As most of you know, I love to find intersections between the head and the heart, the moment and the infinite, the spiritual and the secular. The sacred is everywhere if we allow the possibility and so today, I offer you “The Spirituality of Spin.”

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.”

These are words of wisdom a friend shared with me recently when I was in a lot of pain. At the time, I wanted to haul off and hit him, but he was just out of reach and I was locked into my pedals anyway. The pain was real and physical, but he also was the one putting me through it. His name is Rich and he is my spin instructor, but I secretly think he was a Zen master in a former life. You’ve got to love a guy who can seamlessly bring Buddhist philosophy, 50s doo-wop music and prodigious amounts of sweat into the same moment.


For many years, I avoided the spin room at my local YMCA. People who “spun” were intense. Whenever I walked by, the lights were dim; the music was pumping; the instructor was yelling, and the cyclists were staring at a glowing LED-display, mounted between their handlebars. They appeared transfixed, as if on ecstasy in a techno-fueled nightclub. Not my scene, thank you very much. I also happened to cherish sitting normally after a work out. Spin will never win, I thought smugly.

But about a year ago, one of my good friends defected to the dark side of the gym. She didn’t become an addict exactly, but two days a week, I’d see her in there, huffing and puffing and pedaling away. She invited me to come with her; I demurred. She told me what a good work out it was; I scoffed. She promised me my butt would adapt; I doubted it. But I couldn’t completely dismiss her perspective; I trust her. She’s a fit, successful, serene, 50-year-old woman who would never tolerate bad music, or macho bullshit. If she chose to spend an hour in a spin class, there must be something to it after all.

So I gave it a try and after a couple misses with bad music (the dreaded techno music) and worse instructors (pompous donkeys who sat up on their bikes and played air guitar while talking about how high a gear they were pushing), I finally made it to Steph’s cherished, Friday morning class and found my “spin” home.

Like any new exercise routine, or spiritual practice, spinning felt a little awkward at first. It was Catholic calisthenics all over again. We sat; we stood; we did a strange hover over the seat for 20 seconds at a time. I was always looking at my neighbor to gauge my posture and proficiency. I couldn’t tell if I was trying too hard, or not hard enough. I couldn’t seem to find the rhythm, when everyone else moved like an old pro. But the instructor Rich began that first class, and every class since with a gentle reminder: For the next sixty minutes, we simply need to be present to ourselves, to acknowledge what we feel and do what we can do. For the next hour, there are no problems to solve, or people to fix, so we can focus on why we are there: to transform our bodies and our selves. His stated goal as our teacher is to push us beyond our comfort zones, which is where all genuine improvement lies.

Though my ego and body didn’t love my first spin class with Rich, my soul immediately responded to his coaching style: creative and engaging, humble, but tough. It took only a few classes for me to begin to see how I could take his words into my spiritual life. Can you imagine a priest, pastor, or rabbi beginning every service that way? Asking us to breathe deeply, to center ourselves and let go of outside concerns? To be fully present to the Presence within us and open to the (sometimes painful) transformation that can take place if we allow it? Though they don’t usually ask, since I began spinning, I try to do it anyway.

Rich reminds us that if we wanted easy, we would be on a treadmill next door and I often think of that as I walk, sometimes reluctantly, into church. If I wanted easy, I’d be back in bed, munching on a donut and sipping my latte. I’m at church for a reason. Walking through life at a comfortable pace isn’t going to change me.

When our lungs and legs are burning, Rich calls out, “This is the feeling of improvement!” In all my years, during the many times I have been on my knees in prayer, in frustration, in desperation for things to be different, I had never thought of it that way. Our hearts and souls are no different than our bodies. Positive change never comes easily. Each step is just beyond our reach and the only way to get there is to do the very thing we don’t think we can do. In those moments in the classroom, Rich reminds us, “Somewhere inside of you is the person who can do this hard thing.” I want to believe he’s right, so I keep pedaling and push on, whether I’m on a bike, or in the midst of my life.

Finishing up a tough hill, Rich asks us to imagine our 80-year-old selves, thanking us for what we are doing right now at the age of 30, 40, or 50 and as I hold Tim’s hand at night, apologize for an unkind word, or let go of a petty grudge, I imagine the same thing. I am doing it for us now, but I’m also doing it for our 80-year-old selves. We plan to be together for another forty years at least, but that’s not going to happen if I don’t take care of business today.

One day when the hills were extra long and the incline steep, it seemed like the hour would never end. No matter how good the music, or how fine the company, I just didn’t have it in me to finish hard. I wanted to back off and quit, but sensing the mood of the room, Rich tried another tactic. He made sure we knew we were in this together. “Every one is feeling what you are feeling,” he likes to say and you can tell by the effort in his voice that he is no exception. He reminded me that solidarity is the key to enduring any difficult experience. Knowing we are not alone in our pain allows us to transform it. Great leaders, spiritual or otherwise, embrace the trials of their people and the burdens of their community. A great Leader is with you on your journey, in your effort and pain. She isn’t standing in the Promised Land, waiting for you to hurry up and get there. He doesn’t pretend that the journey didn’t cost him something as well.

Great leaders aren’t impatient. They don’t shame and blame, judge, compare and compete. They meet people where they are. They care and then they cure. I don’t know if Rich does all that in two, sixty-minute spin classes each week, but I do know I leave there better prepared to face my day, more sound in body and mind.


