The Sustainability Chronicles: Cold Calm Comfort
The water was a mesmerizing shade of teal, so deep and clear, that I could see the boulders on the bottom of the lake. Get in! The impulse inside of me was strong.
“I want to jump in and swim across,” I said, though not quite realizing I had said it out loud.
My husband chuckled and kept hiking.
I was serious. Everything in me wanted to rip off all my clothes and jump in.
I had been that way as long as I could remember. A swam in ice cold, spring fed rivers every summer as a kid in the Ozarks. On camping trips into the dry, water-scarce West, I would plunge into the freezing waters of lakes and rivers to bathe when the campgrounds didn’t offer showers. Just last summer, desperate for a dip, a snowmelt river down the road from the ranch I was camping at gurgled and chortled, tickling my spirit. It was too tempting to pass up, so I put on my bikini and grabbed a towel.
“Are you going swimming?!” one of the women at the camp asked, eyeing me curiously.
“Yeah, there’s a river,” I pointed over my shoulder.
“I wanna go!” the woman said.
“I’ll wait here. Get your suit!” After years of my husband sticking a toe in the water, grimacing, and then retreating for the beach, I welcomed the company.
“Have you heard of Wim Hof?” the woman’s friend asked.
I hadn’t. It was the third time in my life someone had mentioned him.
It wasn’t until I relocated to extreme northwestern Washington that I revisited the cold. By that time, my family and I had moved onto land in the foothills of the Northern Cascades and had begun chiseling out a spot for a homestead. This time, cold exposure was borne of necessity. For the first nine days, we lived in a tent while we cleared enough space for living quarters. The air temps dipped down into the forties at night and if we wanted to wash our hands, our dishes, or our bodies, we were using extremely cold water. We worked and lived outdoors. When tent camping was no longer practicable due to the onset of the rainy season, we moved into a travel trailer. Though we have modern amenities to heat the water and the air, we only sparingly utilize heat to prevent the growth of mold and mildew. Only turning on the water heater to bathe, and even then, bathing on a gallon of water per person, the air around us is cold. When we work outside in forty-degree temps with drizzle, sometimes my husband is shirtless, or we wear minimal clothing. We acclimated to cold temperatures simply by living closer to the land.
I had been exploring shamanic techniques for visualization and meditation and was having repeated visions of my spirit guide, who turns into a beautiful falcon-type bird. The falcon would grab me with her talons, fly me over glacier-tipped peaks, and then drop me into the icy, blue, glacial melt waterfalls that crashed down into an alpine valley below. I got the strong impulse that I needed to become one with the Earth through submerging myself completely in Her waters.
Not long after, I finally heard a Joe Rogan interview with Wim Hof and the spark was ignited; here was a man whose soul told him to jump in cold water, just like my little inner voice, against all social and cultural programming. He threw conventional wisdom aside and had triumphed over his stress and grief with cold therapy. The very next morning, I shed all my clothes and jumped into the stream that runs through our land. The water was 36 degrees, the air was not much warmer, and I was hooked.
I breathed, steadying my initial reflex with long, slow inhales and exhales. Then, I began to suck in the breaths, storing the oxygen, letting more in than I exhaled out. After thirty-three breaths, I held my breath for nearly two minutes as a small waterfall cascaded over my neck and shoulders. Stillness came over me. I was surrounded by beams of sunlight filtering through the towering cedars and firs. Sword ferns fluttered delicately in the breeze. A warmth welled up inside of me and I experienced something I can only describe as pure bliss. I was falling in love with the land, my body, and the moment. It was all one.
When I got out, my toes were numb and I stumbled up the ravine, my soles collecting pine needles, slick dead leaves, and small pebbles. I picked up a thorn from a blackberry branch without noticing. I made it back to the trailer, dried off, and began to shiver. As I trembled, I and could feel years of stored trauma leave my body through the muscles. How much we store in our bodies! How much we repress, trying to fit ourselves into the nice, tidy boxes society and culture seems to demand. Letting it all go felt good.
It got me wondering…
Why are we so afraid of the cold? Why do we cling so desperately to what we perceive is comfortable? When I looked into it, I learned that “comfort” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does.
