Cold Water / Full Immersion


As a former actor, former EMT, and elementary teacher it is pretty much a requirement that I have a therapist. The guy I have been seeing off and on for a few years now is pretty no-nonsense and is great at calling bullshit. So I keep going back. About a year ago he asked me a series of questions that I later came to call the ‘cost/benefit analysis.’ It is a set of four questions that are direct, simple, and provide an objective view of a situation. Benefits of doing, costs of doing, benefits of not doing, costs of not doing. Not a lot of gray area there, and I love it.

The latest cost/benefit session looked like this: what are the benefits to freezing my ass off in the water? What are the costs, to my ass or otherwise? What are the benefits of NOT freezing in the salt water? What are the costs of avoiding it? I won’t reprint the whole list here, but suffice to say the benefits to avoiding the cold water were many and mighty.

Then I thought of the dream I wrote about last week, and about the immediate clarity of mind that happens when exposing myself to the discomfort of a cold shower or the currents of Puget Sound. I meditate… when I think about it. I do yoga… when I have cleared enough space on the floor in our tiny living room, and have the energy, and can find the dvd I want. But the mental all-hands-on-deck moment that happens when the body is exposed to cold air is both swift and demanding. You cannot think of anything superfluous or distracting. The cold insists on taking and keeping your attention.

In mindfulness meditation you focus on the breath- simply noticing your breathing, its quality and rhythm. It is the interplay between noticing your breath and realizing your awareness has shifted to narrative thinking that is the core practice for beginning meditators. When I step into the cold shower, or immerse myself in the 51 degree waters, the ‘noticing’ that is so comfortable and fleeting while listening to Headspace is less like a gentle hand guiding me and more like an all over body slap. It is awesome. It reminds me of sparring. You face your opponent, constantly moving, thinking of circling left or right, perhaps your mind lingers on your foot placement and balance, or you focus on the opponent’s left leg, planning to kick it the next time it shifts forward. Then CRACK! The glove or shin slams into your body or head. An electric shock reels your mind in with the physiological equivalent of “Heh, dumb ass! stop THINKING and start FIGHTING!” I always loved that feeling, because I knew that FLOW was about to happen. Mind and body working together to make sure that didn’t happen again. I usually started grinning like an idiot at about that moment.

Being in the cold is similar. I grabs the monkey mind, tells it to shut up and sit in the corner for a minute while the consciousness sorts through some serious business and works with the body to not just beat back the cold but to work within it and to use it.

That’s one hell of an argument in the benefits column. Excuse me while I shrug into my swim gear.

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