Cold showers in the deep

17 December, 2019
By Marco Levi

In many countries of the world, whenever we hear someone say “that was like a cold shower”, we understand two things. The first one is: that was a shock. The second, deeper meaning could be summed up thus: something powerful just happened to me and revealed something to my knowledge. Doesn’t matter what it was, it’s the knowledge that matters.

The image of cold water has roots among humans as a synonym for a connection with a more objective, even painful, reality. Cold is tied to the idea of waking up and of reminiscence.

We could even consider the simple morning gesture of washing one’s face with water–preferably cold– as a deeper kind of eye-opener, one that takes place, symbolically enough, right when we need to wipe the sleep off our face.

But what sleep? And what awakening?

The increasingly popular practice of “wild bathing” owes its modern-day fortune to the meditation-like atmosphere surrounding it. This peculiar atmosphere isn’t generated solely by the beauty of the natural waters where wild baths take place, but also by our relationship with cold and water.

Just like some ancient ritual.

And in fact, historically, humans bathing in natural waters are associated with practices that border on the mythical. Featured in many medieval tales, as well as in the art of fleming masters such as Bruegel and Lucas Cranach, “The fountain of youth” stands as a symbol of great interest. According to legend, you go in as a certain individual, but come out changed. 

The metaphorical nature of this change shines through in today’s wild bathing. People come out of ponds or lakes quite chilly, no doubt, but also connected, happy. They’ve had an experience. You’ve got change right there. And not by intellectual intuition, but through their bodies’ memory: the experience came via their cells. As if the cells needed cold and water to remind them of themselves, to open up and live.

We can find this idea in another example of classical European art.

Within the sublime sonnet of XIV Century poet Francesco Petrarca: “Clear, sweet fresh water”, the narrator sees, for the first time –and possibly in the very act of wild bathing herself, ahead of her time– his beloved Laura, right there in the cold morning water. And lo and behold, love is revealed to the poet just like an awakening, poetry pouring out by itself under the symbolic sign of water, representing cosmic connection. Thanks to this connection the poet is not the same as before: he opens up.

Hence, going back to a common language and sayings about waking up, it’s not just by keeping our “eyes open” that we can be aware of the present moment, but also by keeping our cells open, because when they are open, and alive, they can turn into tiny diaphragms wherein space and time can truly move about and flow, and reveal the infinity. Here it is, the cold shower. Here is the cold as revealing power: a rough talisman, mystically guarded by humans, who can always recall and reawaken it with a cold bath, swimming in the silent dawn.

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash