We are all aware of the mind/body separation that we are supposed to overcome in our training. We want to calm the mind during duress and become one with the body. Through diligent practice we hope to meld the two as one. We see this as a psychological process that emanates from mental focus to bring the two in harmony. I think it this awareness goes beyond cognitive practice and is much more prevalent in daily life than you might expect.
In the extreme examples of this there is the reaction of some men in war time situations where under the direst circumstances they suddenly become focused and still. They often describe as being detached from the moment while being in the moment. Athletes go through this at the peak of their ability. Rock climbers often talk of this experience and a type of euphoria it brings. This might be thought of us wei-wu-wei but I am talking about something much more visceral and fundamental to the human biology without philosophical concepts. This exists in all of us as part of our intrinsic physiology. I think of this as core consciousness vs surface consciousness. When under some stressful situations the mind sinks to the core and ignores the reactions of the surface. So, while in danger your body ignores the surface sensations and sinks to the core to react. There have been first responders that have been under extreme physical duress during a rescue but seemed immune to it at the time. They don’t realize their injurie till after the event. Over the years I’ve talked to many fighters who will talk about being hyped up in the dressing room but as they enter the ring their consciousness somehow automatically changes and they become still. They are no longer surface reactive. It is not uncommon for folks to comment on how still these folks are in the face of a fight. If you’ve had a good martial arts teacher you will see that when you throw strikes at them their reaction is unnervingly serene and in control. Their practice has led them to instantly sink into this consciousness.
At the center of this is the difference between the reaction of the body’s surface and the body’s core. When it’s a surface reaction that stimulus overwhelms our consciousness. It’s a conflict between fight and flight. If we are startled we become flooded with sensations from the body. So, if while walking peacefully down the street and a dog suddenly appears barking fiercely we might withdraw and go numb overcome by not knowing what is happening. Our mind is frozen. If suddenly we are immersed in cold water we shiver and hyper ventilate. All of these are the autonomic nervous system taking over. How do we control this effect? How do we master our response? You might think that we can’t control our autonomic response but in fact we can. We can learn core control and awareness.
I recently had a new understanding of this while practicing the Wim Hof breathing method and cold-water techniques. It is comprised of practicing breath retention and then, after a few weeks, you start taking cold showers or submersing yourself in cold water. I know, it sounds like torture. I have been surprised by guys telling me how horrible they think cold water training is. Tough guys tell me this, ‘no way I’ll do the cold water”. I understand it but for some reason it intrigued me. The first two times in the cold water was brutal and I jumped around and hyperventilated like a little child while cursing like a demon. Keep in mind I had been training the breathing for weeks. My first reaction in the water was pure surface consciousness; my skin was freezing and that is all I reacted to, it ruled my mind. On the third day something profound happened. When I stepped into the cold shower my consciousness immediately left the surface and sunk to my core and my breathing went deep and steady. My heart rate dropped to 52 BPM almost instantly. I was no longer cold. I did not shiver. The core took over and it was warm. My mind was clear, lucid and present. It’s like being inside a car and it’s cold rain outside. The surface knows it cold but inside of it is fine. Within a few days this core reaction became an immediate response to cold. No hyper ventilating and no adverse reactions just a deep, calm awareness and a sudden sinking of my breath. I realized it’s the same when I fight, this losing of surface consciousness. I want to stress here that this was not by training psychologically. In my breathing exercises I never thought about cold water training, I just did the breathing. The idea is that you’ve intrinsically programmed the core awareness by the breathing so when stress occurs, such as cold water, it will just take over. Well, it does. Being a complete cold-water pansy in the past I am still shocked at how it does not bother me at all. For the record the water is generally about 59F. I actually look forward to getting it colder. One of the major effects of this is now core consciousness is very apparent in every day life. I’ve bought a pulse and oxygen finger monitor to check my progress. In a matter of just six weeks I can consciously slow my pulse lowering it from 72 PBM to 50 BPM in about a minute. My mind now had a direct link to my core like never before. It makes you fundamentally aware of all aspects of your body in a direct and practical way. Qigong does this at one level but this is so much more hard core (no pun intended) and real that I am amazed by it. Surprisingly now I would much rather prefer a cold shower to a hot one as it energizes the body and makes me much more present.
The point of this is that there are many ways to expand and deepen our training. While we may have great physical awareness and prowess in the gym we might have none when dealing with the elements such as cold weather. This broadening of core consciousness wonderfully unites martial arts training with adapting to our natural environment
Who knew breaking the comfort zone of warm water would be so enriching and at the same time create a larger zone of comfort in cold water? I didn’t.
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