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Feel The Air Fully

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The Shingon monks of Japan have a very pragmatic way of encouraging the development of inner calm. They expose themselves to extreme cold, such as by squatting under an icy waterfall, while attempting to remain as present and composed as they might be in a warm, dry meditation hall.

Shinzen Young, my favorite Western meditation teacher, endured a version of this when he trained with the Shingon in the 1970s. Starting on the winter solstice, he spent 100 days in isolation, emerging three times daily to break the ice on a frozen-over cistern and dump several bucketfuls of its water over his head.

Being a California native, he found this task excruciating, but quickly learned the secret to getting through it without abject suffering. Before going to the cistern, he would meditate intently enough that he could be completely present for the experience. If any part of him was unwilling to embrace the full extent of the cold, it went from unpleasant to horrific.

The freezing-bucket ritual is a very austere way to practice, but it’s efficient: you either quit and go home, or you very quickly develop those deep skills of concentration and equanimity. Under such intense conditions, a person could accomplish in a few months what might take many years to do in a warm and agreeable hall.

After his ordeal was over, Shinzen’s best friend suggested meeting his teacher, who had done a much more difficult practice, for twelve years.

This man was one of the famed marathon monks of Mount Hiei, who follow an almost comically difficult practice regimen.

They begin by completing 100 consecutive days of 18-mile mountain treks, meditating while they hike, sleeping only four hours a night. Achieving this qualifies them for a voluntary seven-year challenge involving several days-long meditation sittings with no food or water, plus 900 more mountain marathons (twice as long this time), the final 200 of which are 52.5-mile double marathons. Before they begin, the monks vow that if they fail to complete the labors of even a single day, they will take their own life.

Essentially, these are extreme methods of practicing a much-overlooked human skill we can call equanimity: being openly aware of what you’re experiencing, without mentally recoiling from the unpleasant parts or clinging to the pleasant parts.

The idea is that, while pain is bad enough, we create something much worse—suffering—by trying not to feel pain when it’s present, or by yearning for pleasure or relief when they’re not present. Therefore it makes sense to practice opening to whatever is present, pleasant or not.

We all learn the skill of equanimity inadvertently, to some degree and in some situations, through the ordinary trials of workaday life. An experienced beekeeper might be much less distressed by a bee sting than you or I, for example, even if the pain itself is the same. But most people never discover that equanimity can be cultivated directly, by way of sitting quietly in a room alone, pouring freezing water over your head, or taking on arduous mountain treks, or any challenging experience really, if it’s done with a practiced openness to experience.

I used to be a land surveyor, and every year we’d get student assistants, who were doing their work co-op for university. Almost all of them started out very squeamish about the many discomforts of the job—mud, rain, thistles, bugs, and cold. They complained a lot, and often hoped aloud that today would be a relatively easy day.

None of this fretting and hoping affects the conditions, of course, and in fact it adds a considerable layer of psychic misery to what is usually rather minor and occasional physical discomfort.

As a student myself, I had the same habit. I remember the nervousness that underlaid each day on my first job site—how invested I was in the hope that it wouldn’t rain, that it would be warm but not too warm, that the layout stakes wouldn’t have to be placed in ditches, bogs, or muddy fields patrolled by aggressive Canada geese.

Not long into my tenure as a surveyor, the little pains I dreaded as a student became almost nothing to me. It’s not that I suffered so much that I got used to suffering. It’s that I learned that the suffering element was optional, and represented a separate and much worse flavor of difficulty than simply being cold when it was cold, and being bug-bitten when the bugs bit you.

I sometimes imagined pulling first-year students aside and spelling out some kind of shortcut to this inevitable form of wisdom, but I didn’t know what to say.

I know now what I’d teach them—the introductory lesson that might help them discover this seldom-acknowledged practice of equanimity:

Feel the air fully.

Whether it’s a chilly day, a muggy day, or a wet day, I would have them practice feeling the air fully and completely without the slightest inner complaint. Whatever variety of air is around you, just let it wash across your skin, letting go of any kind of inner bracing or fretting. “Keep trying until you know what I mean,” I would have said, grizzled 31-year-old to nervous 19-year-old.

I’d tell them to practice this all the time, not just at work. Getting the paper in the morning. Entering a stuffy apartment foyer. Getting out of the shower. Feel the air fully. It will change your life.

If Shinzen’s ordeal was practicing equanimity at Challenge Level 1,000, the marathon monks are doing it at Level 20,000, and my “long meditation sittings” experiment from last month was Level 40 or so, then feeling the air fully, on an ordinary fall day, is practicing it at Level 1 or 2.

