Updated: Dec 5, 2019
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
A couple of years ago Alexa and I went with her folks to see 1984 on Broadway. Her brother had been working on the show as a stage hand so we wanted to support his work. While at dinner before the show we started talking about what we were about to see. I realized that none of us had read any of the reviews nor had we read the book in at least two decades. So, I did a quick Google search to see what people were saying about it. Almost every article mentioned audience members fainting, vomiting, and yelling at the actors. I couldn't believe what I was reading. What could possibly happen on a Broadway stage to cause these reactions?
At the theater, warnings were posted throughout: “This production contains flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking, and graphic depictions of violence and torture. It is not suitable for children under 14.” As we sat down I noticed audience members could drink at their seats, and some even had ice buckets with bottles of wine. Perhaps they'd read the reviews, seen the warning and were relaxing their nerves before Friday the 13th on Broadway? The lights went down and the play got rolling. Frankly, I couldn't focus on the story. I spent the entire time waiting for the horrific moment, or moments?, that would cause the crowd to devolve into puking chaos.
Near the end of the show there was a torture scene. The lights came up in the theater so one of the actors could address the audience directly during the torture. This scene had fake blood and screams of pain. But it was mild, I've seen gorier set-ups on front lawns at Halloween. Moments later I heard what sounded like vomiting. I looked up, a couple rows to my left, and saw a woman throwing up into her ice bucket. Ah ha, so this is why they allowed the buckets at the seats!
Of course, this woman could have had some bad shrimp cocktail, mixed with wine during the show, and topped it off with the visual of a little fake blood. However, this was not an isolated incident. As mentioned earlier, this reaction was the focus of the the show's reviews. The stress, caused visually by fake blood Broadway-style, was having a physical, uncontrollable, effect on many audience members over the course of the show's run. However, the reaction is disproportionate to the stimuli. Shouldn't this kind of physical response be saved for a more threatening moment?
I talk often, with anyone who will listen, about my thoughts on our culture of avoiding discomfort and devolving into creatures strictly of comfort. It's a common theme throughout previous posts I've written. Society is growing less resilient. Because we lack exposure to high stress situations and the resulting adaptations, we are unable to manage small or even mild stress. Everything in our world has been made as comfortable as possible. We wear down jackets at the first hint of winter and crank up the A/C in the summer. We avoid uncomfortable, in person conversations by keeping interactions limited to email and text messages. We don't have to hunt for our food nor are we being hunted. Historically, we were uncomfortable and immersed in stress by the demands of human survival in nature. This exposure created opportunities to foster the invisible armor that we call resilience.
We are a culture of comfort and I propose the pursuit of the uncomfortable, the return of resilience. This is not a new idea. Many philosophies have proposed the same theme in different ways for thousands of years. The value of strengthening the mind and the ability to manage stress as a transferable skill has been imparted by many cultures in different forms. Zen Buddhists sit Zazen. Wim Hof has gained fame with his promotion of ice baths. And, I was once told that Shaolin monks do a 10 minute horse stance every day. I highlight only these examples because they are the practices I have experience with, but the list runs deep.
Zazen, or seated meditation, is as valuable as it is mysterious. I don't want to pretend I know anything about it because knowing is not the goal; there is no goal. Just being still is a unique challenge. Be alone with yourself for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or one hour! Try not to be effected by internal or external noise, but don't punish yourself if you are. Die. Let the distractions boil off and we're left with silence and the solid matter that remains; our truth. And, our truth may be the thing that scares us the most. I've found this powerful. Explore stillness and meditation. Anything that has been around for over 1000 years is not a fad and deserves attention; let me know if Soul Cycle makes it that long.
For over a year I followed Wim Hof's method of breathing and cold exposure. As the temperature of the seasons changed around me, the temperature of my showers did not. For 365 days, they were 100% cold, 100% of the time. The science connected to the value of cold exposure is wide ranging; but I'm focusing strictly on the stress caused by the cold, and our ability to adapt to that stress.
Think back to the last time you lost hot water, or simply turned the wrong nob, and the shower spray turned arctic, how did you react? You probably started breathing fast, short, breaths and your body began shivering. This is an absolutely normal reaction in a comfortable world. Wim Hof's practice had me working on both breathing exercises and cold exposure. Because breath is the key to stress management, cold exposure is like breath bootcamp. It took time, but my stress reaction to the cold water became more manageable. Rather than quick panic breathing, I developed a system to maintain calm and controlled breathing. This was not just preparation for the next Polar Vortex, it was preparation for stress of any kind as the skill is transferable.
If you're familiar with the Horse stance, the crown jewel of extremely uncomfortable positions, your legs are already burning just reading these words. My introduction to the horse stance was in 2013 while I was studying movement with Matt Bernstein. Matt had me flirting with the position, but it wasn't until I began online coaching with Ido Portal in 2015 that I was instructed to train the stance daily, in pursuit of a five minute stance. If you've never done a horse stance, you may not understand that 5 minutes in horse stance time feels like 10 years of human time. In Kung Fu, five minutes is the minimum requirement. The position strengthens the legs and back, and mobilizes the hips. But, more importantly, it challenges your power of will. I once read an article by a kung fu grandmaster who said the stance develops "internal force". In the beginning, one minute was unbearable. I could feel unmanageable stress, physical and mental, from the moment I lowered into the position. I steadily increased the length of the holds over months. As with the cold showers, I learned to manage my breath, and noticed that when the breath got away from me the stance got away from me. I trained the stance for over a year before I achieved the five minute hold. The stance got easier not because the discomfort and stress diminished much, but because I'd developed a management system and tolerance to the discomfort.
I am not the poster child for resilience. My experiences have left me with more questions than answers. Questions about breath, human potential, and mortality. There is no end, and there are no answers. There are just practices and suggestions. My suggestion is that resilience can, and should, be trained. With bursts of high stress, we can better manage moments of moderate or low stress. Instead of asking, "What makes me happy?" Ask, "What makes me uncomfortable?" Perhaps happiness lies on the other side of the latter question.