It had to happen. I have been seeing it coming, essentially, only I didn’t want to face it. The nature of truth. Whatever kind of intellectual adventure we engage, i.e. whatever kind of game we start playing, with coherent understanding of reality in the centre of it, that s**t just has to come our way. We ask ourselves: ‘What is true?’.
My present take on truth is largely based on something even more basic than intellectual pursuit as such. Since December 2016, I have been practicing the Wim Hof method (https://www.wimhofmethod.com/ ). In short, this is a combination of breathing exercises with purposeful exposition to cold. You can check the original recipe on that website I have just provided, and I want to give an account of my own experience, such as I practice it now. Can I say that I practice an experience? Yes, in this case this is definitely the right way to call it. My practice of the Wim Hof method consists, precisely, in me exposing myself, over and over again, consistently, to a special experience.
Anyway, every evening, I practice breathing exercises, followed by a cold shower. I do the breathing in two phases. In the first phase, I do the classical Wim Hof pattern: 30 – 40 deep, powerful breaths, when I work with my respiratory muscles as energetically as I can, inhale through the nose, exhale through pinched mouth (so as to feel a light resistance in my lips and cheeks, as if my mouth was a bellow with limited flow capacity), and then, after I exhale for the 30th ÷ 40th time, I pass in apnoea, i.e. I stop breathing. For how long? Here comes the first component of experiential truth: I have no idea how long. I don’t measure my phase of apnoea with a timer, I measure it with my proprioception.
In the beginning, that is 3 – 4 years ago, I used to follow religiously the recommendation of Wim Hof himself, namely to stay at the limit of my comfort zone. In other words, beginners should stay in apnoea just long enough to start feeling uncomfortable, and then they should inhale. When I feel something like muscular panic inside, e.g. my throat muscles going into a sort of spasm, I inhale, deeply, and I hold for like 10 seconds. Then, I repeat the whole cycle as many times as I feel like. Now, after 4 years of practice, I know that my comfort zone can stretch. Now, when I pass into apnoea, the spasm of my throat is one of the first proprioceptive feelings I experience, not the last. I stop breathing, my throat muscles contract in something that feels like habitual panic, and then something in me says: ‘Wait a minute. Like really, wait. That feeling of muscular panic in the throat muscles, it is interesting. Wait, explore it, discover. Please’. Thus, I discover. I discover that my throat muscles spasm in a cycle of contraction and relaxation. I discover that once I set for discovering that feeling, I start discovering layers of calm. Each short cycle of spasmatic panic in my throat induces in me something like a deep reach into my body, with emotions such as fear fading away a bit. I experience something like spots of pleasurable tingling and warmth, across my body, mostly in big muscular groups, like the legs, the abs, or the back. There comes a moment when the next spasm in my respiratory muscles drives me to inhaling. This specific moment moves in time as I practice. My brain seems to be doing, at every daily practice of mine, something like accounting work: ‘How much of my subjectively experienced safety from suffocation am I willing to give away, when rewarded with still another piece of that strange experience, when I feel as if I were suffocating, and, as strange as it seems, I sort of like the feeling?’.
I repeat the cycle ’30 – 40 powerful breaths, apnoea, then inhale and hold for a few seconds’ a few times, usually 3 to 5 times, and this is my phase one. After, I pass into my phase two, which consists in doing as many power breaths as I can until I start feeling fatigue in my respiratory muscles. Usually, it is something like 250 breaths, sometimes I go beyond 300. After the last breath, I pass in apnoea, and, whilst staying in that state, I do 20 push-ups. After the last push-up, I breathe in, and hold for a long moment.
I repeat two times the whole big cycle of phase one followed by phase two. Why two times? Why those two phases inside each cycle? See? That’s the big question. I don’t know. Something in me calibrates my practice into that specific protocol. That something in me is semi-conscious. I know I am following some sort of discovery into my sensory experience. When I am in phase one, I am playing with my fear of suffocation. Playing with that fear is bloody interesting. In phase two, let’s face it, I get high as f**k on oxygen. Really. Being oxygen-high, my brain starts behaving differently. It starts racing. Thoughts turn up in my consciousness like fireworks. Many of those thoughts are flashback memories. For a short moment, my brain dives head-first into a moment of my past. I suddenly re-experience a situation, inclusive of emotions and sensory feelings. This is a transporting experience. I realize, over and over again, that what I remember is full of ambiguity. There are many possible versions of memories about the same occurrence in the past. I feel great with that. When I started to go through this specific experience, when high on oxygen, I realized that my own memorized past is a mine of information. Among other things, it opens me up onto the realization how subjective is my view of events that happened to me. I realized how many points of very different viewpoints I can hold as regards the same occurrence.
Here comes another interesting thing which I experience when being high on oxygen amidst those hyper-long sequences of power breathing. Just as I rework my memories, I rework my intellectual take on present events. Ideas suddenly recombine into something new and interesting. Heavily emotional judgments about recent or ongoing tense situations suddenly get nuanced, and I joyfully indulge in accepting what a d**k I have been and how many alternative options do I have.
