There already was a drizzle when I switched into my swimming pants an hour ago. By now the drops have become bigger and the sound of rain hitting the leaves around me fills my ears. My arms and legs are moving in unison, guiding my breath in preparation of what is to come. I’m standing in the middle of a forest with twelve other trainees ready to get into the ice bath, the first step of my cold exposure training. My mind wanders for a moment, perplexed at the fact that the ice is the start of this training not the end goal.
A big drop hits my nose and pulls me back to the training. I’ve been moving around in the rain for an hour in hardly any clothing, I should have been cold by now. But I have to admit I’m warmer than usual. The drops don’t bother me anymore.
The trainer invites me to get into the ice. I’m one of the last students to get in, most of the people before me froze when they touched the water or screamed from the cold. Most were happy to get in and out as quickly as possible. I’ve researched a bit upfront and have an idea of what’s coming and it shows.
As I lower myself into the water I don’t flinch, don’t scream or hesitate, only a single staggered breath gives away what my entire body is screaming: THIS WATER IS ICE COLD! Within seconds I will my shoulders to relax and the rest of my body follows. “As if on a sunny beach. Where is my cocktail?” I joke, the trainers looking in stunned silence.
Minutes later they tell me to get out to not take any risks of hypothermia, so I do.
This story sounds like that of a victor, someone beating their fears and instincts, someone in complete control. Looking back with what I know now, there is so much wrong with this picture. I missed so many signals and have to admit I was proud of missing them, as I had been taught to be. By now I’ve learned.
We live in a society that has made comfort their greatest achievement and total control over yourself the most valuable skill one can have. For centuries (and arguably millennia) we have been told our body (primal being) and mind are separate and it’s the job of the mind to be in control. Intellect became the number one virtue so we took away all the hardships our bodies needed to go through, so our minds could receive ever more attention.
From our earliest childhood we are conditioned to think this way and with modern luxury this only accelerates. Schools are a great example of this: Sit still, don’t make noise and get rewarded (mainly) for intellectual success. And a child that doesn’t follow suit is considered a troublemaker. We are told to “play nice”, “use our words” and “behave” all telling us to keep self control and not give the primal being the upper hand.
Specialized studies are praiseworthy, where choosing to go for manual physical labour jobs is seen as being “lower”. It is so ingrained that the term “higher education” translates almost worldwide. It’s strange really, because we all know that we couldn’t function without these lower jobs.
Using your head is good and using your body is bad, that’s the message. And we decided to take that to extremes. Most of us hardly need to use our bodies to keep ourselves comfortable. We can work from home, groceries can be delivered, warm meals can be brought to your doorstep, we can meet people online all while sitting in a comfy chair.
Even those that focus on keeping their bodies in peak condition everything seems about self control, be it losing weight or lifting them. All in pursuit of what society thinks is right, providing the comfort of validation.
Society is so deep into its comfort zone that even keeping ourselves warm using our own body heat is considered strange. (Why didn’t you put on a jacket?)
When self control is rewarded by comfort, why would you ever want to break that agreement? We’ve been told all our lives that we need to keep in control of ourselves for the benefit of society. Together we build the rules and thrive on it, so you have to play your part, or else you become an outcast.
Being an outcast is dangerous, at least it feels that way instinctively. The group protects you, right? Well, it should. But in a world that is no longer built on the tribe (or even family) structure, that seems no longer true.
Let me be clear: there are definitely reasons to practice self control. When you start going around killing people on instinct, society will (and should) consider you a threat. However there is a more reasonable limit that doesn’t need to push out the value of your primal being.
And let me add that comfort is really nice.
Total (self) control may serve society and keep everyone comfortably away from the harsh world, but doing so at the cost of your own mental and physical health seems irresponsible. Our comfort is slowly killing us and our image of what self control is keeps the idea that it is a good thing going.
Sitting still for extended periods of time has shown to be more dangerous than cigarettes. Not just physically but maybe even more mentally. Never before have there been so many people in need of mental help as now. Over the pandemic we have seen what happens when we really take the body out of the equation. No longer allowed to leave the house, we couldn’t keep the primal being silent.
Living with an ignored primal being can make your life hell. The “monster” inside that society has banned, will keep clawing and roaring until it gets attention. Anger and fear will fester and the lack of taking care of yourself will make you sick. While at the same time all it wants to do is keep you as happy and healthy as possible. It doesn’t always know best, but its intentions are good. When you have a friend who looks out for you, has only your best interest in mind and knows you through and through, why would you “cage” it? Only because others have told you they are a bad friend?
I was in total control when I entered that ice bath. My primal being had a lot to say, but I chose to ignore it. All that it was telling me to keep me safe was silenced, as I had been taught to do. My mind being so well trained and strong, that my body could not “be disobedient” (As Seneca told us). I forced every fiber of my being to do what I wanted it to. All in fear of what it might say otherwise. Not about the bath itself, but about everything else in my life, as a good friend should.
There is of course a balance to be had. One where we start embracing the discomfort our primal being may bring. One that allows us to open our eyes to the uncomfortable truths around us. One that allows us to communicate with our primal being without considering it a loss of self control.
The primal being is an essential part of ourselves, a part that wants to help us to be comfortable by our own rules and standards. And let’s be real, is that not what true self control should be?