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 on a sheet of ice. To avoid falling over, I steered off the ice 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 us 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. 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 slowed down and chastised myself for repeating the same experience and 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, or perceived threat, but also to observe the extent to which fear is used to regress and/or steer individuals, groups or even entire communities.
How much of our social and political world is in fact pure ice-scape? Structures built with frozen hearts to control others 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.
Explorations and Resources
Fear vs fearless? Why we might not feel fear
Fear is a debilitating foe and usually goes unrecognized because it hides its jagged teeth behind a myriad of masks: distraction, overwhelm, frustration, anger, numbness, over-pleasing, burnout, strong man or hero worship, thinking thinking thinking to avoid actually feeling (dissociation)….. The list of things we do to protect ourselves from feeling fear is endless.
How fear trips up even the smartest minds
In extreme cases, if we think our survival is at stake, fear trips up even the smartest among us 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 our ancestral 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.
We each have different levels of tolerance before we shut down, depending on past experience of our inherited nervous system.
This depends not only on eary childhood experiences but also our family’s unique survival pattern. Also bear in mind the hidden faces of fear: which of the many ways (distraction, overwhelm, anger etc) do you attempt to keep your mind spinning 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. For much of my life I thought of myself as fearless. But now that I start to pull off the various masks that fear hides behind, I see examples of disguised fear, such as noticing how distracted I have become, or how much over-thinking I do to avoid feeling, or when I’m isolating myself instead of reaching out, or closing my heart to avoid risking vulnerability. Each of these is a form of wheel spinning, doing whatever worked in the past, over and over even though it no longer works. Each of these actions may have been intelligent and effective at an earlier stage, but now isn’t appropriate or effective In extreme cases of perceived threat, I have witnessed myself going into freeze mode even though this is certainly not in my best interests. Right now our very survival depends on the opposite – the recovery of deep feeling: our sensitivity and capacity to feel ourselves, each other and the needs of other species.
My biggest take out from this last year is how crucial it is that each of us learns to identify, observe and manage “the amygdala hijack” phenomena – moments when we are being (or have been) regressed to earlier developmental stages in our lives due to perceived threat. And remind ourselves to breathe, or change how we are breathing, in order to take back our agency individually and collectively in order to recover enough sensitivity to survive as a species. This is probably the most important work we can do individually to support life and biodiversity on this planet. More about this.
What I’m exploring regarding the amygdala hijack: Stephen Porges on Polyval Theory. Here’s recent embodiment podcast with him with tips, such how to cultivate a sense of safety in our own nervous system. Here’s an audio book on befriending your nervous system by clinician Deb Dana, using polyval lens.
I’m also exploring Thomas Huebl’s recent book: Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.
I found this podcast discussion between Thomas and Terry Patten useful.
Also re-listening to calls with Markus Hirzig (most senior student of Huebl). many of these are in the Earthuni free auditorium on this theme last few years.
As a daily practice I recommend transformational breathwork and/or Systema. Any form of yoga, dance, consciously coordinating breath and movement or breathing technique will be helpful in some way to bring some of us out of our minds and more into our bodies.
I plan to unpack this theme more for myself and others. Register here for notification of future interviews on this topic. ( and bookmark this site for more articles exploring my own experience of the hidden faces of fear, such as distraction, overwhelm, over pleasing, over thinking …)
2. Exploring the bigger picture regarding the question “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, visit my other site on hands and purpose Here’s a recent interview I did with 2 very talented podcasters, Celine Foster and Jeremy Glazer on this topic.
3. For more cycling stories. “Feeling Stuck? Think like a cyclist.” read here