The word “comfort” comes from the Latin “com” meaning “with” and “fortis” meaning strength, so comfortere, or comfort, originally meant, with strength. Somewhere in between there and middle English came “comfortable”. The “able” suffix means “tending to” or “given to,” such that comfortable means “with strength given.” Somewhere between 1400 and 1750, the definition of the word became something akin to “offering physical strength” and “pleasing.” Definitions of words morph over time, but the origin, the root of comfort, used to mean with strength. As our lives were physically less and less demanding, the meaning of the word became diluted, and ultimately means the opposite of its origins: something not necessarily strong but pleasing…which most of us would equate to mean something like “without physical hardship.”
Maybe we are in this societal predicament of instant gratification and convenience because we have literally forgotten our roots. So, in today’s world what does strength really mean?
Well, fortis, the Latin root for “strong” meant physically strong, mentally resolute, and emotionally brave (as well as courageous). The word evolved and came to be used to describe forts, or physical structures, that could withstand attack…like a fortress.
What does it say about how we, contemporary humans in a technological word, have come to use the word comfort in everyday conversation? The modern use of the word almost means the opposite of its origin. When we think of comfort, our first thought it likely to be that of snuggling into a warm, plush blanket with a bowl of our favorite soup, surrounded by a bubble of all that is pleasant. Our first image isn’t necessarily one of a strong, resolute, brave, and courageous person, place, or thing. Indeed…the trend is to minimize or avoid what is unpleasant at all costs.
Let’s look at “discomfort”. The Latin prefix “dis” originally meant “lack of,” “opposite of,” and “apart or away.” For example, to be “dishonest” meant to “lack honesty” much as “disallow” meant the opposite of having permission to do something. So “discomfort” could be said to mean the same as lacking strength, or the opposite of strength. However, by today’s standards, it is typically thought to mean “adversity,” “grief,” and “sorrow.”
The problem is that our modern culture seeks to avoid adversity, grief, and sorrow to such a large extent that we have become ill equipped to withstand it. If the modern pandemic has proven anything, it is that our bodies, deprived of true physical hardship through routine exposure to the elements, a hearty, whole-foods driven diet, and physical labor, are no longer fortresses. We have lessened our strength to handle such adversity, grief, and sorrow by delegating what is arguably the most critical pillars of physical strength: fresh, clean air, connecting to the land, eating a healthy slow food diet, moving our bodies daily for several hours, getting sunshine, and exposing ourselves to the elements. We now sit indoors, in front of screens, for longer than we spend outside. We are so preoccupied with making a living – whatever that really means – that we have less time to acclimate to our environment. We subsist on convenience and if it cannot be had or done quickly, we tend to move on without a second thought. Yet, despite all this “comfort” we are overly stressed, exhausted, and worn down.
And therein lies the rugburn. I am not convinced we like our modern lives. We have just been too distracted, and too busy, to realize it. Nothing – and I mean nothing – seems to be simple anymore. We live in a world that demands and expects much but gives very little back. To even question the virtues of modern society is a heresy; its politically incorrect. For instance, if I were suggest we go without cell phones and go back to landlines, I am sure there would be an immediate and severe reaction that bubbles up within most everyone. What??? No cell phones? Go back to the Dark Ages and landlines? Wait to be called, having to actually hold a conversation on the phone? That takes forever. I don’t like *talking* to people. I just like to do a drive by…or I can cook dinner and sort of half engage with someone. Then I can get more done…fold laundry, catch up on the next episode of Schitt’s Creek, got a frozen tray of lasagna going in the oven, and I can check in with so-and-so.
You can have it all, right?
That depends. Are you talking about quality or quantity?
Come on…admit it. It’s been quantity-driven, hasn’t it?
Why don’t we like to admit that? Why does admitting that make us squirm? What’s really going on here?
