Some conversations change our lives in ways that can’t be imagined or predicted at the time.
For me, one of those conversations took place at the end of a Zen meditation retreat.
Zen retreats are the Olympic marathon of meditation. They’re long and intense and are definitely no place to float away in some cloud of spiritual bliss.
For me they were just plain hard work.
The retreat would start at 5am with the sound of 3 bells. For the rest of the day we sat in total silence working on our koans.
My knees screamed in pain but there were no words. Just silence.
We sat like that for hours. The final bell of the evening sounded at 9pm.
Through it all the silence descended like a big dark doona, exposing thoughts to the glare of awareness and revealing the never-ending chatter of the monkey mind.
At the end of the retreat the students share a simple lunch together and chat, slowly coming back to the speed of secular life.
On this occasion I got talking to a fellow student about cold showers.
“I could never have cold showers,” I said.
“Yes, you could,” came the response. “You just choose not to.”
“You’re right,” I said. “But not during the winter.”
“You could,” he said. “You just don’t want to.”
He was right. A seed had been planted.
On May 11, 2008 something happened where I was forced to have a cold shower. Maybe it was a broken hot water system. Maybe it was the Veranus Island gas explosion. I can’t remember but I had to have a cold shower or not have one at all.
I fought it and thought about every possible way to avoid the sting of that cold water.
And then the conversation with my zen friend came back to me. My fear of cold water was all in my mind.
So I climbed into the shower and turned on the water.
It was cold. Very cold.
But as I towelled myself dry I realised I wasn’t dead. In fact I wasn’t even cold. Far from it.
I felt alive, invigorated, pumped, as though I’d just overcome a demon and conquered something big.
But it was one cold shower.
That proves nothing, I thought.
During the course of the day I made a decision to do it again. After my next cold shower I decided to go a week without cold showers. The week turned into the end of winter, which turned into the end of the year, which turned into a year.
One year turned into two, two to three. The rest is history.
So what’s the secret to having cold showers.
The technique I now use I pinched off Bear Grylls. He says that if ever you have to swim in really cold water breathe out until you’ve expelled all of your breath. That stops you from having that take-your-breath-away feeling.
So now I get into the shower, turn the cold tap on, then start breathing out as I step under the water. I keep breathing out until every last drop of my breath is gone.
Guess what? By the time all my breath is gone I can’t tell the difference between cold and hot water, even in the middle of winter.
And now, with nearly 6 years of cold showers under my belt I’m disinclined to start having hot showers. Every time I step under that cold water, especially during the winter, I’m reminded that I have the power to choose the way I respond to my circumstances.