Feature Issue #016

Zen doping, ride-life balance and flow – An interview with Zen master Hinnerk Polenski

What made Miguel Indurain, Steve Jobs and the Samurai so successful? What constitutes true mastery? We sat down with Zen master Hinnerk Polenski at the Daishin Zen monastery in Buchenberg, Germany, to mull over improvements in performance, ride-life balance, moments of flow and the real sense behind sport.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Dear Hinnerk, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Please could you introduce yourself?

Hinnerk:
That’s a big ask for any Zen master. When asked to present oneself, one would merely keep quiet. [He laughs]. The task of a Zen master is to serve the people. And to serve means: A man without a rank and name. It is not important where you come from, nor where you are going. What’s important is the current moment. The presence between us both, what’s happening right now. Then individuals decide whether or not they will follow the route of a Master. That’s the only thing that counts. [He pauses, breaking into a smile at my bemused expression].

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Could you explain in layman’s terms what Zen really means?

Hinnerk:
Zen is a way to the essential. It’s a way of direct experience, so you have to feel for yourself what that means. A state of Zen is a path of learning, of training, of your own transformation, of improvement, and change. That’s why there are parallels between Zen and sport. They’re inextricably linked, inseparable. The idea that there’s Zen on one hand, and sport on the other, doesn’t exist in Asia.

Many athletes reach a moment in which they feel a power that’s stronger than simply the energy gel they had before…

A human’s potential lies in his or her inner power. When I gain an awareness of my own strength, what my inner strength is, then I cease squandering energy. People that do sport will know exactly what I mean. For a while you’re wholly focused on the sporting task, then comes the moment when your focus ruptures, revealing incredible clarity. In the midst of intense activities, many athletes reach a moment in which they feel a power that’s stronger than simply the energy gel they had before, or the press-ups that they’ve done in training. One senses a strength that goes beyond what you’ve done with a coach or alone. This strength is the unity of body, energy, and spirit. It’s a fleeting moment in which you encounter this essential experience.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
What you’re describing sounds a lot like what many mountain bikers would refer to as ‘flow’.

Hinnerk:
Precisely. But Zen goes beyond these moments of flow. When this flow happens during a task, it’s called Samadhi in traditional Zen teachings, a state of meditative consciousness when you’re carrying out a movement that you’ve mastered. I have the strength, I have the energy, I have taken this movement to an unconscious level, completely submerged in the totality of the task. But it isn’t the true meaning of Zen. It’s simply an experience that shows me that there’s more to life than the constant entanglement around me. There’s more than stress, worries and my terraced house. There’s something inside me – as I just experienced – and it’s not something to which I can even give a name.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Zen has a history going back for a thousand years in Asia and became popular in the West in the 20th century. The Samurai used Zen to improve their fighting skills. Steve Jobs had a Zen Master that supported him throughout his career. It could be seen as ‘doping’ if it’s improving one’s sporting or cognitive performance. But is there more to Zen than that?

Hinnerk:
Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately many athletes call it a day with flow, saying: ‘Yes, that’s why I run, that’s why I ride a bike, that’s why I do this or that.’ But as humans we have the potential to unlock this dimension in our daily lives too. And then it’s no longer flow; it’s awareness. It becomes a transformation that changes your life, leading to a life full of happiness and awareness. Not simply riding as flow, but living a life of flow – with rough edges at times, missed trains, and relationship woes.

The ideal Zen is uninterrupted flow. Athletes have this privilege for those moments in which they’re wholly inside the immediacy of the moment. You could call it a spark, but the sense of Zen isn’t simply one spark; it’s thousands, or millions, of these sparks, until they’re all shining in the light at some point. It’s not like a light being switched on [Laughs], but it is, in fact, reality that is illuminated.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
You’ve mentioned the technique. Many athletes have mastered the technical skills required for a sport, does this make them a master in their field?

Hinnerk:
No. Technique is necessary but it’s only a third of what counts. Let me explain the three parts that constitute the essential, that leads one to the potential of one’s inner strength.

The first part involves discovery, of myself and of what power means. What links me with the rest of everything? What am I, what do I believe, what do I think and how do I feel – is that everything? Is there another dimension? Is there a bigger potential? And how does that feel?

This is what I practise in Zazan, seated meditation. It’s the only place I can truly practise it. In daily life there are certain conditions – not just in sport – where you may briefly experience this power and sense of unison. As humans we recognise these moments. In front of you is the sunset, you’re looking at the fiery red sky and it moves you, your heart leaps and you feel at one with everything. These fleeting sensations are simply a light being switched on, a reality that otherwise is hidden and out of reach. Seated meditation – what we call Zazen – is the training to open this reality for longer.

