The cold is my God
Recently I started taking cold showers. Not because I wanted to boast about it, although I have done so on occasion. I’m doing it because you hear that there are all kinds of health benefits of cold showering. It’s better for your circulation and for your skin, and doesn’t leave me flaky and dry after a morning scold. A cold shower uses less energy, and means I spend a shorter time in the shower. More time for activities.
It has gotten a little easier to jump straight in without the hesitation, but there’s always the moment when I catch the first whisper of cold on my skin, on my foot, not the water itself but just the chilled, displaced air. I always think, “do I really want to do this?” As soon as I duck under the water the worst of it is over. It’s the anticipation that stings colder than the water itself.
Now that I’ve been showering this way for a couple of months, I’ve managed to reduce the time I spend dithering and take the plunge as soon as I undress. But this doesn’t stop the fact that the cold rush is like needles on the back of my hands and leaves me feeling raw and scraped.
But the main reason I started taking cold showers is for the sake of self-knowledge.
The title of this essay is a quote from the Dutch athlete, multiple world-record holder, and Viking Buddhist (as one YouTube commenter called him), Wim Hof. He is a man who voluntarily subjects himself to ridiculously low temperatures, the kinds of low that the majority of people wisely avoid. The kinds of low that would kill a mere mortal. He is also known as the Ice Man.
He swims in sub-zero waters in his bare skin. He has swum under sheets of ice without any assistance. I have been washing my hair with just the cold tap on in the shower in June in Manchester, and even I have felt the tingle and crush of brain freeze, and yet this Dutchman goes for longer and for colder than I can reasonably manage in (what I consider) an icy shower.
He has run marathons in shorts north of the arctic circle, he has climbed Everest in shorts. He claims, and has shown in laboratory conditions, that he can control his body temperature, direct warmth to particular parts of his body, and even resist viral infection. In a vice documentary Wim Hof says “the cold is my God.”
Through exposure to the cold, he has learned to control his breathing. Controlled, conscious breathing, he says, is the key to unlocking human physiology. It is his breathing which makes it possible to withstand such extreme temperatures and to control usually automatic bodily responses. You can find an explanation of his method online, and it basically involves breathing in more oxygen than you breathe out and then holding your breath after breathing out completely.
That is the powerful potential of breathing. If you do any kind of mindfulness or meditation, you realise pretty quickly that many of the practices rely on breathing, or at least use breath as a kind of anchor. The mind wanders easily, and the breath is a constant rhythm to focus on and take you away from your head into the body, into physicality.
We spend so much time in our heads, ruminating, replaying events, imagining a different past that could have been if only we’d known. Overthinking is rife. If I am not mindful, my thoughts quickly turn to a bitter, self-centred narrative that justifies my feelings, my past actions, or my predications about the future.
As with the myriad thoughts and feelings that pass through me every day, breathing is an automatic act. I breathe whether I realise it, and I think and feel whether I realise or not. Both are constantly ongoing, instinctual, a stream of unnoticed activity. But these activities can be made conscious. Awareness of breathing is a key to the mind because you quickly realise exactly how much your mind is shooting off all over the place, like a rogue Catherine wheel.
To be mindful of my breathing makes me aware of how much I am not at all conscious, how little I pay attention to the fact of my thinking. I am usually too far lost in thought, as if thought is a place you can go and become lost in, like losing track of the right path in a forest. To be mindful or mind-less is the difference between watching thoughts pass by like traffic and being yourself in one of the cars, grumbling about traffic and accidents and other circumstances that are out of one’s control.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time “lost in thought”, and usually I am none the better for it. I find that my unattended consciousness tends toward blame, shirking responsibility, bitterness, selfishness. When something breaks me out of this thoughtless stupor, it evapourates but of course all the rumination leaves its traces in the mind, unknown to me, who is not even aware of the thoughts he has been having. I don’t have thoughts; they have me. Isn’t that what it means to be lost in thought?
Breathing and cold showers are ways out of the mind, into the body, into awareness of the present. These acts have the potential to get me into the immediacy of experience and away from the auto-pilot that constantly mediates everything I do with some sob story of regret and worry and rumination.
A line jumped out of a book I’m reading at the moment, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.” (51) I have often thought that thinking is a process of the mind, separate from my body and from my feeling. True knowledge, however, is not known only in your head, but in everything that makes up a person: heart, head, gut, the soul, if you believe there is a soul.
Like many individuals in modern Western society, and the world over, I have spent a great deal of my life in the pursuit of learning. I am currently studying for a Masters degree, and I will have been in some form of education for 80% of my life. Much of that has been voluntary. I have believed that education and knowledge are the routes to success. And if not material wealth and achievement, then I have bought into the generally accepted idea that head knowledge is the path to enlightenment.
Of course, I have gained a great deal from my formal education, however flawed and partial the systems may be. But there are other kinds of knowledge to be had. There is a self-knowledge that you cannot read about in books or do a course in.
There is no substitute for spending time with yourself, actually present with yourself and with your thoughts, whatever they may be. Not the usual distractions, but waiting to see what arises in the mind, in the heart, an honest self-awareness. This is the type of mindfulness I aim to practice more and more, spending the time to make conscious that which often remains beneath the surface.
As for the cold showers, I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage the glacial waters from the pipes in winter. I have not yet regretted it. I have regretted the few occasions when I’ve chickened out and run the tap hot, but I have never regretted the surging aliveness that comes after a chilly dousing. The cold monopolises your thoughts and makes it very difficult to think about anything else. In that, it’s a kind of relief.