January can often usher in a commitment to do it different or better, even to take on more, but with this drive often comes a dash of existential angst. And, if you happen to experience the winter months in extra cold weather, it can further deepen the crevasse between what you want and what you have, causing you (I mean me) to take a kind of personal inventory.
If you’re reading this, you’ve lived long enough to know that life can be shorter than we might have thought and different than we could have predicted.
The time is now…is a recurring theme.
So it was at about mid-December, amid all the holiday décor, toast-making and reassuring traditions that I started to ask myself…
Am I taking enough risk, or settled and complacent?
Are things vibrant and fierce or muted and dull?
Do I need a cold splash of water over my entire being?
In other words, am I too comfortable?
It occurred to me that I have done the stuff I’m most proud of when I’ve been pretty uncomfortable.
Telling the truth.
With sub zero temps outside my window, I don’t have to look far for a little discomfort. Which got me thinking…
Most of us dwell in lives where we’re warm when we want to be, cold when we need to be, fed when we feel like it and distracted…on demand. Assuming chronic pain or crisis isn’t part of your immediate reality, comfort is mostly within arm’s reach.
Which is why any discomfort – physical, emotional – is almost always a shock to our systems, a place we flee rather than seek. Yet, being out of comfort is often precisely what provokes good work that we wouldn’t produce otherwise. I’m starting to think that for as much as I’ve tended to my personal care rituals, there may be equal mileage in finding or embracing some discomfort; withstanding what I don’t think I can stand.
If you follow Wim Hof (whose disciples include Tim Ferris, Tony Robbins and Dean Karnazes) you probably know about ice baths – or at the very least – cold showers. The wisdom behind cold exposure is that our “evolution” has made us less tolerant of the elements, and therefore more susceptible to disease and depression. Our wild, ancient human has been lost. Technically, cold-water submersion is one of a handful of practices that reconditions the hypothalamus to be more adaptive and resilient. The ability to tolerate healthy but difficult environments sharpens the senses and grows capacity, radically changing how we regard our own strengths. All of this, of course, tends to create higher performance. And toughness.
But this isn’t about ice baths or becoming harder. It’s about the dozens of opportunities that already exist in life that have us contracting or flinching, that we discard or escape – thinking they’re bad (at worst) or not useful (at best.) But what if we’re missing an opportunity? What if we could stay in the moment, feel the feelings, witness the unease, hunger, pain, and restlessness – whatever sensation descends – instead of getting out? Why not instead, go in?
Pushing physical (or other) limits to build emotional resiliency is not a new idea, but I like it as a mission, for this year especially, as I take on a fresh set of projects and some realignment on personal goals.
But how do we make the uncomfortable more of a natural habitat?
I’m taking cold showers. And I sat in the snow and took 30 breaths in a tank top the other day. I’m resisting the urge to look at my device when an answer eludes me, because I see that it’s an avoidance technique for discomfort. I’m breathing when I feel like clenching. I’m staying in the pose.
With discomfort comes expansion.
With expansion comes space; it widens the margins, makes more room.
I want that even if my bare feet have to touch the ice to find it. And yes, there are many other ways! But cold has a hold on me. Confronting and embracing it is right outside my door.
Let’s not avoid the things that grip us.
Maybe their existence is the invitation we need to be most awake.