On the second day of an Arctic expedition, I was pulling a 200 lb pulk up an incline on skis against wind, in freezing subzero weather. My clothing and gear was so good at trapping my body heat that it had become part of the problem: I'd heat up from all the effort and periodically need to open up the suit to ventilate, then close back up after a few minutes and continue. This happened around every half hour. My team leader noticed how uncomfortable I was in the environment and made his way next to me, looking like he might have a solution.
He undid some of my gear, exposing my head and chest to the chilly wind, then nodded and shouted loudly so I could hear him above the wind, “There you go! You have to feel this, you have to feel all this. Yes it's cold. Look, that’s part of why we’re here, that’s what this is about. There’s no point in you being here if you keep protecting yourself like you are. Let it affect you, just take it in.”
I nodded, complied and felt I instinctively understood what he meant. Of course, I didn’t. I knew what he said, but I did not understand. Understanding would come much later.
Recently, in a perfect collision of circumstances, it suddenly occurred to me that I should start taking cold showers. I had thought about it passively for years, like the book that sits quietly on the shelf for decades before you decide suddenly—in what feels like a moment of destiny—that now is the time to pull it off the shelf and finally start reading it.
So it was time for me to put myself through this. But I had no idea why I should. Or how to prepare for it or what to expect in the process. But I did trust that my unconscious knew something I didn't and I do pay attention to that. So I made a decision to take a cold shower every day for 30 consecutive days. I decided each shower would be 5 minutes long and very uncomfortably cold from start to finish. In other words, at no point could it be lukewarm, or just cooler than a usual hot shower. It had to be uncomfortable—my spirit should feel the discomfort. To keep things interesting, it had to go from very cold to completely cold in those 5 minutes.
When I make decisions, I expect that my thinking process depends on a certain honesty with myself. But I require that I balance it with what I do know about human beings in general: we are empirically given to delusional thinking, which is a branch from the thing that makes us particularly interesting as a species: our imagination.
Delusional thinking comes from a few things. An Optimism Bias, the feeling you're somehow the exception, is very common. We are prone to discount how easily we'll succumb to pain. We pride ourselves in the belief that we would never be that weak, we'd cope infinitely better than someone else, oh, we'd rise above it all in ways that someone else simply couldn't. This is, of course, cascaded by Confirmation bias , the human tendency to interpret or recall things that selectively lean on our desired “beliefs.” It's easier (necessary?) to recall all the times you've prevailed at anything—proof of your ability to succeed—while you "forget" that you failed at a lot of things too. In other words, our success scores aren't often as high as we often “feel” it is, as great as we “remember” them.
Delusional thinking is the snowball effect of unchecked self-talk, a slippery, dangerous course to complacency that I see in myself as much as I do in people around me. I have a nose for it because I have a paranoia about it.
That night after making that promise to myself, I didn't sleep well. I understood what I had to do the next day. It was disturbing to think about and it interfered with my rest: one of my dreams included having a heart attack in the middle of my shower. Yes, the following 30 days were going to be interesting—if I made it that far.
To say that first cold shower was a shock to the system is an understatement. From the moment I stepped into it, my brain was shouting, "What? NO! NO! NO! GET OUT!" For a moment I thought I should finish this stupid act as quickly as possible and get out. Then I realized that I still had 4 minutes and 30 seconds left to complete my full five-minute commitment. When I was done, I stepped out shaking, and stared at myself in the mirror wondering why I had chosen to betray my body like this, and how I should never do this again. This was stupid!
The second, third, fourth and fifth showers were equally dreadful. I did not look forward to them at all. But I had started to pick up on small signals about myself and what was happening inside me that would slowly become more apparent over time.
One thing that surfaced very quickly was how many different excuses I would hear in my head for why I shouldn't take a cold shower today. Let's not aggravate that pain in my back from yesterday's stretching/workout, ok? Should I probably do a little more research about whether there are any adverse effects...before I continue? Hey, today's just not the day for it, it's 13ºF today, today's a hot shower day—the pipes will be unreasonably cold, tomorrow is better for a cold shower if I still want to do it.
On the first couple of days, in particular, a voice would very clearly say “But what if you have a heart attack from this?” This actually isn’t an unreasonable idea, it’s a small risk I had seen mentioned in my research on cold-water immersion. A small risk, but for my self-talk, nothing was small. These thoughts would often pop up minutes before I was about to get in and turn on the cold water. I realized that the only way to neutralize these thoughts was to take action, to get into the cold water and present active proof to myself. So that is what I did. If the reasons turned out to be true, I'd have a clear signal from my back or heart or whatever and I'd be intelligent enough to pay attention and stop. Or I'd die...but maybe I was being a little dramatic?
I had also given myself conditions that would continually raise the bar: I knew I didn’t want to become accustomed to the colder temperature. No, the goal was not to develop tolerance. It was to make friends with Discomfort again, to very literally not mind that it hurts.
It did hurt. The coldest water that comes through the pipes in the dead of winter produces a stinging pain on the topmost layer of your skin. Especially true when you turn around and expose your back and neck skin. There is a lightheadedness that follows after a few seconds, for which breathing deeply, and uniformly, becomes essential.
Another revelation that percolated a couple of weeks into it was the feeling that this challenge is all mine. The fight begins with me, it ends with me. It could be said that as an endurance exercise it is similar to athletic activity like lifting weights, running a race, or sparring with an opponent. Yes, it’s similar in that there’s a challenge. But in those cases, the competition is extrinsic and varied: you focus on the thing or person to defeat, you spread your attention across those many variables. Here, the challenge is intrinsic and singular: you focus on yourself and the most naked version of yourself—literally, mentally, and in spirit. You hold the line, or you decide to let go. Your focus becomes laser-like and fixed. There is no element of luck to intervene, there are no “other factors”. You are standing upright in a steady stream of freezing discomfort and pain. Your mind is shocked and bored simultaneously, it has nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do but remain aware of what your body is going through, until the clock stops.
After about two weeks, I started to put together some larger ideas in a way that I hadn’t or couldn't have before. For instance, it’s common practice to rely on how the mind leads and the body follows. The body takes its instruction from the mind, it acts, and registers pain when a limit has been reached. The mind records these events as the limits of what “reasonable” means.
But over time, the mind overestimates, or underestimates how things actually are. Delusional thinking, Optimism Bias, Confirmation Bias conspire to make things softer, more friendly. We forget the fight, we edit for ego. Pride and time take over and we figure it can't be all that bad, we're better than that. Or, conversely, we predict we're much worse. In other words, we don't realize how much even the mind needs re-calibration from time to time for bad measurement, bad self-talk, and delusional thinking. So it seems that while having the “right mindset” is essential to getting the body to comply, and getting things done, the inverse is also true: the body is a good way to manage the mind.
It takes years of dedication, training, and consistency to become complacent. Subjecting myself to a cold shower every day keeps me honest and guards against at least some complacency (it would be complacent to believe that this alone is sufficient.) Having discovered this benefit—as well as other proven health benefits—I can't go back to regular hot showers.
By training the body to manage —rather than overcome—discomfort, it becomes possible to signal to your spirit to prepare to be unprepared : maybe you can't predict it, but you can handle it. It requires discipline to look in the mirror, to acknowledge that you're not as deluded about your invincibility, that you're not special. That's how you're able to bring just as much clarity today as you did yesterday, and in turn you understand why you endure the punishment.
“There’s no point in you being here if you keep protecting yourself like you are. Let it affect you, just take it in.”
PHOTO: Cold Shower score, 2018New York City. ©2018, All Rights Reserved.