Day 6 -9:45am, 1c
I woke this morning to a thin blanket of snow on the ground, and heavy clouds crowding in on the town with enough menace to suggest we were in for a lot more. If these daily trips have taught me anything it is that the weather in bonny Scotland is incredibly changeable.
We were heading for our new spot today, and as a result I was a little more excited and upbeat whilst getting ready. Whilst the snow had tempered that excitement with a measure of the reality ahead, I was still feeling that familiar glow that precedes an adventure to somewhere new.
Most of last night had involved daydreams and fantasies of being comfortable and at home in this new, improved area with deeper waters that would allow for swimming and letting loose; enjoying the water with less requirement for mental fortitude. It wasn’t to be the case.
A few minutes further along the river, we followed a Land Rover track that ran parallel to the water until we reached a fence that tailed off downhill toward our destination. The fence guarded a burn that fed into the Avon and provided a more fantastical setting than our previous one at the weir. What this change of venue brought for me, quite noticeably and unexpectedly, was a lack of control: an awareness that I didn’t know what I was stepping into, how deep it was or how strong the current might be. This, along with the whisper of unease delivered with the snow, meant that for the first time this week I didn’t sit to meditate. I felt that standing, breathing and watching the river was better preparation – from that height I felt stronger, less vulnerable. I was literally standing up to the task in front of me.
A night’s snow had also brought a noticeably stronger river, a sinuous current, like a herd of wild horses jostling across the width of the water. Again, my same river was ever different. Her ability to change each day was both stunning and unnerving. Not wanting to mess around, and with enough focus, drive and calm, I was ready. The first steps in were very like they’d always been – warmer than expected, soft underfoot and quite rewarding. The cold rang her bell as I moved a few steps further out into the black brown, and the current caught me with muscle and force. Quite unlike anything I’d experienced until now, the water’s power was surprising. My calm was enough to let me hunker down to my shoulders, my back set against the current, my heels dug into the riverbed. There was to be a battle here today, one I hadn’t been through up until now.
Bill, a couple of metres in front of me, was facing the current and was mostly submerged too. I closed my eyes and began to concentrate on my breath, then brought my awareness to sensations – what my body was feeling, and where. Gentle sounds of movement in the water caught my attention and I opened my eyes to find Bill ten feet or so downstream and pushing hard against the current to regain his place. The river was flexing. Content that he was back upstream and safe I closed my eyes to regain my awareness of the body, but it was now underscored with thoughts of fear – my body told me of areas that were now too cold or noticeably painful – and this meant further energy and focus to stay still in a current that felt as though it was growing in strength. My calm was frayed at the edges and I started wondering how long I’d been in the water. When you wonder, as a rule, you find out that you’ve not been there long at all. In this case it had been just forty seconds. Reeling at his, I lost further control. The elasticity of time is truly extraordinary.
Bill fought a second time with the water before settling and was then in his right spot – both mentally and physically. I simply dug in at this point and looked to stay as long as I could, numbers and times somehow of more importance to my frayed mind than they had been all week. I pushed for and peaked at two minutes. It was our first day of not extending our time submerged, yet it was a substantial struggle and didn’t feel like a compromise. The cold is righteous and merciless. So is our little river.
I walked back to the car considering my need for control. My daydreaming the night before had created a vision of what today would be like, and it wasn’t. I came hoping for a certain experience only to realise that all I can do is simply accept and receive whatever the water and nature gives me. That in itself, I resolved, is a release and relief – I don’t need to worry about the river as I’ll never be able to control it. All I can do is work on my mind so that it is in the right place to recognise what gifts that each day here is giving me.
Day 7- 9:45am, 0c
Yesterday’s snow is still here, but it has been hardened and turned to ice overnight. The crunch underfoot is loud, sharp and brittle. A new day, a different challenge. As ever, last night’s excitement and positivity has morphed into a more nervous animal this morning. Yet, the physical similarities with yesterday were striking and this in itself was comforting. Now that I’d experienced our new location and her waters, it had fewer surprises and this helped centring me further on our approach.
