"We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training." - Archilochus
Hot showers are great. I mean, who doesn’t like them?
It’s virtually a universal truth - a part of life we can all agree on. There’s just something about the simple pleasure of standing under a stream of warm steamy water that brings us joy and comfort in life.
… Maybe that’s why we like it so much: because it’s so un-like life.
I started taking cold showers in 2015. It’s been well over three years now, and I can assuredly say: they still suck… in some regards. But in many ways they are one of the favorite habits I’ve developed.
Why would anyone take a cold shower? (Basically what anyone reading this is thinking at this point - and I promise this post isn't only about cold showers.) Cold showers are shown to have much benefit, from increasing alertness, to improving circulation, to boosting your immune system, to protecting your skin, to speeding up fat loss, and on and on (read more).
There is obvious physiological and therapeutic benefit from committing to something as simple as turning the knob to the right. Yet, why do so few people make that commitment? I’ve been a social advocate for cold showers for over three years now, and guess how many converts I’ve made? A whopping sum of one person I can think of. A single person in three years of advocacy… not promising results.
Now, I get it. There is a very simple reason why people won’t follow through with, or even make this commitment in the first place: because it sucks. It’s not fun or enjoyable in really any conceivable way (other than on a blisteringly hot day). So why did I commit, and am still committed to this practice?
It comes down to one word and one concept… discipline.
In 2015, I was in the early stages of my professional golf career. After having an extremely poor and disappointing start in 2014, I doubled down on my efforts to turn this pursuit into a success-story.
In evaluating where I was and what areas needed the most improvement, it became glaringly obvious that my mental game was the weak-link in the chain. So how do you become mentally stronger? Well, you can listen to Jocko Willink on repeat (also a good idea), or you can commit to taking cold showers.
There are many books, podcasts, speeches, documentaries, etc. - all dedicated to the concept of mental toughness. I love them all, like really love them. I’m constantly seeking out those forms of inspiration, motivation, and kick-in-the-pants reminders to keep us moving down the right track. (If you don’t believe me, one of the things I’m known for is for saving motivational quotes on my phone background - infamously including the phrase: “Dreams don’t work unless you do.” - still gives me goosebumps).
Learning through experience is often a much greater teacher than through second-hand information. So while I continued to consume these great resources for mental-toughness, I knew I needed a tangible form of “lifting weights" and "pushing the iron around” in the mental gym of your mind. While cold showers were not the only technique I tried (Headspace/mindfulness training was also super beneficial), cold exposure was hands-down the most effective.
We learn so much from our parents, and there are always a handful of phrases that stick with you throughout your life, regardless of how distant a memory they are. Growing up in Kansas, wind is a major factor when playing golf. Kansas is one of the windiest states in America (#2 according to The Washington Post), and a 20mph wind is often considered to be an average day.
The phrase my dad drilled into my head, time and time again, was: “the wind is your friend”. In golf, the wind can cause serious havoc on your golf ball while it’s in flight. Many times, you are simply at the mercy of the wind, whether it chooses to gust or to die down while your ball is in the air. Either can be deadly.
Because of the chaotic nature of the wind, and because of the affect it has on the golf ball, our natural inclination is to view the wind as an enemy that’s trying to keep your ball from going where you want it to go. This is one perspective, one way to look at the circumstances. The far better way to view the wind is through the perspective that: everyone has to deal with it, so it’s better to make the wind your friend rather than your enemy. And, at the end of the day, that choice is up to you.
“The wind is your friend.”
This phrase was one of the best gifts (in the realm of golf) that my dad ever gave me. It was a mental trigger that I used throughout my golf career to help align my perspective with a view that helped my mind (and my golf game) instead of hurting it. This mindset opens the door giving you the ability to “partner” with the wind and find a way for it to work to your advantage.
Okay, back to cold showers...
The Cold is Your Friend
This phrase was one of the first recurring thoughts that came to mind after a few weeks of cold showers. “The cold is your friend.” Again, this is largely a perspective shift more than anything, but it is a powerful one nonetheless. But why?
There has to be a why, it can’t just be a cute phrase you tell yourself. Without meaning, words are empty.
When I told myself: “the cold is your friend”, I fully believed it because of the simple truth that - it was making me tougher. In it’s simplest form, taking a cold shower is forcing yourself to do something that you don’t want to do. Meaning, it takes discipline to say no to our feelings and desires, so that you can say yes to the thing that is going to suck but will lead to a good outcome afterwards.
It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting." - Millard Fuller
The more you say something to yourself, the more meaning it starts to take on. What started as a simple routine to make me mentally tougher, began to turn into a reality-grounding ritual that reconnected me to the big-picture of life itself.
Life is a Cold Shower
Everyone can agree with me when I say that: “life is not a hot shower”. We ALL know hardship, we all experience trials, we all can relate with suffering, loss is an inevitable part of life and existence as a human being. Life is hard and a lot of times it is more sucky than warm and fuzzy. Life is a cold shower.
What started as a personal challenge to become stronger in my mind, turned into a daily reminder that life will never be a walk in the park, it will never be handed to you on a silver platter, and it will rarely meet your expectations... but that doesn't mean we can't embrace it.
"Obstacles and setbacks are not something separate from the journey, they are the journey." - Andy Puddicombe
I hate generalizations, so in order to move away from making too many broad statements, I want to get specific on what I mean when I say - cold showers are grounding:
They create a physiological shift - called the mammalian dive reflex (when cold water contacts the face) which slows down our heart rate and helps shift us into our parasympathetic state (rest/digest) as well as other physiological functions (read more).
They reduce stress - another result from the parasympathetic shift
They eliminate mental chatter - any worries or concerns move to the back of the mind as you face a new challenge in overcoming the cold
They bring you back to the bare necessities of life - breathing and heart-beating
They remind you that life is a gift, not a given (similar to King Solomon's conclusion in Ecclesiastes)
They keep you humble - no matter how tough you think you are, your body will still respond in some manner to the “shock” of cold water
While cold showers do provide a host of benefits, there’s really only one benefit that matters. If you remove all the other good things it brings, it would still be worth taking cold showers if this one factor remained … discipline.
Discipline is a trained response. Actually, it is training itself. Discipline is the forced training of ourselves to do what is best, regardless of whether we agree with that conclusion in the moment or in the circumstance where we currently reside. Cold showers are the best illustration of daily discipline in action.
I’m well over three years into this lifestyle-habit, and still, there are many times where I stand for a minute or two, butt-naked, waiting to walk into the shower until I'm finally ready to face the impending cold that is about to rain down upon me. There’s self-talk, self-doubt, excuse-invasion, second-guessing games, pump-up speeches, and a mental girding-up of my loins that is often needed to follow through with what I’ve committed to.
“The formula for change is when the desire for change is greater than the resistance to change.” - Brad Sugar
Change is hard, and there will always be resistance to it. But it’s worth it. SO worth it.
I fully believe that who I am today would be far different than who I would've been if it weren’t for the discipline of taking cold showers.
To me, it doesn’t matter if it’s cold showers, or making your bed, or not eating sugar, or running/sweating every day, or meditating, or staying off social media - the redeeming factor shared by each of these practices (beyond the specific tangible benefit) is the underlying presence of discipline. Doing something that you don’t feel like doing is the point. That is discipline, and living a successful life requires it.
More importantly, living a godly life commands it.