The Psychology Of Daily Cold-Exposure

I started winter-swimming in a nearby lake six weeks ago. During the last two weeks I have been doing it daily and I plan to continue to do so. In this post I want to reveal the insights I had into my own psyche from this experiment.

 Test of your mindfulness

What happens in your mind when you face a painful and counter-intuitive challenge every-day. As I am practicing mindfulness throughout the day it is especially interesting to observe my mind when faced with such a challenge. The water has a temperature of around 4°C. Outside temperature is often between 3-9°C the last couple of weeks. On some days I encounter the additional joy of strong winds, which make the time after swimming equally cold until I am dressed up again.

Your mind makes you suffer not the experience
What I found is that the mind is inherently bad at predicting the degree of pain and suffering. When approach the lake and getting undressed my mind comes up with all sorts of excuses of why it is better not to do it today. This quickly becomes tricky business. The mind is quickly deceiving you into believing something else than the truth. The exaggerated fears and the anticipated pain quickly becomes entangled with all sorts of other excuses, like catching a cold or freezing to death. Which of course is mostly non-sense if you approach it with careful and gradual cold-exposure. 

This practice makes it unmistakably clear that thoughts have nothing to do with who we are. The decision to go into ice-cold water every day is not made by the thoughts. If I were the thoughts, I would not go in the water. The doubts and the thoughts that say no are in the mind-space while something else just goes in the cold water and stays in there for as long as the timer demands. 

Becoming a superconductor
Make no mistake, the water causes you a lot of pain, especially in the hands and feet. The meditative practice here is to become a superconductor for this pain. As long as you don't resist it, it isn't painful. This is a beautiful experience. You experience that the sensation we call pain is inherently empty. By staying with it in every millisecond without resisting it, there is no pain. But as soon as the mind fights it, wants to change it, can't accept reality and wants the present moment to be something else than what it is, there comes the pain. Shinzen Young talks about this in his meditation technique, which he calls strong-determination-sitting. You can experience something similar within seconds of entering ice-cold water. It's a true test for the strength of your mindfulness-muscle. 

Not believing the fearful predictions of the mind
Very quickly we believe in the scenario that our mind presents us with. You think about some future dream of yours but your mind comes up with all sorts of bad consequences that might happen... Don't be so quick to believe what your mind is presenting you with here. But don't go to the other end of the spectrum where you do not think at all about the consequences of your actions. 

What you can do instead is ask yourself: How likely is it that the scenario my mind has come up with will happen? And if it happens, would it even be as bad or painful as my mind makes it seem at the moment? What can I learn from my past experience? How have the situations I encountered actually turned out when I predicted them to be bad, fearful or painful?

It is funny to be in ice-cold water and to experience that very thing you feared. I already started laughing about myself several times and thought: What? This is the thing I feared and wanted to avoid? It's not inherently bad at all. And afterwards it feels genuinely good to have overcome and seen through the fear and pain once again.