Lessons from Saunas and Steam Rooms: A Technique for Finding Inner Peace

by Crystal Ding
(London, United Kingdom)

For most people who go to the spa, at least from my own experience and from what I observe, experiencing the spa is a very interesting mixture of pleasure and pain. Pleasure gradually turns into pain when heat or cold therapies become too extreme or last too long. We all know that we can only last 10-15 minutes max in a full-blown steamroom, turkish bath or sauna. There's always a point at which it becomes "too much."

Not to mention - the worst "spa ordeal" is perhaps the plunge pool, with a temperature of just above freezing. You can almost feel people's fear as they walk cautiously up to the edge of the pool, plant their toe in, and shrink away shrieking "oh my god that's cold." The courageous may jump in, and the cautious may go in one agonizing step at a time. And yet as soon as their bodies hit the water, everyone seems to exhibit a universal response: rejection.

Everyone shivers, cringes, tightens up at the sensation of coldness. They kick and scream, jump around and flail, gasp for air, and otherwise react to the shock in what seems to be a very natural response. This ability to feel pain as well as our fight or flight response is what used to save our lives as hunter-gatherers. Pain and stress responses are mechanisms to help us "reject" things that would be dangerous in a natural setting.

Ironically - it's this very rejection of the experience of the freezing pool that makes each time more painful and "dreadful" than the next - even though each time you come out you feel energized and invincible. In this way you try harder and harder "not" to think about it, but typically as human beings - the first thing we think about is also the one thing we tell ourselves not to think about. And inevitably it's the pain of cold - or heat - that you think about. Those thoughts then become a subconscious habit.

We're not irrational beings, so why is it that we so often reject a situation or a sensation or a thought, only to make it more prevalent as part of our subconscious mind? I believe it's because we feel we can only avoid potential pain by rejecting it and trying to shut it down. Little do we know that such mental acts in themselves associate pain with sensations and situations that would otherwise be neutral. After all - cold is cold, and heat is heat - but pain or discomfort is the meaning you apply to those sensations, and is exacerbated by the mind.

So what if we can let go of our obsession with "avoiding" pain or discomfort (which we create in our own heads) and face it head-on? What if focusing on your sensation, and not avoiding it or rejecting it - could take away the pain or discomfort associated with the experience? I tried this over the past 2 sessions at The Porchester Spa and was quite intrigued by the results.

Throughout various iterations of the hot-cold cycle, I practiced "truly feeling" heat and cold throughout my body. As I felt my body heat shoot up in the sauna, I fully focused on experiencing that heat, and brought all of my attention upon it. Likewise, whenever I plunged in the cold pool, I'd make no thought of bracing myself and instead embraced the cold throughout my body, focusing my brain on "truly feeling" this biting temperature and blocking all other thoughts.

I felt the difference instantaneously, and what a difference it was. As soon as the discomfort response to heat or cold surfaced, I grasped onto it with my mind. The first split second - the moment of realisation of that discomfort - was always a hurdle. But then after that - it felt as if my experiences were transformed. Not only could I stay much longer at a time within the plunge pool or sweltering sauna; I also felt like I truly enjoyed the extreme sensations. Amazingly - when I "welcomed" and "accepted" the heat of the sauna, and took it in fully for each of those 6 sessions - I loved every moment of escalating heat and at the end of each session - didn't even sweat.

And so by focusing completely on a source of pain or discomfort, I was able to move past feeling discomfort to fully embracing the sensation. No intrusive thoughts, no avoidance, no rejection - just experience.

I know that for me - as well as I'm sure for many others in today's fast-paced world - controlling negative thoughts, projections or emotions can feel like a persistent challenge. But why shouldn't the spa analogy apply to aspects of life? With conjures of saunas and plunge pools, the extremes of physical sensation and mental perception come to life. But the same principles should apply to any other figments of our minds that are seen as "negative" - I'm talking about physical, mental, psychological, or any other type of pain, worry or discomfort one might imagine.

Perhaps with any problem or difficulty, no matter how trivial or grave, the trick is NOT to avoid thinking about it. Instead - really, truly, and fully think about it with all dimensions of your mind. Feel it, watch it, observe the forms and shapes it takes in your brain and body. How funny is it that focusing on a demon can actually be the best way to make it go away. Certainly adds yet another spin on "facing our fears."

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