Embrace the Suck!
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
I broke a 2 day fast. Fasting is one of the disciplines in my regimen. They last from 1 day to 2 weeks. I fast at the urging of the Soul, which dictates the duration and terms. I fast for clarity, for penance, for cleansing, for insight, to discipline the body and mind. There are benefits to fasting. Fasting promotes blood sugar control by reducing insulin resistance; improves blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol levels; reduces inflammation; protects brain health; boosts metabolism; increases growth hormone secretion; and slows the aging process. I do not subject myself to the rigors of fasting for these benefits, but to submit the body and mind to the dominion of that innermost voice my little self trusts.
Fasting sucks. "If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it," asserts ultra-athlete David Goggins. "I’m all about callusing the mind. Do something that sucks." Embracing the suck was the tagline of a retreat I led in the spring. Meditation sucks. "For most of us, meditation is like being kidnapped by the most boring person on earth and being told the same story over and over again," wrote Sam Harris.
Daily, I practice several rounds of breath work. In the evenings, I sit in a tub of ice for 10-20 minutes. Ice baths reduce inflammation and improve recovery by changing the way blood and other fluids flow through your body. Blood vessels constrict when the body is exposed to cold; they dilate when we exit. This process helps flush away metabolic waste- including lymph, a clear fluid made up of white blood cells and fluid from your intestines. While the heart circulates blood around the body, the lymph nodes don’t have a pump. Ice baths constrict and open vessels manually, which helps stagnant fluids in the lymph nodes circulate. Increased blood flow floods the cells with nutrients and oxygen.
“The combination of breath work and cold plunges is very effective,” says Kevin Davison, a Maui naturopathic physician who specializes in regenerative medicine. “First you’re increasing lymphatic flow through the breathing. That recruits lymphocytes and natural killer cells into the bloodstream—they’re the cells that are out there looking for invading bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. Then the cold plunge kicks that in even more. So you’re getting your whole system jumped up to the next level of immune protection.”
But, as with fasting, I do not subject myself to the discipline for these benefits- as beneficial as they are. "Doing things - even small things - that make you uncomfortable will help you get strong," Goggins asserts.
I hated the cold. Now I embrace it. Relaxing into an ice bath takes my meditation training to another level. It is easy to remain equanimous sitting on a comfortable cushion in a quiet room. It is more challenging to relax and remain centered when exposed to a stressor as primitive and primordial as cold. "The cold is my guru," Wim Hof said. It can teach you.
Disciplines like fasting and meditation expose body and mind to stress which builds resilience. “The vagus nerve is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, and training it can help you face stressful situations more adequately,” says Nick Clayton, program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Many choose the suck over comfort. Examples abound: a woman chooses the pain of childbirth, initiates take vows of celibacy and poverty to become monks or nuns, a man shoulders an extra job to send his son to college, runners punish their bodies to complete a marathon, students postpone gratification to obtain degrees, athletes grunt and collapse in fatigue after intense workouts, an investor practices frugality to save more and build wealth, recruits endure weeks of bootcamp to become soldiers, millions forgo their favorite foods to promote their health. Within this context, disciplines like meditation, fasting, and ice baths are not so unusual.
Every moment contains within it a probability. A new breath comes, a new moment comes, new choices present themselves. The choice not to choose is itself a choice. Choosing disciplines that suck like exercise, diet, fasting, frugality, meditation, or cold exposure offset the suckiness of poor mental, physical or financial heath. Choose your suck.