Even at this low level, you start to see the potential in equanimity practice. Just by feeling the air fully, you begin to appreciate how much anguish we regularly create by resisting even the tiniest and most inevitable discomforts.

Without that layer of anguish, a little discomfort—a bug bite, a cold breeze, a wet sock—is almost nothing. And most discomforts are exactly that kind: little and fleeting.


Photo by Maasaki Komori

Rumi September 16, 2019 at 2:36 am

Hello David,
This is a great article! I will keep it in my Favorites folder to read it over again and to remind myself about being present, accepting reality, comforts and discomforts of every moment!
Thanks again!

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 9:20 am

Thanks Rumi. Don’t forget to try practicing it too :)

Kevin September 17, 2019 at 6:45 am

I have actually been trying this with varying degrees of success. I have a short, early morning walk from the employee lot to the terminal I work in. I used to listen to music, but now I just listen to whatever is going on around me and try to focus. This article was a nice nudge to keep doing it.

Andrew Moylan September 16, 2019 at 5:14 am

This topic reminds me of an ad from the New Zealand transport department encouraging people to cycle:


The ad embraces the various discomforts of cycling (get sweaty, get rained on, etc) as not something to be so distressed about.
It is titled “Care less, feel more”, which could almost be the title of your blog post here!

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 9:27 am

I’ve always appreciated NZ’s clever approach to ads and PSAs. This ad reminds me of some of the arguments made by Mr Money Mustache (and a similar blog called Early Retirement Extreme) about the powerful effect of renouncing expensive comforts like always-on air conditioning and driving to work every day. Not only does it save a lot of money and resources to reduce your reliance on these comforts, but it makes you a far more resilient and less fussy person.

Lynne Drake September 16, 2019 at 9:38 am

Great insight!
And nice to see you’re a Mustachian too!

Tom Tarkowski September 18, 2019 at 12:13 am

I’ve been following both of these guys for several years, I never knew it either!

Rocky September 16, 2019 at 6:35 am

Satchel Paige on the discomforts of aging… “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Any suggestions for dealing with mental discomforts? What is the air I need to feel fully there?
Thanks David

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 9:36 am

Great question… mental and emotional experience also exists as present-moment sensation, and you can learn to feel them fully as well. This year I’ve finally begun to face an anxiety disorder that has limited me my whole life, and a huge part of it is learning to actually feel the experience of anxiety itself. To feel the gripping emotional state and the thoughts of catastrophe and all that comes with it, while trying to refrain from pushing it away or making an enemy out of it. It’s really hard, but it’s already helping tremendously. I can now recognize that it’s been my attempts not to feel anxiety that have hindered my life so much, leading to all sorts of avoidance behaviors like procrastination, giving up on goals, and comfort-seeking habits.

Feeling the air fully with physical experiences is a little easier to wrap your head around, since physical feelings are so obvious and immediate. Doing it with thinking and emotion is trickier, because we often don’t even realize that it’s thinking — we mistake thoughts about the future for the future, and possibilities for realities. Learning to meditate (particularly Shinzen Young’s noting methods) have allowed me to develop some ability to see thoughts and emotions directly, as the present-moment experiences they are. (There is a free course on Shinzen’s method at unifiedmindfulness.com.)

Ron September 16, 2019 at 5:56 pm

The mental and physical are intimately connected, of course. So one very helpful way to deal with mental discomfort is to sense its physical component, and be with that.

And I second the vote for Shinzen Young and his book The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works. Lots of wisdom and he’s a great storyteller with a most unusual life and story to tell.

Financially Fit Mom September 16, 2019 at 8:55 am

This reminds me of Wim Hof and his cold practices, including climbing Everest in nothing but swim trunks. The book “What Doesn’t Kill Us” is a great read if you find this topic interesting.

As I’m internally whining about riding my bike to work today, I’ll remember this as a pedal. Also, I know that fresh morning ride always makes a work day better!

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 9:37 am

I have never really looked into Wim Hof but he does indeed climb mountains in his underwear without too much apparent trouble, so he must know a thing or two about equanimity :)

Peri McQuay September 16, 2019 at 10:00 am

Since my husband died, I have had a lot of trouble dealing with the swarms of memories that arise each time I hear a piece of music. However I didn’t want to turn away from what matters to me. It has become my practice to listen fully, in the now, aiming for a fresh take on a piece, to listen to it now. Definitely feels like buckets of ice water, and yet so worth doing. Piece by piece I am reclaiming the music I/we loved.

