Lately I’ve noticed that the internet has been abuzz with something called the ice-bucket challenge, wherein people film themselves getting drenched in ice water and then challenge friends to do the same in order to raise awareness for various causes, most recently it’s ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I hadn’t thought much about ALS until this started blowing up my Facebook news feed, so I guess the ALS Association has succeeded in raising awareness.
I’m all about raising awareness, particularly as it relates to the present moment and understanding our human experience. That’s why today I thought it would be fun to try the (drum roll please…) Ice Cube Challenge: To raise awareness… generally.
This challenge is to raise our awareness of our sensory experience, pain, pleasure, and the accompanying thoughts and emotions. To do it, all you’ll need is a cube of ice on a plate and a bit of quiet time. You don’t have to challenge any friends and you don’t have to post a video online. And rather than a challenge, I’d say it’s really more of an experiment. (But that’s not as catchy, is it?)
Take a moment to become still, bringing your attention to the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out. After a minute or so of this (or about 10 slow, quiet breaths if your kids are taking part), slowly place the ice cube on the palm of your hand. Notice what happens—in your mind and on your skin.
Pay attention to the sensation of the ice, perhaps noticing stinging, burning, or tingly sensations. Pay attention to what story is in your mind, perhaps it is one of needing to wait it out until the cube melts, or feeling scared you’ll damage your skin, or thinking about last winter and the snowman you made. Simply notice what goes on in your mind. Are you feeling particularly averse to this? Hoping it will end soon? Or maybe it’s a hot summer day, and this feels particularly soothing. Watch your thoughts, your physical sensations, and any emotional response you have to the experiment.
When you’re ready, put the ice cube down.
Notice what thoughts, emotions, physical sensations are happening now. Relief? A desire to try it again? Feeling cold all over or just in your hand?
You did it! You raised your awareness! Nice work!
This experiment reminds me of the incredible impact that mindfulness can have on how we experience pain. Instead of getting caught up in the stories of the pain—“I’m getting frostbite, I’ll lose my fingers!” or “My head is going to hurt like this forever!” or “How could I have stubbed my toe, why wasn’t I looking where I was going?”—with mindfulness we take a gentle and compassionate approach to investigating the sensations of the pain as they arise. Without awareness, our aversion to pain can exacerbate our suffering, causing us to tense up and focus only on the worst-case scenario. If we can soften to pain, and look at it lovingly (instead of with frustration, fear, or annoyance), it will often transform before our eyes. Our own silent judgments often inflict their own kind of damage.
Taking a moment to feel our pain and let go of the judgments and the stories offers pain a chance to be felt. What did you notice with the ice cube? Did your fingers fall off? Did the stinging cold last very long, or did it shift as you paid attention? We might notice that the headache we thought would last forever actually comes in spells of intensity, waxing and waning, throbbing here, barely a dull ache there. And while the pain might not change too much, with mindful attention, your relationship with the pain will likely have shifted.
As the oft-quoted maxim states, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” There will be headaches, cuts, bruises, stubbed toes, and ice cube experiments. What we do with this pain is up to us—we can dwell in it, wallow in the stories and judgments, or we can feel it and show it our love.
I challenge you to see what happens the next time you have a headache. Get quiet and watch it for a bit with some gentle attention before you take any action.