It’s cold outside. Here in Northern Vermont the temperatures dipped well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit last night and will again tonight. It’s probably very cold where you are right now too. This cold makes news. And people generate a lot of reactivity to it — generate a lot of stories, mostly of a plaintiff nature.
Now, extreme cold like this can be dangerous, so we need to be mindful of this. If you go to sleep in a snowbank, you’ll wake up frozen and dead. However, with proper precautions, we can survive the extreme cold as humans have been doing for millennia. A wise sage once said there is no such thing as being cold, just unprepared. Patagonia, North Face, and many other companies exist to make sure we are prepared for whatever natures gives us.
Cold is not a thing. In fact there is not such thing as cold; it’s just the relative absence of heat. Yet we react to cold as if it is a thing, as if it is a person — and an adversary at that. We resist it, fight it, and wish it was otherwise.
I remember one very cold evening last winter. I was walking to my car complaining under my breath how cold it was. I was fighting it, resisting it. When I got into my car I was shivering and noticed how I was tensing the muscles in my upper body. When I reminded myself that the hot Buddha sweats and the cold Buddha shivers, I relaxed my muscles and felt the sensations of the cold. I felt tingling energy and a relaxed space opening up in my experience. The cold was no longer unpleasant because I wasn’t fighting it.
We can think of a four-story building. On the ground floor is what is happening now. When it’s cold there’s not a lot of molecules moving and there are the sensations of cold, including perhaps shivering — our bodies attempt to restore warmth.
On the second floor is the brain’s attempt to figure out what’s going on. A label “cold” is applied to the experience.
The brain also wants to figure out the emotional tone of this experience, so on the third floor, we get an evaluation of the experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Cold is naturally unpleasant unless and until it is deconstructed (stay tuned!).
On the fourth floor we have conscious thoughts, such as “oh it’s cold, I better put on my hat” and “I can’t believe how cold it is, !%&*&, I hate winter.” The first thought is practical; the second a product of the storytelling mind and one that makes the experience distressing.
So, our task is to deconstruct the experience by coming down to the ground floor and experience the sensations of the cold without the label “cold” and without the drama generated on the fourth floor. When we can do this, the distress dissipates. We can experience the exhilaration of the cold and feel our aliveness vibrating.
When we can do this we move into acceptance of reality as it is. This is the heart of mindfulness. When we accept what is happening — shivering cold in this case — we relieve ourselves from misery, anguish, and even suffering.
I’m fortunate to have the constitution of a polar bear and yet I still need to deconstruct the cold as above at times. Of course this strategy works for ANY potentially distressing experience, not just cold.
When I finish writing this column, I’m off to slide down a mountain at high speed on a snowboard in the zero degree landscape (and much colder with the wind chill). I’m looking forward to the refreshing reminder of being alive!
To learn more about how to live in the present moment and how to increase our connection to compassion read my books. I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest, The Everything Buddhism Book. It’s an accessible yet comprehensive introduction to Buddhism with my practical, contemporary, and somtime irreverent perspectives.
For more information on mindfulness and additional guided practices, visit my website Exquisite Mind. The complete CD 1, CD2, CD3, and CD4 are now available for listening and download, free. Visit here for a guided breathing and body scan meditation; walking and standing and standing yoga, mindful yoga, and the mind scan and emptiness practices.
Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, meditation instructor, and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness(Wisdom, 2009) and Everything Buddhism (available on Amazon now). He also the founder of the Exquisite Mind in Burlington,Vermont and writes a daily blog entitled Mindfulness Matters: Tools for Living Now!You can practice mindfulness meditation with Arnie every Friday morning from 8:00 to 8:45 (EST) in the eMindful.com online classroom. To login into this free meditation, click here.
As an expert in stress reduction, wellness, and mindfulness, Arnie will present weekly practical wisdom for transforming stress. His award-winning writing will help you to lead a richer and happier life