The Zen of Ice Cold Showers

Many children are rightly attracted to superhero stories, and the idea of superpowers. It seems that humans in most if not all societies dreamed of surpassing problems with extraordinary abilities— flying, seeing the future, incredible strength and intelligence. Even so, adults generally learn not to think about magic solutions anymore. They’re not real, while problems are.

However, I believe we really do have a remarkable superpower. It appears on its own quite often, but can be so subtle as to be easily missed. But it is nevertheless there.

You don’t have to believe me. Do an experiment (assuming you’re healthy and don’t have a medical reason to avoid it*). The next time you shower, set the water to be cold. Not just cool or lukewarm, but ice cold. So cold that the very idea of being under it for a second seems hateful to you. And don’t ease into it. Just stand there, acknowledge it’s going to feel terrible, and let the water run.

If you can avoid the impulse to immediately jump out or crank up the temperature to normal, and instead just take it, breathe calmly, and focus for a few seconds, something remarkable will happen. First you’ll be in momentary shock. Your body will experience a jolt of some undefined impulse similar to panic and you’ll feel that this is not normal, that it’s totally wrong, hostile, almost violent. The only thought in your mind will be cold, cold, cold, stop this, stop this, stop this.

Remind yourself to breathe normally. Inhale, exhale. Try not to think or react at all. Just let your mind feel the cold and know you’re feeling the cold, and that’s it. Don’t run away, don’t think up reasons to reverse your commitment, don’t try to fight it by tensing up or squirming, just let it be.

If you just try to remain calm and neutral, within a few seconds you’ll find that everything is…kind of ok. You’re still cold, but you’re just standing there and it’s cold and, well, that’s really all there is to it. Move slowly and let the rest of your skin adjust to the temperature. Keep breathing.

Now recognize the fact that you are feeling something unusual but that it’s ok. It’s just a signal from your nerves to your brain. You’re not dying. You’re not in danger. You’re simply experiencing something far outside the normal boundaries.

And if you don’t panic or try to escape the feeling by moving around quickly or tensing up or getting impatient to escape, everything will remain as it is, and there’s nothing all that terrible about doing just a little longer what you’re already doing right now.

That’s a superpower. Your mind is able to be stable and calm and focused against almost any force, any challenge, any problem. Your brain is like the large jets most people fly in, which are built for insanely greater stress, power, and force than most of us will ever experience on any flight. You can thank your ancient ancestors for that. They lived and died in unimaginably horrible conditions, building and fighting and hunting and reproducing in the barren deserts and frozen mountains, terrified of the night and striving with their last ounce of strength to stave off the moment when hunger, thirst, disease or predators would inevitably snuff out their precarious existence. Their great suffering and effort over millions of years hammered and welded into shape a thinking machine that is extraordinarily smart, and tough, and resilient, and which is uniquely complex and powerful in the entire universe we know.

Many wise people have seen this. Shakespeare wrote: “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” John Milton put it similarly, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” But the most dramatic example is Viktor Frankl, who said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What makes the last quote special is that Frankl was meditating on his experience in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and the unimaginable suffering he faced and saw. And yet he came out with the insight that no matter what happens you can affect how you think and react, and that the power to do so is the essential quality that defines human beings. I often think of that at moments of the most intense stress or anxiety, that if he could live through that nightmare and come out of it arguing for mental strength and resilience, who am I to ever be lazy or feel discouraged or complain or give up?

Even so, just living normally is stressful, in some cases severely so. It can be even worse if you’re an entrepreneur or scientist or engineer or anyone else banging their head against a wall that’s blocking the way to changes large or small that you urgently feel the world needs. In many ways we are a culture exceptionally filled with stress, distraction, anxiety, struggle and despair. But we don’t have to let the scale and severity of the challenges dictate how we live and feel about our lives. Because we all have a superpower.

Hat tip to Matthew Pirkowski for the original idea.

*I’m not a Medical Doctor and am only speaking of my own experience, which was inspired by various articles touting the health benefits of cold showers. If you are not 100% certain that this is safe for you to do, please check with your Physician.