The Iceman Cometh

Cover photo from Becoming the Iceman

I’m not a fan of the cold. Winter is my least favorite season. When my feet are cold, I feel terrible. All of that goes against the philosophy of a man named Wim Hof.

Wim Hof, (AKA “The Iceman”) holds some world records for endurance and exposure to cold from doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes and running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle. He stood in an ice-filled container for more than 112 minutes. This guy really believes in the natural power of the cold.

He teaches breathwork and the health benefits of cold plunges. He has millions of followers who say his method results in a wake-up call to the brain and body. Some say it has cured a variety of things from depression to diabetes.

Hof is Dutch. He is 61 years old. He summitted Kilimanjaro in 31 hours nearly naked. Climbers often take a week to do that with all kinds of cold-weather gear and oxygen tanks.

In the book, Becoming the Iceman, he says that it is unfortunate that we are taught to fear the cold and protect ourselves from it. Hof believes that the ability to control the body’s temperature is not unique to him, but is an ability that can be adopted – and should be adopted – by everyone.

What is called the Wim Hof Method includes a lot of breathwork.  It’s breathing that is like controlled hyperventilation.  Here’s an example: Do three to six sets of 30 to 40 deep breaths. That means a strong inhale through the nose and a relaxed exhale from the mouth. On that last breath of each set, you exhale and hold for one to three minutes. I tried that. It made me a little dizzy and there was no way I could hold my breath for even a minute. I guess I need a lot of breathwork training. After that held breath, you take a recovery breath and hold it for 15 seconds.

This may sound familiar to you if you have done meditation or pranayama (kundalini yoga’s breath of fire) or the tummo of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. All of these are rhythmic-breathing disciplines. I have tried these techniques in the past. Some people enjoy the resulting buzz in the brain as a natural high. Some people feel dizzy and start seeing flashes of light. Not everyone feels it’s a good thing.

As I said at the start, I don’t like the cold. Hof would tell me that after all that intense breathing, what I need next is cold exposure. He is of the school that believes you should immerse in freezing water, but he would be okay if I started with even a minute or two under a cold shower to get an effect.

The initial effect is panic in the brain. Like a meditator dismissing the intruding thoughts, he says you need to dismiss the panic and relax and focus. That focus can be visualizing heat inside you and generating warmth in your body.  (I agree. Warm is good!)

That cold shower also floods your brain and cells with oxygen. Your vascular system gets a boost. Endorphins, which are structurally similar to the drug morphine, are released. They are natural painkillers. Your opioid receptors are activated. They can bring about feelings of euphoria and general well-being. Hof believes it brings you fully into the present moment.

I read a long article in Outside magazine about Wim Hof. He has turned his philosophy into a business. That always makes me apprehensive.

He might answer my apprehension like this: “This method is very simple, very accessible, and endorsed by science. Anybody can do it, and there is no dogma, only acceptance. Only freedom.” That comes from his book, The Wim Hof Method, which I plan to read this winter while sitting in a warm house, possibly under a blanket.

Then again, maybe I will venture out into the cold after reading it. I do find that stepping out a cold morning for my daily walk is very “bracing.” Of course, I’m not naked or wet, so it’s nothing like what he is preaching.

He has a company called Innerfire and, despite his entrepreneurial side, he is a “counterculture” hero. He has more than a million Instagram followers. He has written or contributed to a shelf full of books. He hosts seminars around the world and there are certified Wim Hof instructors offering their own workshops. This is a business.

I tried out the free minicourse on his website and it was an interesting teaser and I could certainly try some of the basic techniques on my own. But I am not ready to do any polar bear plunges into the Atlantic Ocean.

I would say this Iceman has arrived.

Wim Hof
from Hof’s Instagram page where he writes “If you trust the messages of nature, then nature entrusts you to be a messenger. Breathe and use the cold.”

Endless Summer

candle

Just a few minutes ago, at 9:30 a.m. here in Paradelle, summer ended. I didn’t see or feel anything unusual, nor should I have expected to see or feel anything with this astronomical event.

It didn’t feel like summer when I woke up. The temperature outside was 45 degrees.

Things do happen in nature as we approach and pass the autumn equinox. I read that the black-capped chickadee starts to frantically collect seeds and hide them in hundreds of places. I knew that squirrels and the chipmunks in my yard have been gathering acorns and other things too. I also read that researchers have found that those little chickadees’ hippocampus in their tiny brains swell in size by 30 percent as new nerve cells pop up there. The hippocampus is the part of the brain which is responsible for spatial organization and memory which they need to hide and later find those seeds.

I don’t know that anything changes physically in humans but I know in myself there always seem to be changes as the seasons change.

Some people celebrated Rosh Hashanah last weekend – a new year. That calendar is not connected to the equinox. The exact date of Rosh Hashanah varies every year, since it is based on the Hebrew Calendar, where it begins on the first day of the seventh month.

2020 has been a bad year. The pandemic has been a global problem but many personal problems have also occurred because of it or unrelated to it. I’m not Jewish but I would like a new year to start now.

But the problems of yesterday are not going to disappear because of a “new year” or the equinox.

My friend of 51 years, Bob, died a week ago after a long, slow battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was home with hospice for the month and he passed gently from this world with his wife and children there.