For athletes there’s a bridge that you’ve already touched upon. At the start, Zen will result in an increase in performance – although that isn’t the purpose of Zen. But it happens. Coaches tell us about significant increases in both performance and enthusiasm. After all, sport is a broad arena where a lot can be won. Only a small number of athletes fully exploit these advantages. We’re currently developing a concept for the football team SC Freiburg that unites Zen and elite performances.

But let’s go back to Zazen. During the meditation I feel something inside me, beyond what’s merely happening then. The decisive question is then: how do I achieve this state in reality? Many people that move into spirituality feel this, but they can’t access that power on the streets.

This elevates it to more than just flow. When I get off the bike and stand somewhere on the mountainside, this flow goes beyond my bike and spreads far and wide.

But let’s go back to Zazen. During the meditation I feel something inside me, beyond what’s merely happening then. The decisive question is then: how do I achieve this state in reality? Many people that move into spirituality feel this, but they can’t access that power on the streets.

As an athlete, you’ve got the second element that we need in Zen, namely the ‘Do’: this is an easy, repeatable activity, and it awakens the experience that you’ve achieved through meditation. The requirement for this second element is the act of a simple movement – like jogging, or a martial arts routine. For experienced athletes, one may have memorised a complex series of movements that no longer require conscious thought to be carried out. Here’s where meditation experience floods into the flow. In such a case it goes beyond “wow, I’m tearing down the mountain, on a mad bit of a trail that’s hardly rideable, and it’s happening and there’s flow.” Instead, I can draw from my deep experience with meditation and use these elements in different dimensions — inner strength, awareness, heart, unity and so on. This elevates it to more than just flow. When I get off the bike and stand somewhere on the mountainside, this flow goes beyond my bike and spreads far and wide. It says, this is where I am, in this reality. That’s the third part. It’s when it enters your life. You are in a flow, in the now, simply stood there right now.

But let’s go back to Zazen. During the meditation I feel something inside me, beyond what’s merely happening then. The decisive question is then: how do I achieve this state in reality? Many people that move into spirituality feel this, but they can’t access that power on the streets.
That’s where the Zen triad comes into play. Athletes have a distinct advantage here because they’ve already done a fraction of the homework. It’s easier for them to get on the path to Zen, and they reap the rewards sooner. When one is able to combine the two elements – of truly being in a flow and practising Zen – it could result in a life-changing experience, and that is something amazing. Simple as, end of. [Laughs]

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Many cyclists are incredibly focused with a huge training load and are constantly working towards their goals. It’s something that I know well, but aren’t we at risk of losing sight of the serenity and the ability to listen to your body? How does Zen regard this?

Hinnerk:
Old Masters would say that you’ve lost yourself. You’re speeding past the goal with performance and power, because the goal is your life. Zen doesn’t disregard the notion of performance and competition, but it is not the purpose. The purpose is to fill our lives with something. And to do that, your body has to be key to everything. Extreme athleticism, excessive ambition and the increasing digitalisation in our daily lives dampen our bodily sensations, and by losing contact to our bodies, we are no longer immune to negativity, bad vibes, or entanglements. How can it be that someone may feel down while partaking in an amazing sporting activity? It can happen when your mind is elsewhere, not present in the moment; it’s when one doesn’t see reality for how it is actually, and instead it’s all clouded through the gloom of one’s thoughts.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain once said: “My strength was that I am more balanced and calmer than most other riders.”

Hinnerk:
Exactly. The more you’re aware of your body and moving as ‘one’, the better equipped you are for the challenge and the more immune to negativity. Then it goes beyond simply how you perceive something physically, and becomes a privilege that should be appreciated. Take mountain biking, right: I’m in the most exceptional landscape in the mountains and I’m in great physical shape. I mean, what could be better?

If I’m in a competitive situation and not aware of my body because I’m too focused, that’s just rubbish. A national coach once said ‘let’s just see how it goes’ while at a major competition, but that’s because they were confident due to the hard training of the previous six months. In that moment, there’s no more training that can be done. You have to just do your thing. Anything else in your mind becomes an obstacle. You need to enter a state of total awareness: I will see every single stone, as well as stones that I normally wouldn’t see. I have to be so aware for what is behind the next corner even if I can’t see around the bend. That’s the open stage that you can enjoy. It’s great. And then it’s also great when you win.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Is that what makes a true Master?

