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Delusion and the Ego

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

My first time doing Wim Hof’s breath retention method, I felt the same panic that came up the two times I’ve nearly drowned. So unnaturally, I leaned in and tried to get more comfortable with it. Little did I know that I’d far surpass my expectations, only to have my ego put in check and learn a valuable lesson about the way I relationship along the way.

If you’re not familiar with Wim Hof, he’s known for holding his breath under water, running barefoot and shirtless over long distances in sub-freezing temperatures, and doing frozen water plunging. His technique guides practitioners through a breath retention exercise which involves 15-30 deep rhythmic, four-second breaths. After expelling the final breath, the breath is held out and the practitioner goes into “retention.” This breath is emptied for as long as possible, drawing the practicer into a deep awareness of his or her body as sensations and panic responses become magnified.

Eventually, my practice allowed me to consistently get three to four minutes without taking a breath. The first time I got up to five minutes, I had disbeliefs that I had done it correctly. The brain tends to get foggy with peripheral things. I couldn’t remember if I’d accidentally taken a breath I was so focused. When I repeated this a few times within the next few weeks, I felt a surge of pride that I was doing something hard and facing my fear.

It turns out, my five-minute mark was Bullshit.

The trick for me in passing the panic threshold was relaxing in discomfort. Relaxing my diaphragm and letting it convulse naturally helped. At a certain point, my calmness expanded, much like how the ocean floor drops off at the continental shelf. Once my panic fell off into this shelf, I was able to go from the two-minute range, to the four-minute range within a few weeks. At the time I thought I had unlocked the mystery. Not so fast.

I didn’t brag about going into the four-minute range regularly, but would make posts every once in a while when I hit a time threshold I was particularly proud of.

This morning, however, my awareness during the practice was more acute. I started to notice that I might be taking micro-inhales every time my diaphragm spasmed. These breaths were negligible and not even noticeable in the cloud of concentration. Today, however, I began to get suspicious that when I contracted, It seemed I was expelling a bit of air. I thought, “Where is this coming from?”

I tested my suspicions by covering my nostrils; they were confirmed. With my nostrils covered, I hit the panic response at about two minutes and couldn’t continue beyond that point. The feeling of drowning came on like a freight train being dropped from the sky. I tried a second time to confirm and I was not able to expand past the same threshold I had before. My nose had been taking in tiny sips of air every time I contracted.

I don’t view this as completely cheating on myself, I was simply unaware of what was going on and I was unwilling to look examine things to catch on sooner. This combination allowed me to go months under the illusion that I was really good at holding my breath. It turns out that two minutes is still hard with 15 breaths, but I wasn’t as badass as my ego was telling me.

As it turns out, this same delusion has happened in another avenue of my life. As I’ve begun to reconcile a friendship with my former partner, I’ve given myself the heavy task of looking at her experience of our breakup, and her grieving process objectively mostly through social media. From a loving, appreciative, and unconditional perspective, her sharing is heart breaking, authentic, and a beautiful testament to her strength. From my own ego perspective, it’s like that freight train falling from the sky.

I am quickly becoming aware of the delusion I had during our relationship. Things that I felt I was doing right were no match for the things I was doing incorrectly. The toll that took on her is what caused the relationship to fall apart. All the while, I thought I was doing a good job as a partner. Whether it’s small contractions that cause small sips into the nostril, or deluding myself into thinking that her frustration was a product of her unhealed wounds and that all of my behavior was “normal,” my ego didn’t want to face truth for a long time.

It has only come in small moments of reflection and awareness, particularly when I’m uncomfortable, that has helped me to really look at myself objectively and get curious on what is true here. Perhaps its also the repeated practice of working with men and recognizing how easy it is to hide behind our puffed up ego, that has made me get curious about how much I’m still hiding behind mine. Working in men’s groups has also showed me how rapidly things can change when we look at truth unflinchingly in the face

Illumination and curiosity are the anecdotes to my ego. The fear and resistance that once felt akin to drowning is actually just a reality check of where I’m actually at. Two minutes isn’t five minutes, but it’s also not one minute. I may not have an amazing partner to share my life with, but I have a healing friendship with a person I admire, respect and honor beyond my grasp of the English language. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, this opportunity gives me a real idea of the foundation I get to start from and I get to move forward with a resolved sense of keeping delusion at bay. That’s been my men’s work these past few weeks.

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