than shift into my lowest gear, sit in the saddle, and turn over the pedals. The road becomes progressively steeper with each bend until I encounter a wall-like pitch just before the temple that forces me to stand so I don’t fall over.
At the temple, I stumble in and sit on the first bench I find. Outside, dozens of tiny stone carvings terrace the hillside like foot-high gravestones, each commemorating a different monk. Cherry blossoms rain down from a tree onto a statue of Kūkai, the monk who founded the pilgrimage. Despite the pain in my neck and shoulders from too many miles spent in the drops, and legs that are leaden to the point of being unresponsive, I feel serene.
Ascending steps at Kojima Shrine, which is built on a jetty at the port in Kuroshio Brian Vernor
The Friction of Moss
Riding your bike off the map and into rain-blanketed mountains isn’t the idea of a “fun” activity for most people. I mean, who does this? After spending more than an hour to climb to nearly 3,000 feet, we pass the peak of Takanawa-san, outside the town of Matsuyama, and turn onto yet another road with no name.
It’s day seven, and though I can’t fathom the reason, the roads we climb today are relatively well-paved and clean, but the descents are dusted with pine duff and sport a green band of moss in the middle, like a deranged racing stripe. Prior to the descent Eric Smith had observed that the coefficient of friction for moss approaches zero. Although traffic has cleared some of the duff, which improves our odds for traction, it also serves as a reminder to anticipate the presence of a car or truck.
The practical upshot is that I drop down a steep mountain road barely wide enough for Soco’s Land Cruiser on a strip of wet asphalt rarely more than 14 inches across that curves unpredictably around the rock outcroppings. I don’t feel safe switching tracks unless I can see a hundred meters up the road, which occurs but a handful of times during a five-mile descent. The maneuver requires me to shoot straight across a section with the bike upright as a flagpole so that I won’t risk sliding out. Each time it makes me nervous enough to become self-conscious, aware of my hands in the drops, how I sit in the saddle. When my rear wheel slides ever so slightly, it gives me a jolt of adrenaline sharp enough to make my whole body shake. As if that isn’t enough, I have to remind myself that each time I enter a blind turn there could be a six-foot-wide vehicle around the bend of the eight-foot-wide road. Eric Romney, who at his peak had been talented enough as a racer to receive contracts with pro teams, has a sixth sense about approaching vehicles, as well as traction. He rolls into descents with the sort of confidence I reserve for roads I know by heart.
Do you have a spiritual practice?
This is it.
What kind of a prayer this is meant to be, I can’t say. And yet, I am here, going slow enough to be prudent, and fast enough to keep my brain in the present.
At Zenrakuji, Temple 30, in the city of Kochi Brian Vernor
What Needs to be Different
The road to Temple 75 is poorly paved and steeper than some hiking trails. It tilts upward until I’m moving only marginally faster than the henro I see up ahead. A small bell hangs from his pack and jingles with each step. Step, jingle, step, jingle.
That would drive me nuts. I’d never get through a months-long vision quest with a bell ringing at each step. So many people I know, me included, walk or ride for the quiet, so that our minds can wander. But when the henro walks it is never quiet. The bell is meant to keep the pilgrim’s attention in the present. To live with that bell is to accept the world around you exactly as it is. I think about what it means to have a mind that doesn’t wander. In contrast to the henro, who doesn’t need his world to be different to be at peace, I’m constantly trying to change my circumstances—make things neater, more organized—to find peace. But for the henro, the bell is infinitely zen; there’s never a point when it must be silenced. It’s a kind of serenity I’m desperate to achieve.
Days later, near the end of the trip, on yet another day of rain in the mountains, we work our way down from Aikuchi Pass. The combination of cold and wet has taken a toll on me and I am riding progressively slower on the climbs, but descending faster as I become more confident.
I want a chance to be alone, so when the two Erics announce they are going to get in the vehicle, I continue to the bottom myself.
Off of the tightest roads, I am able to relax, to swing from one paint line to another as I apex turns. Leaning into the bends demands enough of my upper body to relieve me of an ongoing shiver. I consider a quote from the Buddha: “Give, even if you only have a little.”
I stop at the bottom and wait, drained. Cycling has taught me that I have hidden reserves—that I almost always have more to draw upon than I recognize. Standing there, cold and wet, reminds me of the sort of effort my family needs from me, no matter how flawed I might be. Even when my energy and patience are stretched to their limits, I must dig a little deeper—for my sake as much as theirs. Years from now, that extra labor might be the difference between peace and remorse.
Soon the car pulls up and Eric Romney tells me there is an onsen just up the road. I chase after them as fast as I can manage—which is about 15 mph.
It’s late in the day when we finish our soak, and chilly. No one argues when Soco announces she will ferry us to Temple 88, the final one in the journey. In the car, I briefly allow myself some disappointment that I haven’t arrived by bike, that I haven’t seen all 88 temples. But there’s a lesson to be gained about accepting my circumstance exactly as it is: Invariably, what needs to be different is within me, not outside of me.
The Path I Choose
On our last day, our route hugs the shore. An hour in and the cold and the wet break me. My body has had enough. I slow down, wanting simply to look at the place I am riding through. I watch a wave break over a jetty.
The word “gentle” floats to my mind. I want gentleness. I want it for myself right now, but I also want to be gentle with others. This is the change I seek within myself. There are moments with my children when my frustration incandesces into anger and my older son will flash a look of fear. Seeing his eyes go wide and his face draw tight makes me think less of myself. He’s still so innocent. The kindness I’d like to achieve would banish such moments from our present and our future. This kind of grace is, to me, a sign of an evolution of the spirit.
When I imagined this trip, I thought it would be a way to re-center. As the waves continue to splash over the rocks, I realize that aside from offering some random epiphanies, my ride hasn’t helped me achieve the resolution I sought. The growth I must accomplish will happen only after I arrive home to face the latest “give-me-my-toy” slugfest between my boys, the no-body-contact moves in the kitchen with my wife. Like pedaling, I will have to work at it. And even then, I can’t control the outcome.
I close the gap back to my friends. My shoulders ache, but I find refuge in the draft. Nirvana continues to elude me. Suffering will continue to be a part of my life. But my commitment to my kids means that I will work toward greater peace within. I’ll stick with the Wellbutrin, the breathing exercises, the appointments with the psychiatrist. Will it save my marriage? I don’t know. I can only be certain of the path I choose.
I consider a quote from the Buddha that I’ve known for years. It fills me with both doubt and hope. “No one saves us but ourselves.”
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