One of the general principles of meditation is to stay with the present in a non-judgmental way. Another way of saying non-judgemental is without pulling away or grasping for things. Paying attention to the breath is just one potential object of meditation, and you don’t want your practice to become stale and boring by only doing the same thing every time. It would be like thinking that exercise is only doing push-ups. Not only will you have very lopsided muscle development, but you will also become bored very quickly and think that exercise as a whole is just not for you. However, if you spread your vision a bit further, you could see that not only is there a treadmill and a rowing machine, but even better, there’s dancing, martial arts, hikes, and downhill skiing. Meditation is simply exercising the brain to induce positive states and has a comparable diversity to exercise. This meditation I’m going to describe is the equivalent of dancing: it’s fun, full-body, and you feel great during and afterwards.
The steps are simple. Get into your shower, and turn it to your preferred hot temperature. Your meditation object throughout the session will be the sensations of the water on your skin. Really savor them. Remember that up until relatively recently, and still in many parts of the world, a hot shower is a luxury. Whenever you notice you have become distracted, give yourself a mental pat on the back for noticing (you want to positively reinforce noticing distractions), then gently return your attention to the body-sensations.
Start by facing the tap with your arms held loosely by your sides, palms facing forward, with your face out of the stream. Start slowly turning your body in a circle. The idea here is to try to soak in the warmth into each part of your skin. Stay with the water as long as it takes to feel like each part has gotten warm.
Once you’re back to the beginning, turn the water to cold. Do the same thing as with the hot water, slowly turning around, letting the cold sink in, and paying attention to the sensations. After you’re done the rotation, turn it back to hot, and repeat the pattern as often as desired.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Cold! I thought you said this was an enjoyable meditation, and now you’re telling me to have a cold shower? Do you even know how to have fun?” Bear with me though. This is actually part of what makes it great. This alternating between cold and hot will have your body zinging with energy. I’ve heard it explained by the fact that when you’re hot, your blood vessels dilate to flush more blood to the area so that it can diffuse the heat more, and it does the opposite with cold. Thus, when you switch between it, you’re basically flushing your skin with blood and then withdrawing it, getting rid of excess cellular wastes. I’ve never checked this theory, so my epistemic status is highly uncertain, and even if it’s true, why that feels good is still a mystery. Regardless, I can attest to the fact that it feels fantastic afterwards.*
Not only does the cold lead to physical benefits, but there’s a psychological benefit as well. There’s a very instinctive reaction to withdraw and protect your body from the cold. However, here, you will be purposefully keeping your body in an open posture and deliberately moving into the sensation, rather than away. This is one of the fundamental practices of Buddhist meditation - to welcome all sensations with openness and curiosity, rather than pulling away. This develops the muscle of equanimity. Thus the cold part of the shower-meditation is a great way to get into the habit of it, and you might be surprised by what you find. I personally notice that while at first I’ll have an experience of withdrawal, after a round or two, the cold water, especially on my back, fills me with energy and a feeling of being fully alive, like swimming in a fresh lake.
You might also consider adding metaphor to the practice. You can make the warm water represent the things in your life that are easy to enjoy. Pleasure, good company, flow, success, etc. When you turn on the heat, you can imagine relaxing into the joys of the day to come. You can make the cold water represent the things in your life that are challenging to enjoy. When you turn on the cold, you can imagine just being with reality as it is, letting go of resisting it, enjoying the facets that you can, and letting the challenges invigorate you instead of hurting you.
You can do as many rounds as you want. I usually do three or four, but have sometimes done as many as twenty (poor heating bill!) or as little as one. I wouldn’t recommend doing it before bed because it generally wakes you up, so on the flip side, the morning is a great time for it. I have no evidence about whether you should do it while you’re sick, but I would guess that you shouldn’t because it will take energy from fighting the sickness and put it into warming up your body. I find it’s particularly good when my cognitive methods of cheering myself up aren’t working, and I need to try something physiological (in line with my emotional CPR method). It’s also a great thing to do right when you get home after work to help reset you and give you some energy after a long day.
So go ahead and enjoy. A relaxed and zinging body and mind for the small price of getting into the shower.
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*WARNING - Of note, some people have strong negative reactions to sudden temperature changes. If you are one of these people, then you probably will not like this practice!
Katherine Xio Savoie
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science. This blog is where I write about everything, particularly happiness, health, life hacks, and psychology.