It’s all about meditation…
Almost no matter what sphere of knowledge you are tuning into lately be it health, fitness, sports, business, entrepreneurship, or traveling. And regardless of where you get the information on your particular subculture, it could be podcasts, social media, YouTube, blogs, forums, magazines, etc., you have probably noticed that someone in that sphere is talking about meditation. It’s all the rage.
People across the spectrum of modern lifestyles are saying that meditation is part of a well-rounded life, going on about the infinite health benefits, and how it can make you better at ‘fill in the blank’.
Well, I had heard this my entire life and have since a very young age, maybe 10 or 11 tried to develop a meditation practice of my own, but I always really struggled, I felt like I never actually reached a state of meditation and it was painful to spend even five minutes just sitting there straight backed, cross-legged and focusing on my breathing. At the end of any given session, I felt a little calmer but more or less unmoved by the experience. Until after 10+ years of intermittent practice with no great result to speak of I discovered the missing variable… cold ass water. Now, I’m not saying it is essential to incorporate cold water into your meditation but I’m going to explain how cold water allowed me to discover what real meditation truly was and how to get started if it’s something you want to try. First, for the unconverted let me quote some of the benefits of a regular meditation practice from this article here.
…And its many benefits
Meditation has been scientifically proven to lessen fear, stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and impulsivity. Improve your resilience to pain and adversity while increasing your optimism, relaxation, awareness and enhancing your self-esteem. It helps prevent emotional eating or smoking and helps you make more positive social connections. It increases mental strength, focus, memory retention, and recall. It enhances cognitive skill, creative thinking, decision making, problem-solving and information processing. Meditation improves the immune system, breathing, heart rate, and energy levels. It reduces blood pressure. And here’s the clinch pin,
twenty minutes of daily meditation practice has been proven to be one of the only actions a person can take to effectively lengthen their telomeres!
What are telomeres you ask? Something on white blood cells I think. But the important thing to know about them is that telomere length is the single most reliable way to tell when someone is going to die and the longer the telomeres the longer you are likely to live. So in summary, meditation makes you tougher, smarter, more popular, healthier and it makes you fricken live longer. So, let’s get started.
The accident that led me to ice cold water
As I said before I struggled immensely for years trying the stereotypical meditation where you sit cross-legged, with great posture, clear your mind and focus on the breath. It was relaxing sometimes but I never felt that I got to that deep, clear, peaceful state that the literature I was reading on the practice described.
A couple winter’s ago I was living a little mountain town right on the edge of the Southern Alps on the South Island of New Zealand. The town is an adventure sports paradise and is nestled on the shores of the glacial lake it’s named after, Lake Wanaka.
It’s a popular place for northern hemisphere snowboarders and skiers to come during northern hemisphere summer so they can live essentially in perpetual winter and do snow sports year round. Well anyway, the snowboarding is what had brought me there and about halfway through the season I overrated a sad excuse of an attempt at a backflip and really hurt my shoulder. It was in agony for a few days and I was scared I would be out for the rest of the season so I started looking into ways to quicken the healing process and came across multiple suggestions to ice bath regularly. Being that it was the middle of winter and I was living on the edge of a mountain lake with a water temperature between 5-8°C (41-46.5°F) I figured that would suffice.
Learn my breathing technique
Well, I did a bit of research on how long to spend in ice cold water and through the magic of the internet that lead me to a guy they call the ‘Iceman’, a Dutch guy named Wim Hof. His website suggested all sorts of benefits from spending time in icy waters and even gave a breathing technique that he claimed to use to control his body temperature and thus allow himself to spend up to two hours essentially entombed in ice. It all sounded completely mad but even half of what his website claimed to be true about how this breathing technique combined with cold water could help you learn to control your autonomic nervous system then it was worth looking into. (Check out the link at the bottom of this article to his exact method as I adjusted it a bit to turn it into a 15-20 minute meditation.) As it seemed a bit reckless to go sit in an icy lake alone I convinced a good friend of mine Geraint Rowlands to come sit in the lake with me. I briefly read Wim’s technique and added a little spin to it to add to the stillness of the process as I wanted to relax and heal my shoulder. This is the process breathing technique I settled on:
1. 15 long, slow, mindful breaths to calm the nerves and bring yourself completely to the present.
2. 30 fast power breaths. Inhale through nose or mouth and then exhale hard, pumping your belly in and out as you do it. Essentially hyperventilating.