Five decades ago his wife loaned me her copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I was 16 and it was my introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. I have been exploring ever since. One thing that has stayed with me from that book is the idea of bardo which is the state of existence after death and before one’s next birth. Your consciousness is not connected with a physical body and experiences a variety of phenomena.

I don’t know that I believe in a next birth but Buddhists believe the bardo lasts for 7 – 49 days (7 X 7) during which time that consciousness can wander the Earth.  I have been lighting a candle every night at sunset just in case Bobby needs some light to find his way. I’m looking for a sign from him that I don’t really expect to appear.

Bobby was, among many other things, a surfer – a better surfer than I ever was back then. We bonded like brothers through surfing, music, playing guitar, cars and a crazy connection to the humor of Jean Shepherd. On the surf side, we both liked a surfing film from 1966 called The Endless Summer.

The film follows two surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave.  The film’s title comes from the idea that if you had enough time (and money),you could follow summer up and down the world (northern to southern hemisphere and back), and it would be endless.

Summer is not endless, nor is a life. The Earth makes its way around the Sun and tilts along the way in a manner that can be measured and predicted in a way that we can never do with our lives.  That celestial journey will also have an end. It’s the way of this universe.

We think of this day as the autumn equinox but it is really just a moment. A good life always seems to end too soon. Though there is no endless season, I think it’s still worth searching for that perfect wave. I think Bobby might have found it while he was here.

The plan is to have a “paddle out” -a traditional Hawaiian tribute to the life and legacy of people who passed away – on LOng Beach Island where he surfed most often. Bobby’s ashes will be set upon the waves and maybe the tides will carry them north and south and, at least symbolically, he will be in that endless summer.

Endless Summer poster public domain

Tomorrow Never Knows: Aldous Huxley Dying and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

While cleaning out my basement and attic this month and boxing up books to give away, I came across my long-unread copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is a paperback that I bought when I was in high school, but never read until I was in college.

In this classic scripture of Tibetan Buddhism— A friend recommended it. She was far ahead of me in spirituality. She told me it was traditionally read aloud to the dying to help them attain liberation. I bought it more to impress her than with any intent to prepare for my own death.

It wasn’t until college that I really recognized that it was a classic book of Tibetan Buddhism. I came to understand that death and rebirth are seen as a process and understanding that process helps one recognize the true nature of mind.

At least that is the intent. Reading the book didn’t bring me there. I doubt that any book can bring you to understand the nature of mind.

Most modern translation come a bit closer to the psychology of death and dying. Those are still topics I would prefer not to consider, but I am much closer to them than when I did my first reading of the book.

The book and my college experiences in the 1970s also introduced me to writers such as Aldous Huxley who wrote about the inner journey and mixed Western thought and Eastern spirituality. The path I wais pointed down also had stops with indigenous religious practices, and psychotropic drugs.

I was a seeker and experimenter, but also a bit too frightened to go all the way down the psychotropic rabbit hole. Huxley’s own first psychedelic experience in the 1950s “was in no sense revolutionary.” He was disappointed, as I was, at not experiencing the visions he had read about in the Bardo or the writings of William Blake.

Still, Huxley felt a shift in consciousness and that continued for the rest of his life, as did his experiments with psychedelic drugs.

When Huxley was on his deathbed, he requested that his wife inject him with 100 micrograms of LSD. In the short video up top, Laura remembers the day, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And in the letter above, which you can read in full at Letters of Note, she describes Huxley’s last days in vivid detail to Huxley’s brother Julian and his wife Juliette.

A book that connected The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Huxley was another paperback on the same shelf that I was sorting through. It is a book I bought around the same time titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead  This book – which I think of as being “very 1960s” – is an “instruction manual” intended for use during sessions involving psychedelic drugs.

It was published in 1964 when this kind of experimentation by people such as Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert were mixing the therapeutic and religious/spiritual possibilities of drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD.

I knew back then that the band The Doors had gotten their name from Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and I had read that the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) were aware of the book (and LSD) and used a bit of the text in the lyrics of their song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from their 1966 album Revolver.

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

When he was dying, Huxley’s wife Laura read to her husband The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Her husband did not want to die and fought his cancer. But in his last days, he came to terms with death and decided he wanted her to give him two 100 microgram doses of LSD. People who were there reported that Huxley left without pain and without struggle.

I hope that is true. Today, we often drug those who are dying to free them from pain, but the drugs generally dull the senses and mind.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between is another translation of the original done by Robert Thurman. The edition’s foreword is by the Dalai Lama, which should not be surprising since it is still a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom and religious thought.

I’m surprised that The Tibetan Book of the Dead hasn’t had more of a resurgence lately, not only because of what it might teach us about death and dying and how to live our life, but because psychedelics have seen a resurgence. A few years after Huxley’s death, the US and UK governments banned almost all psychedelic research, but it has recently become once again an object of scientific study and thanks to the reporting, and experimenting of writers such as Michael Pollan in his book, How to Change Your Mind. (which I read and wrote about earlier this year), Westerners may soon once again use psychedelics to take the inner journeys our culture does its best to discourage.


You may also want to explore Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics by Nicholas Knowles Bromell and The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows: A Biography by James L Desper Jr.  I discovered that the phrase “tomorrow never knows” was a line that Ringo came up with when the song was being written. Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is an easier read than The Book of the Dead, if you are so inclined.