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The Athlete’s Meditation: A Conversation with Taylor Phinney and Dr. Allen Lim

by Dr. Allen Lim

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For better or worse, Taylor Phinney has always been viewed as the next great hero of American cycling. His mom, Connie Carpenter, won the Gold Medal in cycling at the 1984 Olympics. His father, Davis Phinney, was the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France. So when Taylor won the Junior World Championships in the individual time trial—one of cycling’s most difficult events—at the age of 17 and then qualified to represent the United States at the Beijing Olympics while still in high school, it was hard not to define Taylor as a genetic freak, his parents’ son, or as the heir apparent to the biggest prizes in professional cycling.

By 2014, with two Olympics and numerous victories under his belt, Taylor was well on his way to fulfilling on his extraordinary lineage. But, at the National Championships that year, he suffered a devastating crash, which nearly cost him his left leg. His doctors did not initially believe he would ever ride a bicycle again. Dealing with that possibility took Taylor down a path that redefined him as an individual. He threw himself into art, music, and connecting with old friends—a life that professional cycling had prevented him from having and that renewed him when cycling was taken away.

In his recovery, Taylor wasn’t a professional cyclist. He wasn’t that great hero. He was just a person living his life and falling back in love with the bike. Free from those conditions, he was able to pursue his dreams on his own terms—by setting his sights on the 2016 Rio Olympics. As part of this journey, Taylor began meditating and enlisted me to help.

"Athletes have a ton of free time and unfortunately I’ve spent most of my athletic career killing that time, feeling like I needed to make that time go faster."

We went to the National Championships together, where Taylor needed a strong performance to impress National Team coaches tasked with picking the Olympic Team. It was there that Taylor asked me to meditate with him, explaining that while he didn’t know if his body would be up to the challenge, he knew his mind could be. In the individual time trial—a race against the clock—Taylor suffered. He gave everything he had, mentally and physically, to the point that he wasn’t able to walk for nearly an hour after finishing the race. He thought he had lost.

He hadn’t. By the time the last finisher came in, Taylor Phinney was the new National Champion and had earned a spot on the US Olympic Team in Rio.

Since then, meditating has become part of his daily routine. I sat down with Taylor over breakfast to discuss this new facet of his life as he returns back to the professional peloton with the Cannondale-Drapac team and his hopes to compete this year in his first Tour de France.

Dr. Allen Lim: How do you like to identify yourself? Cause there’s a way that I would introduce you at a dinner party to a group of strangers. This is my friend Taylor—he’s an Olympian, he’s a professional cyclist, he’s a deep thinker, he’s a musician, he’s an athlete—a renaissance man.

Taylor Phinney: Postmodern Renaissance Man? Definitely not. I don’t know. I think I’ve been identified my whole adult life by other people. I’ve never had the freedom to self-identify … to go to college … I just chose this path as an athlete and then that became my identity but that’s not entirely who I am.

AL: Let me ask you this a different way then. If you were to give up cycling right now, which is your career, would you miss that identity?

TP: I’ve always tried to jump ahead of any identity that’s been put upon me. I’ve always wanted to change that perception, to challenge the perception of an external identity. I think that comes from believing that we’re all multi-faceted. I’ve always had a lot of different interests. I’ve always wanted to expand and learn. The reality is we have a ton of free time as athletes and unfortunately I’ve spent most of my athletic career killing that time, feeling like I needed to make that time go faster.

AL: That in between time?

TP: That time between racing and eating … always in relationship to eating. I’ve always really disliked that feeling of killing time, making time go faster. So I’ve taken it upon myself now to ironically make that time go by even faster, or at least more productively, by doing things that are creative.

AL: You know what killing time is about? I think that’s called boredom.

TP: Yeah, so many people are bored. So many athletes are so incredibly bored. Because while what we do is very intensive, it’s the same every day. It’s regimented. It’s scheduled. It’s habitual. And there are these big blocks of time when you’re supposed to be resting your body but you can’t turn your mind off. And I think it drives a lot of athletes crazy. It used to drive me crazy. But through meditation and through art, I’ve been able to establish a deeper connection with my mind’s ability to create. To create myself and to create things I put out into the world.

AL: Victor Frankl, in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” says that this boredom is the essential mental illness of humanity. It’s a lack of purpose. So while you had purpose as an athlete, you didn’t have purpose with the time in between—the time between meals, between training sessions, or between race events. I don’t think people realize how much in between time there is as an athlete.

