I top off the air in the tires, squeeze them to be sure they are full, and set the pump back on the shelf. Headphones in place and podcast queued up, I push off and begin pedaling, settling myself on the bicycle seat as I head down the familiar road towards the beach.
Overhead, the trees shade me from the sun, dripping Spanish moss down to create a canopy of texture and sound. I feel my hair begin to curl in the humid South Carolina air and smile as I bid goodbye to the twelve wasted minutes I spent straightening it earlier.
I hit play on my podcast and Oprah’s voice fills the silence. I’m in the middle of a podcast series with her and Eckhart Tolle, the author of one of my favorite books, A New Earth. They are discussing the book chapter-by-chapter and they are the perfect companions for my ride.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it,” Eckhart is saying. “Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Defining yourself through thought is limiting yourself.”
I hit pause to let his statement soak in. As I turn it over in my mind, I remember the last time I was miserably unhappy. It was just a couple weeks ago on a hotel balcony in Costa Rica.
Then, after 48 hours of tension and raw discussions with my husband on our honeymoon, I’d retreated to the balcony, exhausted, deflated, and quickly spiraling into a dark place. Curled up with a box of kleenex in a swinging chair, I let the tears fall. Earlier, he’d expressed a list of hard-to-hear, but valid, insights about me and about our relationship. Those had mingled with a harsh follow-up critique from my inner perfectionist and sent me to a familiar pit of despair. Every negative thought felt so true and real they crushed me with their assessment of my character.
Now, riding my bike toward the beach, I realize that defining myself through my perfectionistic thoughts limits who I am and is the primary cause of any unhappiness. What if I hadn’t been so attached to who those thoughts say I am? Would I have felt such a strong need to dig in and defend myself for two days? Would I have sunk into such a dark place after? Probably not.
Overhead a crow caws his agreement as I hit play on the podcast, anxious to hear more.
Tolle continues: “Ego takes everything personally. Emotion arises, defensiveness, perhaps even aggression. You are defending yourself, or rather the illusion of yourself…If there is awareness in you, you will be able to recognize that voice in your head for what it is: an old thought, conditioned by the past. You no longer need to believe every thought you think. ”
I rewind and listen again, remembering my awful thoughts in Costa Rica. That night, I twisted what my husband said and convinced myself I was a bad friend, a bad wife, an endless work in progress who would never be good enough.
But I also remember, that as my tears ran out, I felt the breeze and heard the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. I noticed the canopy of stars stretching endlessly above me. I became aware of my breath and the feel of the wall under my feet as I pushed off to keep my chair swinging. My emotional exhaustion had returned me to the present moment.
Was that the awareness Eckhart spoke of? The feeling of being so present in the moment that my thoughts still?
“How to be at peace now?” Tolle asks, before answering his own question. “By making peace with the present moment. The present moment is the field on which the game of life happens. It cannot happen anywhere else…It is when we are trapped in incessant streams of compulsive thinking that the universe really disintegrates for us, and we lose the ability to sense the interconnectedness of all that exists…Only if we are still enough inside and the noise of thinking subsides can we become aware that there is a hidden harmony here, a sacredness, a higher order in which everything has its perfect place and could not be other than the way it is.”
Arriving at the beach, I turn the podcast off, and hear my bike tires rumble over the boardwalk below. Countless times, over 35 years, I’ve ridden this way, knowing the smooth sand of the Atlantic shore will greet me at the end. I return because riding along the ocean in this familiar place soothes something inside me. Here I can always drown out the voice in my head; the one Eckhart is talking about.
But, while it is easy here, I must remember the peace of being in the present moment is always available to me, regardless of my location or life events. And being in the present moment quiets my thoughts and reminds me I am not who they say I am. I am something more.
I turn my bike into the sun. A flock of small sea birds flitters past, alighting on a tide pool just ahead, only to take off immediately as I reach them. We move from tide pool to tide pool as I pedal down the beach. A pelican flies overhead, turning its head to look down on me. For a brief moment, I stare into its big brown eye and hold my breath. The waves crash rhythmically, consistently, the soundtrack for my ride. Ahead of me, a golden retriever plays in the waves, soaked from nose to tail. He turns to his owner and barks. The owner responds by throwing his ball down the beach towards me. He bounds after it, dodging waves and screeching to a sandy halt, having the time of his life.
The voice in my head goes quiet. For the first time in a long time, I feel calm, connected, peaceful, and content. I am the true me, not who my limiting thoughts say I am.
And it’s beautiful.