3. Inhale as deep as you can, fill your belly then ribcage, then chest with air in one massive breath. Hold for as long as you can, then exhale completely forcing every last bit of air out of your lungs. Hold on the exhale as well. Do three breath holds.
Then the idea was to do this cycle three times over while sitting in the lake and if it’s done slow and with long breath holds it equals about 15-20 minutes in the water.
The first experiment
We drove my soccer mom van to a quiet spot on the edge of the lake and got out of the van in nothing but our swim trunks. It was a cold, grey, windy, winter’s day and the wind was bitingly cold on our bare skin. I shuddered looking at the choppy grey-green water as we hobbled over the cold stony beach to the water’s edge. We sat down in the pebbles and agreed to do one cycle of the breathing sitting on the beach to prepare ourselves for the water then do sitting in the lake. The ice cold wind hardening the skin called for more intense focus than I’d ever put on my breathing before, just the glimmer of hope that the breathing technique would lessen the cold even in the slightest was enough to keep the attention.
I started to notice that as long as my mind thought about absolutely nothing but my breath then I almost didn’t notice the cold simply because I didn’t give my brain permission to think about it.
Then I noticed that during the power breaths I got a bit panicked and colder but during the breath holds felt a bit peaceful and almost even a little bit of warmth. I held that third breath for longer than I had ever held a breath in in my life, exhaled completely and stood up.
Full on into ice cold water meditation for 21 minutes.
I pushed every thought out of my mind and brought every ounce of attention to my breathing and started walking towards the water. I exhaled and stepped in. ‘HOLY SH!*! ‘, all thought of breath went out the window and my mind screamed all manner of warnings and obscenities at me. As I walked in my feet lit on fire, it was like being burnt and stabbed with a thousand needles at the same time each time a bit more skin was submerged in the water. My feet were throbbing. I brought my attention intermittently back to my breath but it was such a whirlwind of sensation that it was hard to focus. I walked up to about mid-thigh depth and quickly sank my whole body into the water. ‘HOLY MOTHER OF SWEET BABY JESUS THAT’S COLD!’
I started breathing quickly, and my mind was racing. I was telling myself in my head “Just focus on the breathing, fifteen breaths, that’s it, just fifteen breaths nice and slow.”
Gradually on breath four or five, my focus came back a little, and I was able to forget about the cold for a couple milliseconds at a time then every muscle in my body would clench and spasm from the cold seeping into the depths of my bones. I etched through the last five breaths and went into the power breathing. It was as if every single exhale sucked heat out of me, the harder and faster I breathed the deeper the cold set into my body, I puffed harder and harder until I got to thirty and then inhaled as deeply as I could filling my entire body with fresh life giving oxygen, sucking in until it felt like I would explode. I floated up to the surface a bit, my head tilted back and my closed eyes went towards where the sun was glowing through a cloudy sky and through my eyelids everything went red and then gold and a sensation from my lungs and chest outwards a deep, warm, tingling feeling spread through my entire body.
I felt like I was floating in hot air, in empty space, my mind was wiped clean with nothing but pure euphoria and I got it. I got the point. The clarity, the emptiness, the purity, I understood what meditation was, what it felt like and why people did it.
The thinking, conscious mind just shut off completely. The relief was overwhelming, the moment was perfect. I exhaled slowly and the cold sunk in again but it was different now it was pleasant and healing.
The after effect
We sat there for a total of 21 minutes breathing and in our own worlds. We climbed out of the water and looked at each other with the same expression of “DAMN!” We climbed out and as soon as we started speaking and stopped focusing on our breath we began shaking uncontrollably, we hopped in the van, through on the heating and talked excitedly about our similar experiences through violently chattering teeth and almost seizure like spasms and shaking that continued for about 25 minutes before subsiding just enough to be able to drive.
Now, I could write another 20 articles on where I’ve taken my cold water meditation practice, the benefits of it, the applications for the abilities it gives you and so forth. But this article isn’t about the long-term benefits of cold water exposure it’s about using this extreme to discover the depths of meditation. I have never since struggled to get into a meditative state if I put my mind to it. The extreme cold showed me how to focus and more importantly where that focus could take me so it gave me both the skill and motivation to persevere when the mind is running out of control. For anyone interested in taking the mind and body to the next level in any pursuit I urge you to give it a shot! Let’s get cold.