How to survive the madness of our times: an ancient art of living well - RSA

How to survive the madness of our times: an ancient art of living well


  • Picture of Alexandra Krawiec
    Alexandra Krawiec
    Alex specialises in decision making, organisational behaviour and leadership
  • Mental health
  • Mindfulness
  • Health & wellbeing

Alex Krawiec is the RSA Connector for Fellows in Poland. She specialises in leadership and system theories of organisations, and has worked as a science journalist and documentary filmmaker. As a countryside dweller, she enjoys frequent interactions with nature. In this piece, Alex shares some ancient secrets to wellbeing that still resonate in modern times.

Energy is a prerequisite for the survival of any living organism. Without it, our species would not be able to perform basic life supporting actions, let alone develop a language or create cultures. The question is: how can we acquire the optimal level of vigour? How can we avoid its excess (anxiety) or deficiency (depression)? Are there any reliable ways of slowing down organismic entropy? Any techniques to obtain energetic equilibrium?

Writer and scholar Robert Macfarlane recently drew my attention to the notion of energeia. A rhetorical term from the Greek ἐνεργής (visible, manifest): “the quality of extreme vividness, radiance or present-ness [...] a description so vivid it seems to conjure its subject into existence; so powerful it evokes the (unbearable) brightness of being”. Here, I share how this concept can be extrapolated onto an experience which involves a sudden surge of physical energy: exposure to extreme cold.

From the beginnings of civilisation, staying alive and staying sane required certain strategies and adaptation. To make our lives less Hobbesian (less solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short), to avoid pain and maximise pleasure, our ancestors experimented with simple heuristics. Many old ways of coping are still valid today – no less so than many sophisticated and technology-based modern inventions.

As researched by many evolutionary scientists like Robert Sapolsky and Frans de Waal, the homo sapiens were not all about problem-solving. Like other social animals, we enjoy frivolous activities. Aimless games gradually turned into simple sports, and then military training as practiced in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. With time, we also realised the salubrious benefits of hygiene and relaxation, and consequently invented the ritual of bathing. Since ancient times, humans have also practiced controlled exposure to extreme temperatures (saunas and/or ice water). The latter, oddly enough, appears to be a highly effective way of ‘resetting the system’ – both body and mind.

In the 19th century, a German physician called Dr Sebastian Kneipp came up with a medical treatment consisting of water dips (hydrotherapy), herbs, physical exercises, and mental hygiene, believing these to be the best cure for a majority of ailments. A few decades after Dr Kneipp’s death, in the Netherlands, another enthusiast of natural healing methods was born: Wim Hof, also known as ‘Iceman’. Hof gained fame for extreme athletic feats: breaking world records in long exposure to extreme temperatures and running a half-marathon through the Namib Desert without taking any liquids. He was also known for practising a special breathing method, which allowed him to develop ‘superhuman’ skills. 

Breathing has for centuries fascinated spiritual teachers. In parts of Asia, even today, Buddhist monks practice Tummo – a technique to increase body temperature, or ‘energy’, through controlled breath. By using this method, they can allegedly dry their wet clothes when meditating in cold temperatures. 

Since the 1990s, the Iceman has made headlines by proving that many old monastic practices work. Hof claims that there is nothing extraordinary about his own body apart from rigorous training, and that anyone can learn to overcome the fear of cold. Moreover, as a ‘side effect’ of Hof’s methods, practitioners can overcome various mental and physical issues. This may not by just hype. Hof’s approach can be backed by neuroscience (e.g. neuroplasticity theories), and by science behind behavioural therapy.

Even though Wim Hof is not a physician, some of his approaches overlap with those once practiced by doctor Kneipp and by our ancient ancestors. Many of those who tried the Iceman’s’ methods swear that deep breathing, exposure to cold, and meditation have worked for them better than conventional treatments. Hof does not invalidate the benefits of modern medicine, but argues that the human body is highly complex, and that simple therapies such as cold exposure can help cure some physical and mental issues.

Apparently, one of Hof’s very first international retreats took place in the mountainous part of my native country Poland, in the small hamlet of Przesieka. Dr Kneipp was also quite popular in Poland, and my own grand aunt was a great proponent of his techniques. Cold water dips are not as widespread as in Scandinavia and Russia, but have gained popularity in Poland, especially in the southern region. During winter months, some waterfalls are now teeming with ice-water enthusiasts. Hof’s retreats are relatively expensive (his techniques are advertised by celebrities), so many Poles practice ice-water dips individually, in groups of friends, or join clubs of cold water aficionados colloquially called ‘Walruses’.

This year marks my own serious adventure with freezing water, or what the ancient Greeks might call ‘irruption of clarity’. After years of practicing ‘responsible decisions’, some dormant gene of my risk-taking ancestor must have been activated. I survived the freezing cold of Podgórna Waterfall, and can testify that almost anyone is capable of mastering the fear of cold. Controlled exposure to extreme cold works just like the Tummo masters, Dr Kneipp, and the Iceman describe. Obviously, I am not where they are yet, and probably never will. But, at least the scary ‘initiation’ of multiple dips into the ice-cold water is already behind me, while all the benefits of the adventure are mine forever.

Experiences like this one prove that simple methods can sometimes help us tap into some dormant sources of vitality. By exposing ourselves to the uncomfortable, we might get more than we expect, something that Caspar Henderson (an expert on ‘wonder’), or Timothy Morton would call: ‘a glimpse of the hyperobject’.

Buddhist monks practicing Tummo still believe that the cold burns what needs to be discarded and makes space for renewal. Others say that it purifies, shapes our internal vision, and hardens the ‘one who dares’. Exposure to cold together with some simple outdoor workout, can rekindle in us the ancient awe for Life, and bring us closer to the ‘Holy Grail’ of vigour. All this so much desired in our times of uncertainty. 

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