On a recent trip to Japan, I found myself dragging family and friends up a mountain to stand under an ice-cold waterfall. We were going to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
I’d agreed to climb up Mt. Inunaki in Osaka with a group of monks. We were promised that we’d be allowed to stand under the freezing water while they pulled the demons out of us.
The monks practice shugendo, a type of mountain asceticism whose practitioners do some pretty wild things—dangling over cliffs, sleeping in caves, and standing under ice-cold water to name a few. Those that practice shugendo are commonly known as yamabushi, and their activities are specifically designed to heighten their awareness and further their spiritual development. This is my kind of good time.
Upon arriving, we immediately began to climb. We followed the monks farther up the mountain to a waterfall, using chains to make our way up the steep grade. Here, they directed me to walk out into the water, stand directly under the falls, and meditate.
As soon as my foot touched the water, I knew I was in for a challenge. My skin began to tingle from the shock of the cold water, and my breath quickened. When I reached the falls, I took a deep breath and stepped under.
Although I have been taking cold showers for most of my life, standing under the frigid water for nearly a minute tested me physically and mentally. I wanted to bolt as soon as I felt the water on my face, but I was too stubborn to give up. I knew that by testing my body in this way, I would learn something I couldn’t learn anywhere else. When I finally emerged from the falls, I felt like I had just finished a race—exhausted, pained, and utterly satisfied.
Here are the three lessons I learned as I stood there:
1. Pain is just weakness leaving the body
There will always be discomfort. If you haven’t run in several years, weeks, or even days, your first jog around the block will be brutal. If you’ve been training for a marathon for months, you’re still going to hit that wall that you have to push through.
The pain you experience will change over time—what hurt you yesterday may not hurt tomorrow, but that next challenge could be a killer. But it’s only through challenging our minds and bodies that we can grow. Don’t let reasonable pain stop you from pushing yourself to improve.
2. Cold is no match for movement
Before central heating, people wrapped themselves in their warmest clothes, lit a fire, and kept moving to stay warm. Radiators, HVAC systems, thermal t-shirts, and hand warmers have made life a lot easier, but we’ve also lost our ability to deal with the uncomfortable.
Today, we sit in our warm houses all day long, and we don’t get outside to feel the fresh air. But it’s not that hard to deal with the cold once you know how to do it—and getting out there and being active is the first step.
3. To conquer a mountain, you must commit to the climb
The yamabushi stand under the same freezing waterfall every day. It’s a practice that connects the physical mind and body with the spiritual and helps them attain enlightenment. Whether your goal is to help your community, run a marathon, start a business, or quite literally climb a mountain, the only way to succeed is to commit.
Commitment forces you to stand under your ice-cold water each day. It’s what pushes you to do the hard things, the boring tasks, the stuff you don’t want to do but need to do to make it to the top. But here’s the best part about fully committing: Once you do it, you’re more than halfway there.