Now, I find myself accompanying a friend on her journey towards dying. This was NOT something I planned, but living minute by minute fully in the now is making it not only possible, but even a gift.

I get it, David.

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 10:59 am

Thanks for sharing this Peri. Emotional pain and discomfort is especially difficult because it’s harder to locate as present-moment experience than physical sensations. As far as I can tell, the more we open up to the flood of feelings triggered by certain experiences, the less overwhelmed we get, at least in the long run.

Jill September 16, 2019 at 2:14 pm

I can’t wait to to try putting this into practice as much as possible. I hope it will change how I perceive irritating things encountered in my human experience. I tested out the method today with a small discomfort. Instead of catching the train home I decided to walk. It’s unseasonably cold, and my route is hilly, and I was wearing a warm coat. By 40 minutes I was uncomfortably overheated in the coat but too cold without it. In this situation the technique you teach was very effective, as there were moments I was not actually absorbed in my discomfort as I would normally be. Then a huge downpour of rain dumped in the last 10 minutes of my walk. I got pretty soaked, and got home looking like a drowned rat. But ‘feeling the air’ was such a great way of bringing up feelings of equanimity, gratitude and acceptance and of not trying to run away from the unpleasantness. Strangely, it was kind of joyful, being in that moment! It reminded me that I was alive and able to feel and experience things fully and to cherish being here. Success! The real test, though, will be practicing this technique in conditions of serious hardship.

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 9:17 pm

Ah I love this “field report,” thanks Jill

Leah September 16, 2019 at 10:08 am

I have been thinking recently about how there is no end to the curve balls and challenges that life throws at us. The thought can be exhausting. The to-do list will never really end, no matter how on top of things I am. But I love the sentiments in this piece, David. Maybe the answer is not that the challenges will end. Maybe instead we accept them, feel them fully, and not dread them or fear them or try (helplessly) to eradicate them. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, as always.

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 11:02 am

I am listening to a Stephen Batchelor audiobook, and he’s talking about exactly this… We tend to live with this idea that we will one day get past all the curve balls and periods of unsettledness that come at us. We do get by each one, but never to a place where they stop coming. So it makes sense to take a different attitude towards them, letting go of the sense that they must be avoided and are a sign of something going wrong.

Marie September 16, 2019 at 10:10 am

Oh wow. I have issues with health. I have accepted that this is the way it goes. At first I panicked. I knew it would go away eventually but panic was first. The other day it happened. I just kept working thru it knowing it would soon pass. I did what I was set to do despite the discomfort and panic I felt. It was great. This makes so much sense now. Thank you.

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 11:06 am

I am learning to do this with anxiety — feel the whole flood of messy and scary feelings but retain control of my intention to do what makes sense. It’s hard, because certain feelings tell us to panic and get away, even if it’s to our own detriment. But we can walk into them anyway.

Edd Lalo September 16, 2019 at 11:06 am

This is a fantastic post! I can use to build on my tolerance to adversities. I ride my bicycle to work every day rain/shine/extreme high and low temps, and people always ask me how I manage the levels of discomfort.

Being able to accept and embrace the current state is a significant reason for that, as suffering doesn’t bring about any constructive contribution to the experience. I’d also like to add a tidbit that the thought and idea of adversity seems almost always far worse than the actual experience. Great job quantifying that attitude in a practical context!

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 11:08 am

Totally agreed… even just as a general pattern in my life, I’ve suffered so much more from doing everything possible to avoid pain and displeasure than from the pain itself.

Clint September 16, 2019 at 1:58 pm

I like all of this, but the cynic in me wonders–aren’t there times when you work to avoid displeasure and discomfort and actually succeed and move to a happier place because you made the effort to sidestep it in order to feel fully something … better?

Clint September 16, 2019 at 1:59 pm

I like all of this, but the cynic in me wonders–aren’t there times when you work to avoid displeasure and discomfort and actually succeed and move to a happier place because you made the effort to sidestep it in order to feel fully something … better?

David Cain September 16, 2019 at 9:24 pm

Definitely… but sensibly avoiding discomfort doesn’t mean it makes sense to hate or resent it once it is present. You can still make choices to minimize needless pain or discomfort while you practice equanimity with whatever pain or discomfort does happen.

Clint September 16, 2019 at 2:00 pm

sorry about the duplicate.

