Swimming with discomfort

From April – August 2020, I tried to swim very often in the sea. Usually every other day for 20-30 minutes. The trouble was the temperature of the water.

Before my swim, was a long protracted sequence of hand rubbing, swearing, dressing up in warm knits and sitting on the couch stewing in dread. It’s going to be cold.

Afterwards, although my body temperature had noticeably dropped, my body was humming and my mind felt pure.

In the middle of winter, the water would sometimes drop below 9 degrees celsius (48f).

One afternoon I went for a swim by myself. The sky was murky and brooding. The water was flat, grey and still.

When I dive in the water I usually brace myself. I clench every muscle and take on the pain that surrounds my whole body. Sometimes I claw onto a word or an image. The hope is I can distract myself away from the onslaught of sensation. Sometimes an image comes to me naturally, like a building imploding or infernal flames and smoke. To my credit, plunging your warm body into frigid water must be one of the most uncomfortable things you can do and it’s no surprise I was seeing visions of hell – that’s my base stress response putting down the hammer.

Swimming distinguishes itself from similar cardiovascular activities by the fact that your skin is completely covered by moving water rather than air. Swimming is an activity that promotes “light pressure and temperature stimulation” something that Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor thinks is good for our skin, our “largest and most diverse sensory organ”. Swimming at max effort in ice water is heavy stimulation.

After the initial scream from my nocicepters, my world became water. I was in a tunnel, and I was vaguely aware of my finger tips, wrists, forearms, heels and toes going numb.

My face, covered in a neoprene hat, transitioned from burning to throbbing and kept receding into nothingness, such that it was a little hard for me to discern where my nose ended and the salty water started.

I felt fluid. I was invisible. I was a water form with some shorts and goggles strapped on. A glass submarine.

But despite this violence and unnerving stimuli, I keep going. My thoughts start wandering, and I’m wondering, am I actually cold anymore?

I must be cold.

I swim a little further and make it to a yellow marker. I’ve swum further and faster than I expected, and I realize if I swim back at the same speed I’d have been in the water for over half an hour – too long.

As I tread water, mulling logistics, I finally pay attention to my surroundings. I notice a ghostly quiet that has settled on the entire beach. The beach huts, the pale sand, ripples near my fingers. In every direction nothing but a grave stillness. I can’t see the separation between sky and sea and I can’t feel the separation between the sea and my body.

I look down at my legs below and realize I’m looking at my body from a slightly higher vantage point.

My brain explains to me that I’m fucked: (“I’ve got hypothermia”, “I’m going to die”, “I need to go home as soon as possible”). But my body has disconnected the phone line and has started playing light jazz. My sympathetic nervous system resembles a sauntering Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.

The experience is disconcerting mainly because of how ‘opposite’ it is to how I know I should be feeling. This is a good example of how the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful they can overwrite even the most shocking and obvious physical experiences. “This is wrong” rings so true in my mind, I simply have to listen.

A few hours later, I’m dried off and warm but I’m a bit dazed and confused and mellow. I chalk it up to a severe loss in body temperature. But maybe the cold water wasn’t so bad. Maybe my body was perfectly happy to swim in cold temperature. It’s not crazy to believe my body was actually excited by the novel, stimulating sensation of cold water once in a while. I think it’s helpful to think of our bodies both objectively and with great gratitude, like a big gentle dog always by our side.

Most people know, logically, that discomfort is an inevitable part of life. But experientially, we fail to accept this fact, and our desire to flee from it compounds our suffering. If we can learn to witness discomfort without fighting it, we weaken its hold on us, bolstering our ability to lead stable, satisfying lives.

The Mindful Case for Cold Showers

Although memorable, this was a just one swim among many hundreds of hours in the ocean and pool. Aside from the obvious health benefits, swimming in cold water seems to train us to sit with discomfort.

Next time you go for an ocean swim, or even simply turn the shower a bit colder, try to pierce through all that screaming for comfort, you may not actually need it after all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: