Recently, while cycling uphill in fog, I hit a patch of ice on the road. Suddenly my wheels were spinning but I was going nowhere fast. Sound a bit like your life this past year? Me too!
Late November, I cycled to a friend’s house for a birthday tea and walk above the fog line. Both of us live on a remote hilltop in Canton Zurich that’s high enough to keep its brow just above the white blanket that covers the valleys below for days on end. It was a cold day but the sun was shining and it wasn’t far so I went by bike. By the time I cycled home, the fog had crept up from the valley, blurring, then blanking out the trees and road ahead. My intuition whispered, “walk up the next hill” but my ego said, “Me walk? No way!” A few minutes later, on an uphill curve, I hit a patch of black ice.
The wheels of my bike started spinning without any forward movement. For a few moments, it felt like I was on a robust stationary bike bolted to the floor. Except I wasn’t indoors. I was on a mountain pass, riding a racing bike, with smooth, ultra thin tyres. To avoid falling over, I steered onto the other side of the road, a risky thing to do in fog, but I needed traction to stay upright. I swerved too far, and went right over the edge. Next thing I was on an unplanned cross-country detour, bouncing down a steep grassy slope into a narrow field. Beyond the field were trees on a precipice so I tipped my bike to one side, gave a little yelp and crash-landed in an unglorified heap, sooner rather than later.
I lay there for a few seconds, thanking heaven for the softish landing then I untangled myself from my bike and took stock of the damages: I had some bruises, but no bones were broken. My favourite beige corduroy trousers had a black oil painting of a bicycle cog imprinted on one leg. The brakes on my drop handlebars were slightly bucked but were still functioning. Not much was dented besides my dignity. So I picked up my ultralight bicycle, carried it back to the road and did what my intuition had whispered earlier. I walked my bike up the hill.
Towards the top I met three men fixing a tractor. “Why do you push such a fancy machine up the hill?” they teased. I told them I’d just hit a patch of ice. There was silence as I walked past, each of them possibly brooding over their own near-death experiences while navigating these frigid hilltop roads. How strange though to have a few Swiss farmers taunt me like that. My neighbours are normally over polite and reserved. Was it a way of venting frustration over a non-cooperative tractor, mixed with pack bravado? More likely it was totally innocent banter. They were flirting because I had looked much younger from a distance and then, as I got closer, they realised their folly. I was probably a bit over the hill anyway to be riding up this one.
What I’ve learnt over the years: if you pick up flack from others, be gentle on them, they are innocently mirroring your own internal Greek chorus. In this instance my inner chorus were chastising me firstly for not listening to my intuition, secondly for riding a summer vehicle in winter and thirdly also for walking…
Think of your ego as the air-filled tyre of a bicycle, designed to soften the bumps in life as long as its not under or over-inflated (3). The different facets of your personality are the bicycle spokes, which when balanced and working together keep your wheels turning, allowing you to make progress by constantly adapting to slight changes in the environment. But what happens to all this when the whole world locks down, frozen in fear? There’s no traction anymore and we are in danger of sliding out of control.
Fear is the ice on the road, and there are no sign posts to remind you that the road condition is a state of mind.
Last week I was back on my bike again for the first time since my fall. I noticed how cautious I’d become. I slowed down and chastised myself for repeating the same experience. Even though it was a much warmer day and there was no ice, I behaved as if there was. Every dark patch on the road was circumvented in case it was slippery. By steering off course to protect myself from imagined danger, I risked putting myself into far more danger by losing my response-ability to oncoming traffic. I started thinking that maybe I ought to get tyres with studs or with spikes for gripping on ice even though I’m not likely to go cycling in icy conditions.
This whole incident makes me reflect back on this past year.
2020 gave us all ample opportunity to watch fear in action; not only to see more clearly how we personally respond to fear but also to observe the extent to which fear is used to steer individuals, groups or even entire communities. I notice how easily distracted I am
How much of our social and political world is in fact pure ice-scape? Structures built with frozen hearts due to generations of unfelt, unacknowledged collectively inherited trauma.
Observing ourselves and how we personally respond to real or perceived threat is the hidden gift and opportunity offered to us by these times.
How fear trips up even the smartest minds
Fear is a debilitating foe and usually goes unrecognized because it hides its jagged teeth behind a myriad of masks: distraction, overwhelm, anger, numbness, over-pleasing, burnout, strong man worship, thinking thinking thinking to avoid actually feeling (dissociation)….. The list of things we do to protect ourselves from feeling fear is endless. In extreme cases, if we think our survival is at stake, fear trips up even the smartest minds through a slippery manoeuvre called “the amygdala hijack”, a temporary regression to a far younger developmental stage, by freezing our higher thinking and feeling capacities in order to run an older default survival program from the past. But what if this older way no longer works? The danger is to keep going, with wheels spinning, until we fall over.
Fight, flight or freeze.
What’s your default mode? And, which of the hundreds of other ways (distraction etc) do you attempt to keep your mind in overdrive in order to avoid feeling fear all together?
As I look backwards for clues on how to move forwards, I notice how many of my decisions over the years were fear based even though I didn’t think so at the time. Such as over thinking to avoid feeling, or isolating myself instead of reaching out, or closing my heart to avoid risking vulnerability. Or wheel spinning, by still doing whatever worked in the past, over and over even though it no longer works. Or in extreme cases, freezing even though this is certainly not in my best interests. Right now our very survival depends on the opposite – the recovery of our sensitivity.
My biggest take out from this last year is how crucial it is that we learn to identify, observe and manage “the amygdala hijack” phenomena of regression to earlier developmental stages in our lives, in order to take back our agency individually and also to recover enough sensitivity to survive as a species.
A good place to start is Stephen Porges on Polyval Theory
a recent embodiment podcast with him
such how to cultivate a sense of safety in our own nervous system.
Also Thomas Huebl’s recent book: Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.
Here’s a podcast discussion between Thomas and Terry Patten
Also explore all the calls with Markus Hirzig in the Earthuni free auditorium on this theme.
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2. Why am I here?
To find out more about your purpose and build a balanced wheel of support to keep moving,
instead of wheel spinning, join the Purpose Wheel Weekend: January 29, 30, 31
3 For 2 related articles. “Feeling Stuck? Think like a cyclist.” Read here