TP: Well, here’s the conundrum. As an athlete, you’re using your body every day. You’re pushing your body. But you also have a mind. So while you can rest your body, you can’t always rest your mind unless you’re sleeping. Even then, it’s still going. So I think athletes get into this state of confused boredom because they can only use their body so much every day and then they have to sit with their mind.

AL: That’s a unique perspective as an athlete. Is that what led you to a meditation practice?

TP: I was led into meditation after having a couple of pretty profound spiritual experiences in my time off while I was recovering from injury. In those experiences, I tapped into a state of mind that I later realized I could be in, by conscious choice—that my relationship with my mind, with my emotions, with my body, was closer and more easily reached than I thought it was.

I think I’ve dealt with a lot of undiagnosed depression in my adult life. With the pressures of sport and the amount of solo travel … but I never had any understanding that I was sad. It just was what it was: deeply uncomfortable. Like flying to Europe at 19 for the race season and crying for the first couple of nights because I felt so alone and not realizing that that is a form of depression.

AL: And ironically that kept you from tapping into this new community that you were now part of. That sadness keeps you isolated and makes you even more depressed even though everyone on the outside thinks that you’re engaged. They don’t think that you’re stuck inside. They don’t think that you’re lonely because they see you on this grand stage.

TP: It’s isolating from within. What drew me to meditation and what keeps me meditating now, is that there are so many different frequencies to tap into with other people and different cultures and it all just starts with being open with yourself and allowing yourself to make those connections and to not feel so isolated. The only person who makes you feel isolated is you. But it does take, at least for me, a certain amount of practice to keep myself open and to continue to open up even further.

AL: If you’re not caring for yourself, then you don’t even have the capacity to say, “hello.” And sometimes any opportunity or any relationship in life just starts with that hello.

TP: Or it starts with just a smile. Or just looking someone in the eyes. I notice that now when I meet people, I really look into their eyes—more deeply than I remember before meditating. And I’ve had some pretty radical changes in my perception of the world, my perception of other people as I’ve been practicing meditation. Right now, I use Headspace for meditating and I love it for the different packs that are offered. The first pack I did was the Creativity pack. You get this feeling a few days into it—this feeling of getting it—of understanding what this is supposed to be helping you with, this key that is unlocking your brain. And once I felt that for the first time, I was hooked.

AL: So let’s back up a bit. When did you first start meditating? And was that with Headspace?

TP: I started meditating on my own. Just sitting in silence. Seeing where my thoughts went. Completely unguided. No real idea of what I was doing. Just closing my eyes. I started that in December of 2015. I did that on and off for 6 months. Then over the summer of 2016, as I was preparing for the Rio Olympics, I started getting into Headspace. And then by late September into October I was past the Foundation pack. It took me a while to get past that pack. I think because it felt redundant. We live in a society where we want new, new, new all the time. But once I finished that pack, I understood that it was really important to have a baseline, this return to the breath, this return to the body. I jumped into the other packs in December of last year and it started becoming part of my daily schedule. I miss a couple of days here and there. But the last three months I’ve been straight through every day.

AL: As you were preparing for the Olympics and you told me that you were going to use Headspace as part of your performance program it was easy to think about it as a tool for accomplishing this bigger goal. It took away the negative touchy-feely connotation that meditation has for a lot of people because meditating became about part of a system to make it to the Olympics and to be your best. The Games took away the social risk or judgment when you told people about your meditation practice. But, I think it was deeper than that for you. Was it just about being a better athlete?

TP: I think I was drawn to it because I was feeling like there is a certain level of personal growth that is necessary for me at all times. I have a deep hunger to be changing, growing, and evolving. When I broke my leg, I experienced a huge amount of change, but it reinvigorated me to learn, to grow, and to better myself. As I started coming back from the injury back into this sport that I had been suddenly taken out of but that also had a lifestyle that made me really depressed, I came back into sport and I felt like I couldn’t grow anymore after having had this really intense period of evolution. So I saw meditation as this way of continuing that growth, but I wasn’t doing it properly. I didn’t look into it at all. I thought that by just sitting down and closing my eyes that I could figure it out, that I could process things. But, I had no frame of reference. So the Headspace journey so far has fulfilled that deeper need for continuous evolution and growth regardless of what I’m doing with my life.

AL: How has meditation changed you—mentally, physically, day-to-day?