The longer walk in, down the track, under old Scots pine and downward over long streaky grass, feels more secretive and less touched by man. Where we set up now is flatter than before, closer to the water’s edge and the site of an old bonfire. This isn’t surprising with it being such a pretty spot – sadly though confirmation: it’s more tainted than touched by man.
In preparing for the water today I had decided to enter into the spirit of things and steady my focus through the Wim Hof breathing techniques, as Bill does, instead of my standard awareness meditation. Fifty deep breaths with no breaks in between, it seems almost the polar opposite of meditation. I can feel tingling in my hands and feet, changing body temperatures and a building pressure in my head. The fullness of the breath is pleasant and somehow fitting to the outdoors. After the breaths I hold my breath briefly until I naturally feel the need to breathe. There is an unmistakeable peace here, very different to meditation, but equally spacious. My mind is clear and I don’t feel the need to breathe anywhere near as quickly as I thought I might. My first breath is then a deep one, held again for fifteen seconds and then I release. Opening my eyes I feel different, a little disorientated maybe, but with a clarity and a drive I wouldn’t normally experience through meditating. I knew what I needed to do and was ready for it. There was less space for worry or a questioning mind.
Into the water, in a similar position to yesterday but nearer the centre of the river, with a great view back toward Craig Bridge. Behind me the burn met the river, creating small bubbles moving out and round me on both sides. This brought a brief smile to my lips and I began to relax fully into the moment. Whilst the burns and nips and stings have all undoubtedly calmed over the week, the first minute was still uneasy. There is no doubting though that I am acclimatising. The temperatures have gone steadily down each day and at the same time the hardships have lessened too. My mind wasn’t as clear as I’d like though: I was subtly aware of the time and how interminably long the first 100 seconds or so were. It felt like a short lifetime sat uneasily within a spacious mind – the cold, the breath, the clam, the pressure ever present. After that, everything softened.
And there was heat too.
As though emanating from my core, like an emissary from my heart there came timely blasts of warmth, of comfort and contentedness. There little blasts, like shotgun bullets, seemed to expand in all directions of my body, sending messages of heat to my outer limits. I counted three or four I think, all after the one minute mark, each helping elongate my stay in the Avon. Two minutes and thirty seconds. In comfort. At ease. At 0c. Deep down I was certain I could go longer too – with an intuitive voice speaking rather than an egoic one. That said, safety is everything, and in the river you are dealing with powers that vastly outweigh yours. 2 minutes 30 seconds it was. And we were happy with that too.
As I began to dry off and get clothes on, I noticed that the focus and drive I had in the water lived on. Neither Bill or I spoke at this point – we rarely have – our bodies are still under stress and are acting as such. No worry. Just single pointed focus. No thoughts. Just movement. This, was as much part of the experience as the water it occurred to me. I had been out of my thinking mind for at least six minutes, operating in a manner that I seem incapable of in day to day life. This was living in the moment – a fresh, clear, righteous moment, somehow delivered on the wings of full body stress.
My feet and hands had thawed a little on finishing today. Still frozen of course, don’t get me wrong, but notably less so than in days gone by, and this was a colder temperature too. All positive signs. Signs that my body was both getting used to this and maybe even enjoying it too.
It has been quite a journey in one week.
A massive one really – both physically and mentally.
One that I won’t be stopping any time soon.
As I stood on the bank this morning looking upstream, I watched two dippers dance and play on the rocks by the white water. It was a beautiful light-hearted natural scene to observe. Its beauty reminded me of the glances up and down river earlier in the week – where I had provided myself a focal point to hold on to, to get through my time in the water. It struck me that I didn’t need to do that anymore. I am self-sufficient now: I can bring my focus inwards and be in close to full awareness of all that I am experiencing – whether pleasant or unpleasant. I felt strong and resilient, in realising this. Indeed simply having the strength of character to put myself in the river each day when my mind has screamed at me not to do so, shows more of this same fortitude. Like the grasses, ferns and trees on the riverbank, the water is helping me to grow.