The Healing Power of Hot and Cold Water
A Trip to Harbin Hot Springs
Cindy and I are at Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California for the long Memorial Day weekend, staying in a little caravan on this land that we had both independently loved for years before we got engaged here: after whispering to Cindy that I was going to be bathroom, I came back to the cold plunge pool with a diamond ring clasped tightly in my hand. I signaled in the silence that we were both to duck under the chilly water together, where I placed the ring on her finger. When we returned to the surface, I pointed out that something about her had changed. When she noticed the ring, she started crying.
In the fall of 2015, a fire in Lake County destroyed Harbin and many homes in the surrounding area. It’s taken over three years to rebuild enough for a what they call a “soft opening.” Apart from tenting, the only on-site accommodation are these cute little caravans, which work surprisingly well. Cindy sleeps like a cat in the little alcove where the bed is while I sit at the tiny dining table across from the stove and sink. This caravan also, somehow, has its own toilet and shower.
Cindy has a memory of being drowned as a baby. While she was being bathed, a frustrated caregiver, maybe her mother, pushed her face under the water and held it there. Now she has a mixed relationship with water, loving its fluid embrace while a part of her wants to die there, the kind of thing that happens when love gets mixed with pain.
She’s a strong swimmer now, but at various times in her life she’s had some close calls. For example, near Biarritz in the South of France, we paddled out to a reef break far from shore. Cindy watched me and our new friends surf the eight-foot-tall waves from the still shoulder, where the ocean was deep enough that its bottom was not able to break the swells. Unexpectedly, a set of rouge waves arrived, waves so big that they started breaking on Cindy. They knocked her off her board and ripped the loosely-attached leash from her ankle. After she had been overwhelmed by a few of these waves, one of our surfing buddies noticed her predicament, paddled to her, and pulled her onto his board. I paddled after his other board, which we had been borrowing, and saved it from being smashed against some rocks.
Back at Harbin Hot Springs, naked, we step down into the iconic warm pool, steam gently rising from its surface. Cindy glides to me and begins to lay back in the water as I place one arm under her legs and the other arm under her neck and head. As she relaxes and her arms float out, I guide her gently around the pool, carefully avoiding bumping her arms and legs into the other people. My attention is mostly focused on ensuring that her nostrils don’t go under the water, which slowly submerges her eyes and mouth as I release the support under the back of her head. Her long, thick hair floats just under the surface, like a mat of seaweed. She releases all control, trusting me to protect her breathing.
After a while, we silently agree to go into the hot pool, which is up the steps in an adjacent building. The sign on the wall there warns that the water temperature is between 110 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. As I step down into the frightening heat, part of me, as always, wants to escape. But I have learned to simply sink down into it and allow the intense tingling sensations to permeate my body.
I move to the side of the pool and Cindy joins me. I hold her in my arms as she rests her head on my chest. Through the mist-filled air, I look up to the sunlight filtering through the large panes of stained glass into the dimly-lit room. The piping-hot water, pumped through channels cut thousands of feet down into the ground spills noisily into the pool from the mouth of a faceless metal whale that seems to be surfacing from the metal waves on the altar. There, small candles burn amongst the freshly-cut flowers. Made from the same nickel-colored metal as the whale, the railings around the pool look hammered and naturally shaped, as if whittled from branches. They are adorned with tiny and inconspicuous creatures: a turtle, a dolphin, and a gecko.
I gently tap Cindy, signaling the time to make our way up the steps from the hot pool and sink into the cold plunge, the place where we were bound together. Relax, I tell myself, as my body naturally tenses and my breathing deepens. As I lower into the icy water, a sheath of what feels like pain moves up my torso, the sensation of the capillaries clamping shut. But soon after my body is submerged, and as I surrender into the experience, the shocking sharpness subsides and is replaced by an increasingly invigorating freshness.
I look at Cindy, who has now rested the back of her head in the water and is looking up at the leaves on the bough of the fig tree that hangs across the pool. Cindy seems to prefer this cold much more than me, being able to enter and dive under immediately, apparently feeling no shock or pain. Before my extensive conditioning of daily cold showers, I would reluctantly sink into the cold with my hands involuntarily clasped together in prayer as I faced the white marble state of Guanyin at the base of the fig tree. The prayer position was just my body’s way of hopelessly trying to stay warm.
As the cold penetrates my bones, I look up the bank into the lush green foliage. Everything seems to be more vibrant than usual, as if it is all alive. The whole forest is breathing. There is no me in this pool or in this world. There is only the world, which breathes together with invigorating life.
Cindy and I like to cycle back and forth between these pools, from hot to cold and back again. This cycle of extremes is a lesson in loss, a visceral metaphor for change. We cycle and there is change and we resist and then we surrender and enjoy. There is enjoyment in this surrender to change, in this surrender to the process. No phones, no talking; nothing to do but surrender.
Japanese swords are made by repeatedly folding and hammering the metal to align its crystals and create a sharp edge, but this makes the sword brittle and liable to shatter on impact. The cycles of hammering are interspersed with cycles of slow heating and cooling, called annealing, which allows the accumulated and stored stresses to be released as the hardening process is integrated at the atomic level.
Cindy and I come here to anneal from the forces in life that shape us, from the hammering that started when we were very small. Here we gradually integrate all of those experiences so that we can not only be sharp and effective in life, but also resilient.