Hinnerk:
Yes, that’s the point. But I’d like to suggest that you try this: next time you aren’t in a competition, get off the bike. Just get off the bike and stand there, as out of breath as you were while riding, and just wait until your breath is calm again. Just stand there and look around, breathe it in. Breathe in the endless sky, and breathe in the mountains and the power of the earth, and the rocks around you. And be a rock. When there is peace, get back on the bike and pedal off – it’s wonderful! [Laughs] Competitions are all well and good, but life isn’t a continual competition. That would merely lead to stress, and then burning out. Unfortunately too few athletes realise that. Sport is an act that brings us right to our core, but you have to work it out of its core first. There have always been individuals who reached this state of openness, and going beyond themselves, without Zen. And in this case it also extends far beyond sport and fans out to your whole life. Sport is just an entrance card; when sport is the ‘Do’ in Zen, it is one third of everything.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Samurai have said that you’re wrong to believe that archery is about hitting the target. So, what’s it really about?

Hinnerk:
That very moment that you are there. The totality of the now. Nothing else. I have learned to master archery, and in this moment I draw back my arrow and it’s perfect exactly how it is. I let go; the arrow shoots forward, flying. If I don’t hit the target, then the old Master will say that you drew the bow a touch too tightly, or that I’m too many for that draw weight, so try with 50 pounds.

There are two different relationships here: just because someone says that the journey is the destination, that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant if we reach it or not. But the moment you are in the totality of it, that’s where you place the focus. But in today’s world, we do this in the opposite manner: our thoughts are flying around about whether we win or not, and because we are thinking so much, we end up training badly. And that’s why we lose. Our attention isn’t with what we’re doing in this moment, in the training – it’s already at the finish. When we are open and relaxed, we can fully be in that moment of the training. Then we’ll do the training correctly, and it becomes the ‘Do’. And the training becomes more important in that moment than the goal.

When I’m doing press-ups, it’s irrelevant whether I manage 50 or 58. It’s about each one in that moment. While I’m doing the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, and then think: ‘Oh man, 58, how am I supposed to do another 33 when I’ve not even managed 30 yet.’ Then I won’t do it. Think of the stress. What’s more important is to do press-ups every day and one day you’ll have 60, and you’ll think: ‘Oh, right, how did that happen?’

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
That’s where the individual is fighting against himself or herself, isn’t it? When they realise that they started with such-and-such a number of press-ups, or kilometres on a bike ride, and now they’ve reached something bigger.

Hinnerk:
Elite performances aren’t moments of unpleasant emotions where you’re fighting yourself, or doubting whether you’ll win or lose. They are moments where something happens; you’re on the limit, and perhaps cross a limit. I don’t want to use the word ‘amazing’ again, but being on your limit – or crossing it – while competing is just amazing. It’s an unbelievable feeling. And in that moment, winning or not-winning aren’t as important as what happens in that moment. And if you realise you’ve only come second, then that’s that – you can change your training schedule, listen to your coach who’ll say ‘do this,’ or ‘do that’. You have the opportunity to adapt now. Start over and train for an extra ten minutes each day. You don’t need to tear yourself up about it. Just train for an extra ten minutes. Or work more on your legs instead of your arms, perhaps. A fighting spirit is something else. True strength, true mastery isn’t about stress. That’s the opposite of stress.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Moving onto the next big topic: the ride-life balance. For many riders, getting out on their bike is a way to release stress and switch off. Is there a difference between ‘I’m riding to clear my head’ and Zen?

Hinnerk:
Independent of Zen, I think it’s wonderful just how many people practice a sport in this country, on this continent. By doing sport, we’re reclaiming our bodies and that’s a major step. When we take notice of it, it also puts us in a position to wield it in other dimensions for performance. That’s brilliant. Then, as we know, it’s also backed up by a legion of doctors and research studies. Doing exercise three times a week is the best way to prevent illnesses and sickness – that, alongside Zen and green tea.

Now back to road cyclists and mountain bikers: stop every now and then on your ride and look around you. Be in the moment. There you are. It’s raining, you’re in the woods, there’s a smell of pine trees, and it’s glorious. Or, I’ve just made it up a huge climb and now I’ll take a moment to enjoy this beautiful view. This belongs together. Your body is being revitalised. You – or rather ‘it’ – is short of breath, it’s sweating. It’s in synthesis.