Lori September 16, 2019 at 3:40 pm

When I was a child on the farm, I had to do this one awful job … to keep the grain auger from clogging up, I had to go in the grainery and move the grain away from the auger head. I was little, and the grain stream was big, and the dust from the chopped grain quickly clogged my nose and tear ducts and filled my clothes, sticking to my pouring sweat and itching intensely.

In retrospect, it was dangerous and probably child abuse, but on the farm, you do what you have to do.

But here is the thing … I’ve never had a hard job since. I’ve been bored. I’ve hated taking direction from people I thought I was smarter than. I’ve even wished I were somewhere else. But I’ve never worked “too hard,” not ever, and the ability to work hard and long without any sense of effort has given me an amazing life. I’ve learned to be so grateful for the circumstances that gave my dad no choice but to tell me to hop in those graineries.

Thank you, as always, David, for sharing your wisdom.

David Cain September 17, 2019 at 9:42 am

Thanks Lori. That’s actually a great example of some amount of equanimity arising naturally from having to do something difficult for a long time… you can’t help but learn it’s easier not to resent every moment, and it leaves you with a healthy attitude towards difficulty.

Kevin September 17, 2019 at 9:00 am

I appreciate the idea here, I really do, and I know how mindfulness has helped me. But don’t we run the risk of negating every experience and, in the extreme, simply standing outside our own life and letting it wash over us in a smear of beige? If we never judge a negative experience or sensation as being negative–if it simply is–then surely we can’t ascribe any positive feelings to the good stuff either, right? How can we delight in an ice cream cone, a sunset, a friend, if everything is simply “as it is,” and we give it no value of good or bad? Am I making sense?

David Cain September 17, 2019 at 9:48 am

The practice I’m referring to doesn’t have that effect. Experiences retain their pleasant and unpleasant qualities, and we can’t do much about that. We’re talking about recognizing the way we often add the additional painful qualities of suffering and yearning to the inevitable pleasant and unpleasant experiences that make up life. All experiences area already “as they are,” but our reaction to them can introduce another element that’s usually worth not introducing if we can help it.

Melanie September 17, 2019 at 12:23 pm

This reminds me so much of what I seemed to be able to do while I was in labour with my children (but rarely have experience since then!). I was somehow able to allow the experience of each contraction without wishing it to end and relax in the moments of relief without fearing or dreading the next contraction. I believe that this is why I often tell people that labour was really not all that bad even though in our culture people almost always fear it. I didn’t realize that practicing equanimity is what I was doing! It never really occurred to me to practice this skill in other areas until I read your piece. There are daily occurrences of discomfort that I almost always resist. Thanks for the great article!

David Cain September 17, 2019 at 4:02 pm

Ah that reminds me of something… I don’t know anything about birthing techniques but I remember reading a long article about someone who had applied what she learned in Lamaze class to playing an instrument… it taught her not to over-control, to release unnecessary tension, and several other transferable skills. It really seems to me that the benefit of both is to meet the reality of the situation without making things harder by wishing it was easier, or already over.

Joel October 2, 2019 at 2:43 pm

Great article David. I’ve been putting this into practice when running and cold showering and have certainly noticed a steady improvement over time. As well as being present with external sensations, I’ve also found it interesting to drop back, Douglas Harding-style, and turn attention on itself.

emma October 24, 2019 at 12:11 am

including climbing Everest in nothing but swim trunks. The book “What Doesn’t Kill Us” is a great read if you find this topic interesting.

As I’m internally whining about riding my bike to work today, I’ll remember this as a pedal. Also, I know that fresh morning ride always makes a work day better!

Mark November 1, 2019 at 7:42 am

Before my son heads out on scout camping trips I obsessively check the weather, hoping for his sake (and comfort, safety and security) that things will be perfect and the weather sunny. To his credit he takes all my warnings and advice with a stoic shrug of the shoulders. I joined him on a recent canoe trip that turned tough, 10 miles with a stiff wind in our face, broken paddles, a front that passed bringing driving rain and then a sudden temperature drop. Out on the rough water in a small open craft there was nothing to do but keep paddling… Later that night by the warmth and safety of the fire, the trip was already becoming legend. From kid to adult we all had become a little stronger for surviving and I knew many of the big and small stories of the day would be told for years to come. This is consistent with my experience as a scout – the ‘worst’ trips- rain, snow, wind, broken down buses, lack of food etc. etc are the ones remembered most clearly and fondly. I think there is an important thing here- rather than just facing life’s challenges alone, we can (hopefully) share our suffering with others and in that shared suffering persevere through our own personal challenges while helping, and being helped, by others, all becoming stronger in the process. Being a lone monk in the wilderness is not the solution for everyone…

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