After the full practice of two cycles, each composed of two phases in breathing exercises, I go under a cold shower. Nothing big, something like 30 seconds. Enough to experience another interesting distinction. When I pour cold water on my skin, the first, spontaneous label I can put on that experience is ‘cold’. Once again, something in me says ‘Wait a minute! There is no way in biology you can go into hypothermia in 30 seconds under a cold shower. What you experience is not cold, it is something else. It is the fear of cold. It is a flood on sensory warnings’. There is a follow-up experience which essentially confirms that intuition. Sometimes, when I feel like going really hard on that cold shower, like 2 minutes, I experience a delayed feeling of cold. One or two hours later, when I am warm and comfy, suddenly I start shivering and experiencing once again the fear of cold. Now, there is even no sensory stimulation whatsoever. It is something like a vegetative memory of the cold which I have experienced shortly before. My brain seems to be so overwhelmed with that information that it needs to rework through it. It is something like a vegetative night-dream. Funny.
All of that happens during each daily practice of the Wim Hof method. Those internal experiences vanish shortly after I stop the session. There is another layer, namely that of change which I observe in me as I practice over a long time. I have realized, and I keep realizing the immense diversity of ways I can experience my life. I keep taking and re-taking a step back from my current emotions and viewpoints. I sort of ride the wave crest of all the emotional and cognitive stuff that goes on inside of me. Hilarious and liberating an experience. Over the time spent practicing the Wim Hof method, I have learnt to empty my consciousness. It is real. For years, I have been dutifully listening to psychologists who claim that no one can really clear their conscious mind of any thought whatsoever. Here comes the deep revelation of existential truth through experience. My dear psychologists, you are wrong. I can and do experience, frequently and wilfully, a frame of mind when my consciousness is really like calm water. Nothing, like really. Not a single conscious thought. On the other hand, I know that I can very productively combine that state of non-thinking with a wild, no-holds-barred ride on thinking, when I just let it go internally and let thoughts flow through my consciousness. I know by experience that when I go in that sort of meditation, alternating the limpid state of consciousness with the crazy rollercoaster of running thoughts, my subconscious gets a kick, and I just get problem-solving done.
The nature of truth that I want to be the provisional bottom line, under my personal account of practicing the Wim Hof method, is existential. I know, people have already said it. Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger. Existentialists. They claimed that truth is existential, that it comes essentially and primordially from experience. I know. Still, reading about the depth of existential truth is one thing, and experiencing it by myself is a completely different ball game. Existential truth has limits, and those limits are set, precisely, by the scope of experience we have lived. Here comes a painful, and yet quite enlightening and experience of mine, as regards the limits of existential truth. Yesterday, i.e. on January 1st, 2021, I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, namely the ‘Full Auto Friday’ by Andy Stumpf (https://youtu.be/Svw0gxOj_to ). A fan of the podcast asked for discussing his case, namely that of a young guy, age 18, whose father is alcoholic, elaborately destroys himself and people around him, and makes his young son face a deep dilemma: ‘To what extent should I sacrifice myself in order to help my father?’.
I know the story, in a slightly different shade. My relations with my father (dead in 2019), had never been exemplary, for many reasons. His f**k-ups and my f**k-ups summed up and elevated each other to a power, and long story short, my dad fell into alcoholism around the age I am now, i.e. in his fifties, and our common 1990ies. He would drink himself into death and destruction, literally. Destroyed his liver, went through long-lasting portal hypertension (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal_hypertension ), destroyed his professional life, destroyed his relationships, inclusive, very largely, of his relationship with me. At the time, I was very largely watching the show from outside. Me and my father lived in different cities, did not really share much of our existence. Just to prevent your questions: the role and position of my late mum, in all that, is a different story. She was living her life in France.
My position of bystander cam brutally to an end in 2002, when my dad found himself at the bottom of the abyss. He stopped drinking, because in Polish hospitals we have something like semi-legal forced detox, and this is one of those rare times when something just semi-legal comes as deliverance. Yet, him having stopped drinking was about the only bright spot in his existence. The moment he would be discharged from hospital, he was homeless. The state he was in, it meant death within weeks. I was his only hope. Age 34, I had to decide, whether I will take care of a freshly detoxicated alcoholic, who had not really been paying much attention to me and who happened to be my biological father. I decided I will take care of him, and so I did. Long story short, the next 17 years were rough. Both the existential status of my father and his health, inclusive of his personality, were irremediably damaged by alcoholism. Yes, this is the sad truth: even fully rehabbed alcoholics have just a chance to regain normal life, and that chance is truly far from certainty. Those 17 years, until my dad’s death, were like a very long agony, pointless and painful.
And here I was, yesterday, listening to Andy Stumpf’s podcast, and him instructing his young listener that he should ‘draw a line in the sand, and hold that line, and not allow his alcoholic father to destroy another life’. I was listening to that, I fully acknowledged the wisdom of those words, and I realized that I did exactly the opposite. No line in the sand, just a crazy dive, head-first, into what, so far, had been the darkest experience of my life. Did I make the right choice? I don’t know, really. No clue. Even when I run that situation through the meditative technique which I described a few paragraphs earlier, and I did it many times, I have still no clue. These are my personal limits of existential truth. I was facing a loop. To any young man, his father is the main role model for ethical behaviour. My father’s behaviour had been anything but a moral compass. Trying to figure out the right thing to do, in that situation, was like being locked in a box and trying to open it with a key lying outside the box.
I guess any person in a similar situation faces the same limits. This is one of those situations, when I really need cold, scientific, objectivized truth. Some life choices are so complex that existential truth is not enough. Yet, with many other things, existential truth just works. What is my existential truth, though, sort of generally and across the board? I think it is a very functional type of truth, namely that of gradual, step-by-step achievement. In my life, existential truth serves me to calibrate myself to achieve what I want to achieve.