Ice, Intensity, Immanence

A phenomenological reflection on cold thermogenesis

"Misery is almost always the result of thinking." -Joseph Joubert

It is a cliché that most of man's troubles stem from his thinking, yet this is nonetheless true. When a certain problem stresses us, it is in our nature to delve deeper into this problem by excessively thinking about it, and thus making it worse. Hence many people's excitement for any and all activities that are able to silence the mind, and stop the torment of thought, to just be. Some get out of their minds, and into their bodies, through strength-training or yoga, and others prefer meditation. A favourite practice of mine to silence the problems of thought and enter the silence of being, is cold thermogenesis. I have been taking almost exclusively cold showers for almost three years now, and started swimming in natural waters last year, a practice I intend to continue coming winter. I would like to share some thoughts on this practice today. I will not be concerning myself with the science behind it, and the numerous benefits it has for both physical and mental health. In this article, I will be talking about the phenomenology of the experience of cold; what is this experience like? What is the manner of appearing in which the experience of cold appears, and what can we learn from this manner of appearing?

I. Everyday experience

In everyday consciousness, it is said by everyday men, that all consciousness is intentional. All consciousness is consciousness of something. There is no consciousness by or in itself, but only consciousness of something. I am conscious of my hands, the taste of this cigarette, this screen in front of me, etc. By extension, the experience that we call life is always an experience of something other than experience itself. There is no such thing as experience experienced in itself, but only the experience of this sunset, of this heartbreak, of this thought, etc. Experience is intentional. Phenomenologically speaking; all appearing is the appearing of a thing, but never the appearing of appearing as such. The phenomenological question par excellence thus becomes, is there really no such thing as an original appearing of appearing that precedes the appearing of some particular thing? Is there no experience of experience itself experiencing itself that precedes the experience of some particular thing? Is there such a thing as non-intentional experience?

The only way to solve this question is to experience an experience that is non-intentional. All other deduction of such a possibility, by way of theory, remains just a possibility. From a phenomenological perspective, the possibility of non-intentional experience only becomes actual when it is experienced. When it appears, not before the gaze of theory, but before the gaze of life. From the perspective of the possibility of a non-intentional consciousness or experience, the previous formula: non-intentional experience appearing before the gaze of life, is contradictory. For something appearing before life amounts to once again inserting a separation between subject and object, between consciousness and its object. In this case, the person, and what is before his gaze. There is the subject, the gaze that intends towards some object (in Husserlian phenomenology: noesis), and the object gazed at (in Husserlian phenomenology: noema). What we are speaking of, the experience of which we are trying to investigate the reality, is antithetical to such a separation of the form consciousness - noesis - noema. It would rather have to be of the form consciousness - consciousness. Or put otherwise, experience - experience.

For everyday man, it is counterintuitive to search for such a reality, for he lives in the presupposition that all consciousness and experience is intentional, that all theory and all praxis is intentional. Thus refusing the experience of experience itself. This presupposition has become so deep-rooted that we believe all truth is to be found through intentionality. Why? Because man believes all truth is to be found through thought. And thought is an activity characterized by intentionality. When I think, I am always thinking about something else than thought, thought always intends towards some-thing. Even when I engage in a meta-reflection on my own thinking, there still remains a separation between my actual thinking and the thinking which I now posit in front of me as the object of my actual thinking. Even if man might entertain the possibility of non-intentional experience, he remains convinced that truth is only to be found through intentionality; in the process of thought, or in the process of description in the empirical sciences, whereby properties of the world are intended. Intended in such a way that we abstract them from their rootedness in the fabric of living experience, and treat them as objects in front of the subject that we are, but that are separate from this subject. We believe that the process of intending, the gaze towards the object, is accidental, and in no way constitutive of the object. Empirical science is thus twice removed from the, for now supposed, reality of non-intentional experience. You can now see why I am not interested in a scientific description of the mechanisms underlying the effects of cold thermogenesis, precisely because the manner in which science makes phenomena appear is antithetical to the manner of appearing that cold thermogenesis might open us up to; non-intentional appearing.

II. Two roads

I have spoken, but nothing has been said. Non-intentional experience and cold thermogenesis? What is their reality, what do they signify, what is their relation?

Everyday consciousness is intentional, in everyday experience all experience is intended towards some-thing that is the thing experienced. Experience is thus always transcendent. The subject of experience intends itself towards the object of experience. Intentionality is thus characterized by, and presupposes, a distance between the thing experienced and the one doing the experiencing. In everyday experiencing, experience dissipates into a difference between subject and object. Peculiar about certain experiences is a closing of this distance, a reassembling of this differentiation. This is the object of mysticism and meditation: a calming of the always intending mind so that in the end nothing is intended anymore, and what remains is pure experience or consciousness. Not the experience or consciousness of some thing that is separate from experience or consciousness, but the experience or consciousness of experience or consciousness itself. The fact that few reach this goal of mysticism is evidence of the difficulty involved in attaining this experience. And the fact that few reach this, is the reason why many put aside this experience as fiction. For the everyday mind, which only believes in what is most general, can hardly imagine believing in things that are only particular to those few that are either gifted or have put in the work. There are thus at least three problems that separate us from the reality of non-intentional experience:

1) The fact that natural everyday consciousness/experience is intentional

2) The difficulty involved in attaining non-intentional consciousness/experience

3) The belief that what is real is what is shared by everyone’s experience

The path of mysticism is often the path of calming, of calming the always intentioning mind to such a degree that it refrains from intentioning. One attempts to calm the mind to such a degree that it becomes uninterested in intending itself towards an object; when this is attained, what remains is consciousness or experience experiencing itself and nothing else. As the difficulty of attaining this shows, this experience, and by consequence also the theoretical realization that there is in fact a non-intentional experience, is unattainable by most. Everyday experience gets in the way. Ask the regular person to calm their mind through meditation, most will fail and never try again. This leads us to the value of cold thermogenesis: the wilful exposure to extreme cold temperatures, most often attained through submerging oneself in ice-cold water. The experience of this, when practised correctly, points to the possibility of non-intentional experience. It does so by offering a different path than what I characterized as the path of mysticism.

III. Re-assembling experience

We separated three components of everyday experience. There is experience itself, which differentiates itself into a subject that experiences, and an object that this subject experiences. The path of mysticism attempts to calm the mind, and by doing so tries to weaken the attraction that the object offers, so that the mind shifts away from intentionality. The path of ice bathing offers a different path. What it does is it offers an object that affects the subject with such an intensity that it becomes harder and harder to separate between subject and object, in order to remain only with experience. Both paths try to reassemble experience back into itself, by reuniting the subject and object of experience. The one does this by weakening the grip that the intentioned object has on us, the other does this by diving head on into the object. Paradoxically, the latter path does not lead to a strengthening of the grip that intentionality has over experience, but rather, it weakens this grip. When the experience of some thing becomes of such an intensity, it becomes harder and harder to separate oneself from this thing experienced, until in the end what remains is just experience as such. The thing experienced gets so close to us, that the distance between subject and object that intentionality presupposes is impossible to uphold. What remains is an experience of experience itself.

One can for example experience physical pain of such an intensity that it becomes impossible to even proclaim the part of the body in which the pain is located. Pain becomes so intense that one cannot proclaim "I have pain in my foot," no, the pain is so close to us and engulfs our entire being, so that we can only proclaims "I feel pain." And this is not the end, one can even experience pain to such a degree that one even fails to proclaim "I feel pain," but can only say "pain." All that remains is experience. This experience can be so intense that one cannot even designate it as pain anymore. For the interpretation of an affect as this or that affect presupposes a distance between the feeling and the person so that he can proclaim what is happening, when this distance collapses in excruciating pain, there remains not even "pure pain," but only "pure feeling." Intense experience thus offers a second path alongside the path of mysticism. Of course, no one wants to wilfully subject themselves to pain. But the principle that intense and engulfing experience can shut down intentionality remains, and other activities can offer us this (be it to a less intense degree).

IV. Ice and Immanence

Ice bathing is one such experience. When one submerges oneself in the ice-cold water, one is struck by the intensity of the cold. One gasps for breath, bones and skin burn, while one's thoughts are making a problem of the situation in every imaginable way. The immediate instinct is to remove oneself as fast as possible from this painful environment. But when one refuses the call of this instinct and remains in the water, a few things change. The breath calms down, and the feeling of pain changes colour, it starts feeling less like pain, and more like a mere sensation that is perhaps even enjoyable. And most of all, one realizes that one's thoughts have stopped running, in fact, if one remains in the cold long enough and manages to focus on the experience, it becomes very normal that one is able to silence one's thoughts entirely. A silencing of thought directly caused by the experience of the cold, much easier to achieve than the silence we know from regular meditation. Interesting in this silencing of thought is that it isn't triggered directly by our own will. It is the experience of cold itself that is of such an intensity that it becomes impossible to focus on anything else but this experience. Before one got into the water, one might have been thinking obsessively about all sorts of problems, stressing about what one has to do later in the day, thinking about some relational or financial problems one is having. But submerged in the water, gripped by the hardness of the cold, it becomes impossible to think of these things. The experience and the totality with which it engulfs the individual leaves no room for any other object of intentionality to enter consciousness. The object - the experience of cold - is totalizing and takes up all attention. When one remains in this state, and this becomes easier and more natural the more often one practices ice bathing, it becomes easier to go deeper into the feeling of the cold. One is able to delve deeper into the feeling, and one reaches a point at which one doesn't even recognize the feeling of the cold as cold anymore. The experience of the cold is so close, that there is no distance from out of which one could identify it as cold or not-cold, as pleasurable or painful, or anything else. This experience, thus, is a great way to collapse the distinctions of experience that we are familiar with in everyday consciousness: subject - experiencing of - the object experienced. Intentionality looses its grip, and becomes optional. We get a little taste of immanence.

It would be absurd to claim that in order to reach non-intentional experience, all one has to do is get in ice-cold water. This is no replacement for the realities of mysticism. But what the ice does do, is loosening the grip of intentionality. It offers an environment in which everyday consciousness, characterized by incessant racing thoughts and rapid shifting from noema to noema, is able to realize that there is some other way of experiencing. And as man these days can only believe in what he can see for himself, ice bathing is an interesting tool. His condition as an intentionality addict often makes it impossible for him to meditate or practice any other tool of silencing the mind, but the cold is merciless, and forces one into a state of silence, whether one wants to or not. If you are too weak to silence your mind by yourself, perhaps the cold can help force you into silence.