This wonderful pairing of movement followed by regular stopping is a good starting point. An awareness of your body is vital in order to prevent stress from even occurring. It’s also a basis for change. Your will, your drive, and your body are linked to each other. If I were an athlete and combined it with my experiences of Zen, then I’d enter a dimension of inner strength – and more intense will. It would put me in the position of being able to set better boundaries, have more clarity in my life, and be able to say no to certain things. Those are the causes of stress: not saying No, not having clarity, and not setting boundaries.

For a serious rider, a bit of rain doesn’t matter, does it? Being outside is what counts – regardless of the weather’s antics, whether the sun is burning down onto the tarmac, or the rain is soaking into the trail. That’s what you can experience as a rider. And Zen is in a position to bring this sense over to my everyday experience. Or even the other way round: developing my sport by practising Zen. In this sense, it becomes a circle, with both elements mutually developing the other, ever faster, and ever more intensively. At the end, what counts isn’t the athletic performance, but how your life is fulfilled.

An awareness of your body is vital in order to prevent stress from even occurring.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
The problem with fulfilment is that many elite athletes reach the top and then realise that there’s still something missing. Some people are never satisfied, and dive into the hunt for their next victory in the search for satisfaction. You’ve already mentioned the idea of taking a reality check – stopping, breathing, and being aware. Could you perhaps go deeper into this

Hinnerk:
Standing still is very important. So I’d recommend to everyone that you should stop from time to time and raise your shoulders, moving them backwards to open up your chest so that your breathing can be deeper and slower, letting your body be aware of where you are. Not just awareness of your body, but also your sweat, your exhausted breath. Use your slow expiration to bring a sense of calm to your body. Then when you get back on and ride off, you’ll be in another setting – a different one to when you’re simply tearing through the scenery, oblivious to what’s around you. Being aware of where you are – isn’t that just fantastic?

This awareness changes your view and your behaviour. The essence of Zen is being stationary in the midst of everything. Stillness in the happenings. Of emotions and thoughts. Of just being present. Thoughts turn our reality – our ‘being present’ – into a drama, or a rainy day. We feel like we are in the middle of a gloomy, rainy day. We stop and realize: The sun is shining. That’s what it is about.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Let’s imagine that someone has read this interview and found themselves nodding their head. Maybe they’re thinking ‘I’ve had similar experiences on the bike. I’m curious, maybe Zen could be something for me.’ What would be their next step?

Hinnerk:
On the topic of meditation we have a YouTube channel with videos. [Editor’s note: unfortunately they are only available in German, but you can check out this video from entrepreneur and keynote speaker Christoph Magnussen who visited Hinnerk]. There you’ll find brief summaries that give you more of an idea of what’s involved. And naturally, every single reader is warmly invited to our seminar centre in Buchenberg to learn about meditation.

A simple meditation exercise is to sit on the edge of your sofa or chair, with a straight back. Breathe out slowly seven times. Then breathe in again. The breathing in isn’t important, but the seven outward breaths should be slow and controlled. Then sit there for a while and listen to what’s around you, heightening your awareness of your surroundings, your body, any smells that are present. At some point there’ll be a moment that you choose to stop and continue your day. It’s just a small meditation exercise, an introduction.

What’s important is why individuals meditate. Everyone tells you that you’ll have more power, more heart, more oneness, less fear, less negativity, less stress, and the list goes on. But at the end of the day, those are not the reasons why people meditate. They meditate because they tried it once and felt something. They felt that the power was somehow inside them. Or that the sense of clarity was inside. It prompted them to wonder why they create so much stress all of the time: Life is great, so why am I turning it into something that’s more of a terror? And that’s the moment when an individual will start to meditate. Of course, it’s not easy to experience this moment through a YouTube video or just by dipping into a meditation exercise.

The best route into meditation is to go to seminars or guided classes until the moment arrives. Then comes the ‘wow’ moment and you will have understood it. It’s the same in sport. You don’t do sport simply because you’ve got nothing better to do; you do it because it makes you happy. There’s nothing better than when I’ve showered after an amazing training session and am sat exhausted on a bench, with the world rushing around me. I’m just sat there with wet hair. Those are the moments in which something deeper touches you. And Zen, in that moment, abounds in your whole life. [Hinnerk closes his eyes, there’s one minute of silence].

Yes, I’d be pleased if people’s curiosity is awoken. It’s a wonderful story for athletes.

E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine:
Hinnerk, many thanks for this inspiring interview.


This article is from E-MOUNTAINBIKE issue #016

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Words & Photos: Robin Schmitt