The most Zen of Rich’s words are where I began. Though they were spoken in the sanctuary of the spin class, they have resonated with me every day since. When I encounter frustrations, big, or small, I am reminded that the choice is mine. The pain may be inevitable, but the suffering is not. I still choose to suffer more than I’d like, but because I signed up for improvement, I’m willing to work on it. I breathe deeply, relax my hands, and drop my shoulders. I feel what I am feeling and then I move on. I know I will be glad I did it today and perhaps even more grateful down the road. And ultimately and perhaps most importantly, I know I’m not alone. I have a great Leader.

That's Good! That's Bad!

When my friend Laura first started teaching kindergarten, she had something called a “Listening Center” in her classroom with tape recorders, headphones and a selection of picture books with audiocassettes. Seeing those recorders lined up brought me back to my childhood days and the time I spent at the Huntington Beach Public Library. I would lounge on a bean bag with headphones on, in the library’s “Listening Center,” while my mom browsed the Adult Fiction, two floors away. Those were blissful moments for this nerdy little girl.

A few years later, when my own children were ready for picture books, I gleefully marched them into the public library, right up to my favorite childhood section, the picture books on tape, rack upon rack of auditory gold.

Although it has been many years since my children checked out a book on tape, there is one story I remember listening to with great fondness. It had a bright yellow cover, with a boy being lifted into the air by a big red balloon. The title was simply That’s Good! That’s Bad! by Margaret Cuyler. It was the story of a little boy floating and dropping, landing and hopping, all over a jungle, filled with wild animals. I remember the cadence of the readers’ voices as they chanted the refrain from the book’s title. The children on the CD would all cheer, “Oh, that’s good,” but the adult reader would quickly correct them, “No, that’s bad.” On the next page, the roles were reversed and what seemed bad would, in fact, turn out to be good.  Listening to the book was a pleasure, but the real joy came from my kids’ anticipatory giggles as they waited for the other shoe to drop, for what they thought was so clearly good, to be shown to be so obviously bad, and vice versa.

After listening to that book countless times over the years, you’d think I would have remembered the universal theme:

You can’t really judge if something’s good, or bad, until you turn the page. 

But gosh, that’s a hard truth to hold on to. Life is very much like that story book. Something happens that raises our spirits, and we silently cheer, Oh, that’s good! but it is quickly followed by the realization, No, that’s bad! Of course, the reverse holds true just as often, if not more so. We never really know if something is good, or bad, until much, much later, and even then, we can’t really be sure, because the story’s not over yet.

Of course, I’ve always been on this roller coaster of judgment, but it has really picked up speed since the Fall of 2008. My husband and I own a small retail business and the last three years have not been easy. Our lives and livelihood have been built around that business. Apart from his family, the ‘shop,’ as we lovingly call it, is his pride and joy. Since the start of the Great Recession, we’ve hit a lot of peaks and valleys. We’ve reinvented the way he works, the way I work, the way the business works, but it still seems like we are often groaning, Oh, that’s bad. However, we keep reminding ourselves, No, that’s good, because, unlike a lot of mom-and-pop stores, our doors are still open and we are still paying the bills, or at least most of them.

It works that way in my personal life as well. I go through my days, attaching too much significance to each and every thing that comes my way. I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s good,” just to have something occur to me a moment later that has me convinced, “No, that’s bad.” It’s an emotional ping-pong game, and I am always the loser. Whether it is phone calls, emails, invitations, conversations, red lights, green lights, doctor visits, or burned dinners, I wish I were not so hasty to judge whether it is good news, or bad news. I wish I could remember that in life, there is always another page. The story isn’t over yet.

At the end of the children’s book, the boy is dropped back into his parents’ loving arms, where they greet him with a huge kiss and a sigh of relief. The children on the CD, confident that this is the end of the story, shout with all their might, “Oh, that’s good!” But the author surprises them with another twist. You have to turn the page, risking another fall, when she emphatically says, “No, that’s GREAT!”

The last page on the recession and it’s affect on my family and our way of life is still a ways off. My personal last page may come tomorrow, or it may be far away. I don’t have the answer to that. But what I do know is that I can end each day’s story by dropping into the arms of my loving family, holding them close and saying goodnight with a huge kiss. When I leave their bedrooms, teeth brushed and blankets tucked, I give a sigh of relief, knowing, that for now, “Oh, that’s good,” very, very good, indeed.

Afterword: If you are over 40, don’t have children, or think yourself above learning a lesson from a children’s picture book, here is a famous zen koan that imparts the same wisdom. It’s a great story, but not nearly as much fun.

There was an old farmer who worked hard on his little farm. There was never any money left over, but the farmer did have one sturdy, fine horse that helped the man and his young adult son with the farm labor.

One morning the farmer woke to find that the horse had broken out of the pen, and ran away. The neighbors came over, shaking their heads. They told the farmer that he had very bad luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”

The next morning when the farmer woke, he found that his sturdy, fine horse had returned, bringing with him a small herd of wild horses. The neighbors came over, nodding their heads. They told the farmer that he had very good luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”

Early the next morning, the farmer’s son was out breaking the new horses. The young man was tossed off a wild horse, and his leg broke. It was a bad injury, and the son would not be able to work for months. The neighbors came over, shaking their heads. They told the farmer he had very bad luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who know?”

The next morning, the army came through the village conscripting all young men to go and fight. His son could not go.

Good luck, bad luck? Who knows?