Photo by Ellen Zocher

Growing up near Lake Washington, I was the kid who sat on the dock watching with envy, terrified of getting in the water as my friends had fun splashing about. I suspect that my Dad grabbing my foot in the pool to play “Jaws” when I was little had something to do with this. I used exposure therapy as a teen to overcome this fear, but sometimes I still am held back from swimming for another reason: It’s cold!

A few years ago, after a particularly water-less summer, I resolved to again challenge the limitations of my physical apprehension through exposure: Cold showers would be my way in.

I started by adding just a few seconds of cold water to the middle of my daily shower, using a mantra to psyche me up and get me through the uncomfortable moments:

I am brave.
I am strong.
I can do hard things.

(This reads very calmly, but the delivery is often a louder and more frantic string of words. Also, “hard” is of course, relative).

I can’t remember where these words came from, but they remind me that even when things aren’t enjoyable, I always have the power to choose how I meet the situation. I’ve found this to be one of the most empowering lessons of mindfulness.

When I first encountered mindfulness at a Mindfulness Northwest 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in Bellingham, I was struck by how I was habitually reacting to my circumstances rather than consciously responding to them. I still remember the first time I noticed an itch and chose not to scratch it – you mean you can do that?

Through the continued practice of mindfulness, I’ve increased my agency over my life. It has led to more clarity in my values like courage and joy. It reminds me of my intentions, like not letting temporary discomfort get in the way of delightful experience. It gives me a map for returning to my highest ideals, goals, and aspirations, even if I don’t always follow that map. And, particularly as a person with ADHD, it strengthens my ability to consciously respond rather than unconsciously react to circumstances.

Photo by Damian McCoig

For instance, when I’m choosing to take a cold shower, with mindfulness, I can notice…

  • The sensations of clenching and bracing in my torso as I turn the blue shower knob.
  • The thoughts and emotions that arise when I decide I’d rather not turn that knob today after all.
  • What happens to my breathing as the cold water hits my body.

And when I am really present in these moments, I discover that there are positives to something I often dread too! Like…

  • The rushing, invigorating, and energizing sensations that accompany the intense urge to turn the cold water off immediately.
  • My open curiosity of how long I will last today…30 seconds? 5 seconds? 3 minutes?
  • The pleasant sensations of warmth, relief, pride, energy, and mild euphoria when I turn the cold water off.

As we fully experience moments of unpleasantness, we often see that they are more rich than we realized, and that we aren’t without choice in how we meet them.

Photo by Joseph Barrientos

It’s just a guess, but I imagine that every day, you face at least one thing that’s harder than being a little cold for a few seconds. Life’s difficulties can often overwhelm our ability to choose a response and instead send us straight into reaction. Is there a recurring challenge in your life that you wish you could meet with a bit more intention in the moment? Is there an activity involving discomfort that is in line with your goals that you’ve been avoiding?

There is, of course, no shame in being a human being with powerful habits and urges that are essential to your survival (thank you, Mindful Self-Compassion!). But how can your practice support you in being with whatever arises, so that you can ride the waves of life with a little more freedom, purpose, and connection? Can you do something small today to remind yourself that you are brave, you are strong, you can do hard things?

Whether it’s in the shower or on the cushion, being in choice during little moments of aversion is a great training ground for the bigger things, where even a slightly greater tolerance to being in difficulty can have a huge impact. Choosing to keep meditating when you just want to take a nap, or to turn the water cold for 10 seconds, is a small doorway to larger freedom.

As the weather turns colder, you might try practicing some mindfulness. Maybe some cold air in the morning is just what you need to start your day with more energy and aliveness. Choosing to still take a walk even when it’s 34 degrees and drizzly could help you get through these dark winter months. You could notice and name, “I am quite cold,” and then choose how you’d like to proceed. Signing up for a local New Year’s Day Polar Plunge is an exciting way to ring in the new year with a small leap of bravery. Or you could try my mantra in the shower. These small acts can have exponential power when it comes to showing yourself what you’re capable of.

Yesterday, I found myself on a rocky shore of the Salish Sea in my swimsuit. After 10 minutes of hesitation, I said my mantra, leapt in, got out, then enjoyed a few good howls. It was a small gift to that little girl sitting on the dock, who sometimes still doubts that she can be brave. Like meditation, and everything else in life, it just takes practice.