Quantity means juggling, and it is a whole lot to juggle. We all juggle on, balancing our mortgage with our income with our expense on mediocre food, water, and healthcare; balancing school districts with proximity to work and enterprise, balanced with our transportation options. We must spend “X Amount” of hours per day selling our labor to someone else to support and maintain whatever lifestyle it is we are living or aspire to. When the hours you must spend to delegate out things like food, clean water, safe home, good school district, decent work, and not too horrendous of a commute exceed the amount of time you are able to give to yourself to experience calm, joy, and pleasure, it is unreasonable to assume any sense of quality can be gleaned from things we would rather prioritize but simply lack the time and energy to give prominence to.
That’s why quantity bothers us; because we are run down and worn thin giving the world more than it gives us and that we are able to give ourselves. We collapse onto our couches and binge watch Neflix before we will “have to” get “back at it” not necessarily because we want to, but because we “have to” maintain all the stuff. We resent all the stuff and we don’t even realize we do. We cannot fathom giving up Netflix, cell phones, or digital music because we would have to go back to the old way, when things were slow, and we had to wait…to a time before hyper-multitasking existed. The shift feels and seems so monumental and overwhelming we aren’t sure where to begin.
We think we have cultivated strength, but the pandemic has shown us that we have not. Our egos are preventing us from seeing just how much we have delegated, just how much power we have ceded, just how much strength we have lost. Our energy as a whole is focused externally in participating in this rat race. Why? Do we actually like living like this? Why do we keep doing it? Why keep consenting and participating in this insanity? Why do we feel as though we must?
Fear, and the cultural programming that we must be “happy” as opposed to cultivating real joy, are at the root or quality versus quantity. We fear we will not be accepted, that we will be judged and will suffer hardship if we walk away. We worry that we will be shunned by society, friends, and family. That we will be outcast, out of touch, uninformed, and that the world will pass us by. We lack the skills to do something different. We have been trained to be niche rather than multifaceted.
Are we afraid to explore? Are we afraid of the cold and that it will cause us to fall sick? Are we afraid of our own potential or to discover that everything we have been led to believe is wrong? Are we afraid that if all these things fall away, we may be changed, somehow? And if so, what does that mean? Who will we be when come out the other side of a potentially transformative experience?
Everything changes. Every day. All the time. Though we sit sedentary the world is moving in a blur. But if we are still enough to listen to our spirits, we might just realize we crave the very thing we fear: we crave the ability to decompress and sink into something. We want, just for a moment, for the quantity of things that we juggle to fall away and to just enjoy the quality of the present moment, whatever that is. Pulled in multiple directions all at once most of the day, something inside of us begs to just immerse ourselves fully in something real, that we can submerge ourselves into and become one with completely.
This is what the cold offers. When we confront the fear, we summon our bravery and courage to confront things that we might automatically assume to be unpleasant. We do it physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The cold invites total focus and a subdued ego. We become aware of our bodies again; how the heart beats, how we breathe, how our blood circulates, what we feel in our fingers and toes. We zero in on our aliveness and humanness. Any anxiety we had dissolves and flows away, because there’s no space in the present moment to hold it. Calm, followed by a blissful surrender and oneness with the cold sets in. By the time you don’t want to get out…you probably should get out.
But even then, something remarkable happens. Even hours later, the calm cultivated earlier is sustained. Something alchemical has happened inside the body. It is becoming stronger, more resilient. Studies of Wim Hof show that cold exposure boosts immunity, but I also think it boosts emotional resilience. If nothing else, even three minutes focusing within the cold each day will yield benefits that last for hours, that build in sustainable ways, and begin to carry over into everyday life so long as one commits to a daily practice of cold therapy meditation.
The cold invites us to realize that comfort – and strength – originate from within us, deep in the core of our bodies, emanating from our very beingness. When we practice summoning this strength from within, cultivating with our commitment, we can then harness it and sustain it. There is no need to look outside of ourselves for anything; everything we need comes from this spark within ourselves, and ironically, we recapture what Wim refers to as “inner fire” by embracing the cold. It is in this contrast that polarity becomes our guru; if it were not for frigidity, we would have no appreciation of the warm fortitude within. By embracing what is seemingly unpleasant, by calm confrontation and observation of what we fear most, we reclaim the true meaning of comfort: strength, resilience, and courage to transcend obstacles in ways we never thought possible.