This past Sunday I paid money for the opportunity to plunge into a pool of icy water and swim under a wall that divided the pool in half; and I don't just mean ice cold, I mean water thick with a deep layer of floating ice cubes cozying up against one another (better suited to the inside of a martini shaker), so that when I, in my panic, tried to surface, it felt as if the ice cubes were pressing down on top of me. I was participating in the Mt. Snow iteration of the latest "physical challenge event" phenomenon -- a Tough Mudder.
An event ostensibly designed by the British Military, this particular Tough Mudder involved 10 miles of running, much of it up or down the steep mountain side of Mt. Snow, very often in mid-calf mud, hiding treacherous rocks. The running though is almost incidental to the event (and it's running to be reckoned with), which also includes in the neighborhood of 30 "obstacles." I lost count somewhere along the way and, in any event, didn't even know if some obstacles were official, or just part of the terrain. The obstacles included the above-mentioned dumpster ice bath, crawling on your belly under barbed wire, crawling on your belly in muddy water beneath live electrical wires, crawling on your belly through underground tunnels and then again through metal culvert tunnels partially immersed in water (you're seeing the military theme by now), slithering sloth-like across a cable suspended just above icy water, traversing monkey bars above icy water, walking a narrow balance beam across a pool of icy water, and jumping off high ledges into... yes, more heart-stoppingly icy water. The bit where we ran through smoke and jumped over fire was actually a welcome relief from the cold. It was also Vermont in early May, I might add, meaning it wasn't exactly hot weather to begin with. Then there were the obligatory walls to scale, and the grand finale involved more live electrical wire. Hoo-rah, as many of the participants might say.
The event is not a race. A point emphasized by the organizers and supported by an environment that prizes collaboration over speed, and gamely good attitude over finish time, and that's all to the good. The event is about facing down your fears and staying strong in the jaws of exhaustion... and having fun (lest we forget)!
Well... I am a good swimmer, but very fearful of cold water. I'm not a fan of that feeling of suffocation that sets in when I'm immersed in too-cold water. Oh yes, I'm sure with a mad amount of training, I could learn, if not to love, then not to fear that feeling. But how unpleasant would all that training be, and to what end? These were the questions I asked myself, as I'd just settle into enjoying all the belly-crawling and, of course, running up and down steep hills (which I truly love), when another icy water obstacle would loom on the horizon. WTF? Again?
I can do it. By now I know I can. And by "it" I mean plunge into icy water when necessary (or even when it's an unnecessary event I've signed up for). The question is, why? There are things we must do in life; and there are even things that are very good preparation for the things we must do in life, or for making the most of our life. Anyone who has read a bit about my thinking knows that I think sports are one of the most efficient and efficacious ways to train in a microcosm of life's challenges and get invaluable glimpses into how much more we are capable of than we believe.
I agree with the general theory that it is a good thing for us to face our fears in some fashion, and that in so doing we strengthen our spirit (and possibly our bodies). I agree, too, with the general theory that if we never challenge ourselves (which necessarily involves facing some version of fear, be it fear of a concrete thing, like cold water, or fear of failure), then we will cease to grow; that true engagement in the world demands of us a willingness, even a desire, to greet and even seek out challenges.
The question the Tough Mudder posed for me was what challenges ought we to seek out simply for the sake of training our fear? And where does enjoyment fit in? Is a challenge a challenge, or is fear really fear, if the thing we fear ultimately turns out to be fun? To that I'd answer a resounding "yes." In fact, that's the point, I think, to love challenge, to find joy in engagement.
I, for example, will be sleepless before an ultra-marathon, terrified I can't finish or that I'll hurt myself on the mountain or that the pain in general might be too much, but I also thrive on that fear and am all the more thrilled when I do finish. There were many at the Tough Mudder who loved the challenges and derived huge pleasure from the whole event. My compatriot throughout the event was an energetic, inspiring woman, and the group I attended the race with (including a dear friend) were wonderful spirits and I felt lucky to be among them, so for all that, and for having experienced the event, I am glad I participated. But... I don't think I would do it again. I've proved to myself I can do it, and once was enough for that in this particular case.
A little more than a month ago now I took on a challenge at the opposite end of the spectrum, far from the "hoo-rah" and aggressive physicality of Sunday, but one which incited at least as much advance trepidation. I went on a week-long silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. In addition to the obvious, no talking, there was also no reading and no writing, and of course no music, no movies, no television, no computer, no nothing really, except me and the inside of my mind. Nor did I run, though once there I discovered that I might have. I went for a vigorous walk everyday.
At the Tough Mudder, the intense, externally-generated focus of the physical activity forces you into the moment, that much vaunted "moment" we are often counseled to live in. When we are fully committed to the activity, when we have reached the point of casting aside self-doubt and fear, then taking action, doing, may clear away the clutter of our minds and still the chatter, leaving only the glorious feeling of our bodies in motion, followed by the satisfaction of accomplishment.
An extended period of silence and meditation on the other hand, approaches the same goal from stillness, from an internally-generated focus. And for me, generating the mindfulness that enables me to catch glimpses, to touch, even briefly, the radiant expansiveness of a clear mind, is at least as difficult as jumping in an ice bath. Seven days alone with the contents of my head and I sometimes felt like my mind and I were barely on speaking terms anymore. So much muck was in there, roiling around, vying for my attention, trying to shade reality. But sometimes, for the blink of an eye, a pause would occur between the thoughts, the mud would settle, and there, for an instant, would be clarity, a feeling like turning myself inside out and immersing myself in a mild effervescence.
I'm not sure which I prefer -- a challenging physical activity that places me face to face with my own self, or the inward looking stillness of the meditation cushion. Both have their place. For me, they are complementary, nourishing each other's efforts.
What do you think?
For more by Mina Samuels, click here.
For more on mindfulness, click here.