TP: The biggest thing that comes to mind is patience as well as my ability to listen, which is tied to patience. I’m a lot more patient about how I process my emotions. I’ve always thought about things very deeply and very intensely. There’s a lot of power in that ability to tunnel in. But there’s a cliff with respect to how much tunneling is adequate to understand something. I used to always think that my processing of emotions was one my strongest points, but I’m realizing now that there’s only so much processing you can do. Sometimes the best thing to do is to let them exist and let them pass and to not try to always completely define things. Putting them into a simple framework and having a few definitions is OK, but sometimes we process so much that we cause the feeling to come back, to cycle and repeat and you get to this point where you don’t even know if you were even feeling something to begin with or just causing the feeling with your own thoughts.

AL: Good or bad, emotions are fleeting and trying to hold onto them or process them too much is like trying to hold onto time. But, it keeps on moving.

TP: We want to hold onto that time so bad. But time is about space and it makes sense why the app is called Headspace. For me, it’s about trying to create this healthy distance between my emotions and me. If you see something as it passes by you, it’s easier to identify, when it’s a little further away than when it’s too close. There’s an optimal distance. If it’s way too close, it takes up your entire view.

AL: There’s the relationship with yourself—this opening up of your own emotional bandwidth, which you’ve discovered with meditation. And that’s opened up your relationship with others and the world. Tell me more about that with respect to people. How is your relationship with others changing?

TP: I’ve started to notice that if I’m with another person or a group of people I’m really close with, like my family, if I’m having a moment of insecurity, I can see it reflected in them. We think that we can contain all this stuff. But little bits get out. Just like waves bouncing around. Some people absorb them. Some people deflect or reflect them back.

AL: I think what you’ve realized is that emotional states are infectious. Good or bad, they spread like viruses. So, if you’re in a team or group situation and you’re experiencing a lot of negativity, how do you change the mood state?

TP: Being part of a sport like cycling—a sport that identifies with suffering—there are a lot of people in it that I’d characterize as depressed. This sport really runs you down. It makes you tired. I’m either surrounded by a lot of negativity or just a lot of tired people. Either way, the tired human is not a happy human. For me, I’m eccentric and quirky. I think about things in my own way and I like to share. So I’ve found in that opening myself up to being this strange person that I naturally am—it’s that person that brings the light out in people. It’s just about jumping over the barrier of being judged. No matter what happens in any conversation or any interaction, I guarantee you that the other person is judging himself or herself more than you. Even if they’re totally silent and you’re totally weird. But a small part of them is hopefully inspired. Inspired by you being your natural weird self.

AL: So what advice would you give to others who want to go on this same journey of meditation, who want to open up some mental bandwidth and who want to be more of their own natural weird?

TP: I think that establishing a meditation routine and technique is most important. If you think of your mind as a kitchen, you can’t start cooking if that kitchen is dirty. Well, you can, but if you’re cutting your vegetables in the middle of dirty dishes, it’s not going to feel as good or taste as good. The meal isn’t going to be quite as special if you hadn’t cleaned everything first and then started your process. So I think of meditation as just that—wiping the slate clean so you can start right.

Establishing a baseline inside of one’s mind is also important – a baseline of what’s normal for you. I’ve had a couple of concussions and I just had a concussion a month ago. Concussions are strange because they really alter your emotions. They alter your attention span, your ability to process, your ability to think. This last concussion was the first one I’ve had while also developing a mental baseline through meditation. Because I had this baseline better established I was able to make the connection that I was more emotional, more up and down, not paying attention—that something was wrong. That I needed more rest. That I needed to be more careful and that I needed to take care of myself.

And as we get more and more consumed by technology—addicted to something we don’t think of as drugs but that are designed to work exactly the same way in our brain—it’s even more important to establish that baseline, to check in with that baseline, to come back to that baseline, watch that baseline change, observe it and then continue with that swiping life. Doing that for me has resulted in me spending a lot less time on my phone since I started meditating. I’m more aware of how something like my phone is shifting me.

Meditation is mental calibration. If you take a little time to establish a zero, you don’t get so thrown off to the right or to the left.

AL: And if you can clean the slate, emotionally calibrate, and repeat that on a daily basis then every day you can actually live your life. I think we’ll stop there. Thanks for taking the time to share.

[Editor’s Note: For more on Skratch Labs, click here. And make sure to check out their cookbooks. I swear by them for endurance food, throwing parties, and just making an easy, nourishing dinner.]

Dr. Allen Lim

Dr. Allen Lim is a sports physiologist, cycling coach, and a founder of Skratch Labs, a manufacturer of performance hydration mixes and sports nutrition alternatives. With Chef Biju Thomas, Lim is author of "The Feed Zone Cookbook," "Feed Zone Portables," and "Feed Zone Table."