It isn’t always easy for me to jump in. At the edge there are those few difficult steps into the cold water before I am in deep enough to fully commit.
But I want experiences that make me feel vibrantly alive. Experiences that connect me to my body in the moment, breath by breath. The way I understand it, the mind is not separate from the body — it is everywhere in it.
By way of my nervous system, my mind is in my toes and my heart and my shoulders. When I feel most alive, I am grateful for this body. It is the one and only body that can bring me into relationship with my fellow human beings and the world around me.
When the ocean water temperature in Wellfleet is 39° F, stepping into the water is clearly not an obvious, logical choice. For that reason, I don’t leave the decision entirely to my logical, thinking brain. Going in is instead a mind-body choice, a sensing-feeling choice.
One day last week, the air was 45° F — nearly 50 thrilling degrees warmer than it had been just the day before. After a morning walk along the Herring River, through woods and around and between ponds, I removed layers of winter outerwear. I felt my heart happy, shoulders relaxed, brow sweaty. It was, the whole of me knew, a glorious day for a plunge.
I returned home, put on my bathing suit, and invited my cousin to join. Her reply: “Oooh! I’m always down.”
We met at Newcomb Hollow, and before jumping in we walked and talked. On our walk out, we felt the strong west wind on our faces and thought about how sound carries outdoors. On our walk back we met an old friend who was gathering sun-bleached driftwood to build himself a “shoe-putting-on stool.” If my morning walk had provided the inspiration, the afternoon walk provided the resolve. By the time we returned to our starting point, we were ready. And the ocean, as always, was waiting.
Still, a cold edge is hard to push through. I know my brain can thwart me from fulfilling my desire. Even though I have never once regretted a winter dunk in the ocean and despite all evidence this is a joyful movement every time, it still isn’t easy.
One can read about the many benefits of cold exposure. I have. The evidence that plunging in will be good for me is endlessly fascinating, but it does not move me, in the moment, past the edge and into the cold water.
Instead, it is the ritual of the experience itself that compels me. Almost always, I jump in alongside a person or people I love and who inspire me. It is a mutual ceremony of exhilaration. One, two, three … go! And — splash — I fully inhabit my body. My mind is in my toes, and they are cold. My mind is in my mouth and it is tasting salt water. My mind is in my lungs and they are gasping and yelping. There I am. And there we are. In relationship. With each other and the cold ocean around us, vibrantly alive.