Renaissance Ninja

Discomfort, caffeinated squirrels, and a dash of viking blood

I came to a painful realization earlier about a choice I made in Switzerland. I had just arrived at the first farm I was volunteering at. Within a couple of days I was beginning to feel incredibly frustrated and uncomfortable in the situation. Of course, I knew this was going to happen, after all, I could barely speak the language. The farm and the surrounds were beautiful and the other workers were fun to be around, so that wasn’t adding to the discomfort at least. I was just frustrated by feeling incompetent and a burden. It didn’t help that I was stuck in-between speaking English and French, which further amplified the feelings of frustration. Dinner conversation would abruptly switch between the two, totally melting my brain. Pro tip for those trying to learn a new language: don’t let other people speak to you in your native tongue to you early on. If you can’t make them stop, there’s always duct tape, right?

Duct Tape: A solution for every problem. Ne pas parler en anglais avec moi! Comprends?

I spent that Thursday in a frenzied mental state, trying to wrestle with the frustration, while working near a chalet with an epic view of the Alps. Taking a break to climb on things and soak in the view shut up the lizard brain for a little while, but it’s an insistent little bugger. In the end I gave in to the chatter of the lizard brain and began making plans to go to another farm. I slipped away late on Friday (these rhymes, they keep happening) and walked the hour down to the nearby town.

I wasn’t willing to endure the discomfort of feeling incompetent at the language (and stymied by jumping between English and French), because of that I ran away. I’ve been pissed at myself for doing it ever since, but until now I tried to deny that I ran away and just rationalized it as “optimizing learning,” or some bull like that. I gave up on a ton of opportunities (and good wine!) because I didn’t stick it through that tough first week. If I had I could have trained in this spot, south of Bex, all the time, explored the mountains around the farm, and continued to soak in the view around there.

Freezin’ in the shower

What does any of that even have to do with taking cold showers? I began Julien Smith’s first challenge in The Flinch again back in December of taking maximally cold showers every day for a week. The intent of the exercise is to learn how to recognize, feel, and get past the flinch that he talks about. Learninatin’ how to recognize that devious lizard brain at work. Maybe I’m a bit masochistic (my hands agree), since I decided to keep taking them every day. Once I decided that, it became an exercise in willingly enduring discomfort, and enduring it regularly. You step into that shower, knowing that it’s never going to feel any less cold than it did the first time, but you know you’ll be OK and that it’s temporary. Many people do this with sitting meditation (wait, you have to just sit there? And do nothing? Crazy talk!); I on the other hand jump into the path of freezing water. To be fair, after wading into bone-chilling Icelandic water the shower’s got nothin’ to scare me with.

Enduring discomfort is intricately tied with the idea of vulnerability, which I’ve been a bit obsessed with since I listened (at least 15 times) to an interview with Brené Brown (TED talk) during the final weeks of my stay in Switzerland. To be vulnerable you have to be willing to endure discomfort all the time. But why be vulnerable? I was listening to yet another interview with Brené earlier where she threw the hammer down: “shutting down vulnerability minimizes joy.” Ouch. Just looking at my own experiences I’m beginning to see that it’s true. Now, most of the changes aren’t visible in writing, but you might see hints of them if you compare posts I wrote before The Quest and after. The Quest marks the shift to choosing to be vulnerable all the time. Since that change I’ve felt consistently more happy, immeasurably so. I often have days now where it feels as like a squirrel that just drank two cups of espresso and am bouncing off the walls with excitement and playful energy. I suspect I had a lot of my energy locked-away before, because I was afraid of being rejected or becoming too much of an outsider. Now this might just be me, and I’m sure there are other factors, but I can tell that vulnerability has played a huge role in turning me into an exuberant ball of energy. It’d be awesome if the slogan “vulnerability: better than caffeine” would be true, but it’s just my own experience (n=1 and all), so take it for what it is.

Like this? Minus the addiction and jitters maybe.

My own approach and experience aside, I think that learning to endure discomfort through regular personal practice pays huge dividends, whether that’s through cold showers, meditation, difficult exercise, or something else. You’ll find it easier to see difficult, but fulfilling, projects through to the end. It’ll be easier to recognize when your mind (specifically the ‘lizard brain’ or amygdala) is trying to sabotage your efforts; when you can see how it’s trying to subvert you, then you can ignore it and continue to do the things that light you up and that are worth fighting for. Most importantly the willingness to endure discomfort allows us to be vulnerable and be our true selves.

A dash of Viking Blood

A secondary part of my little “jump into freezing water every day” experiment was to test out its effects on cold tolerance. Now a little disclaimer here, I have always been rather cold tolerant (I’ve got a little Swedish and Russian ancestry which helps) and this is just my own anecdotal experience. How did I measure the change? I call it the “t-shirt weather” test. For the past several years while living in North Carolina, that number was around 50F, maybe as low as 45F if there wasn’t epic wind-chill. That number has dropped to ~36F even with strong wind chill. Yesterday 40F was t-shirt and shorts weather. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to test it, since I was spending 2-4 hours outside filming every day. Movement does influence the tolerance, if I’m doing diddly then I get cold quicker, and if I’m moving vigorously then southern U.S. weather has got absolutely nothin’ on me, even when it’s “snowing.” Since I was out recording anyway, this happened:

I was being a bit cautious and didn’t test it for long, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit cold during it. So if you’re feeling real chilly and want to warm up quickly: get moving. Most definitely not promising results like these in terms of cold tolerance, but you could feel way more comfortable in weather that previously had you all shivery.

Oh, and yes, I only tell you this now, almost at the end of the wintery months. I’m a master of timing, yup. This year, when winter is coming keep cold showers in mind though. ;)

(Images courtesy of & Wikipedia)