By: Zoë Pawlak
Zoë Pawlak is a world renowned artist born and based in Vancouver, BC. She was the artist-in-residence at the Summit Mountain Series in February 2018 and received the Western Living Industrial Designer of the Year in 2019. Zoë’s painting Terracotta Breakpoint II is part of Artist for Water 2022 supporting swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone.
It was early in the winter of 2020, deep into this pandemic, I received an invite to Crescent Beach in White Rock, BC for my first ever real plunge.
Now, I had been raised by outdoorsy parents who encouraged us to embrace the Pacific Northwest by adventuring in all types of weather and as a result, I was always up to try anything once. When I arrived at the shore, about a dozen women my age were pulling out various towels, robes, and water shoes, taking what I thought to be an exorbitant amount of time assembling themselves for what I assumed was a quick dip in our frigid ocean.
A group of cold water plungers preparing to take the plunge in the ocean. Photo: Zoë Pawlak.
Ever in a hurry to get on with things, I barrelled myself bravely straight into the ocean, dipped my head and hustled myself out just as soon as my dip was done.
Out of the water now, I watched as the focused women methodically walked themselves waist deep and then further still into the ice cold water, they did something remarkably unexpected: they stayed.
I turned to face them from the shore and said, “What exactly are you doing?” and they replied, “We stay in.” “For how long?!” I retorted. “Ten minutes.” shouted the brazen dozen.
Ten WHAT?! I was shocked.
I returned myself back into the water that day because of their resounding encouragement and from that day forward, have begun a ten-minute cold water plunging practice that I can no longer imagine my life without.
Cold water plungers wading through the icy water. Photo: Zoë Pawlak.
Deep in the middle of our generation's first global pandemic, many of us were desperate for anything that resembled community. We had been used to gathering, catching up, sharing our progress, plans, and lives. So, when the opportunity arose to take part in an activity outside, in the fresh air, spaced apart, even diving into freezing water seemed to have a jazzy appeal.
Ever the one to organize my friends, my community-gathering skills had been starved of all forms of assembly, so I gladly took to the task of setting up a morning time and location, and inviting a few wild ones that I knew would be up for the long dunk. From there, we have built a weekly practice that has shaped the past 18 months. The group changes, sometimes larger, sometimes just a few of us, but a few things remain constant.
For me, this weekly appointment with nature has become a holy, jubilant ritual that I really look forward to. When we get to the shore, we all comment on the weather and share some sincere conversation. We inevitably get to the part where we talk about how cold the water is going to be. No matter how long we have been doing it or how used to it we are, there is still that trepidation and excited adrenaline that keeps us moving in a forward motion towards something that feels challenging and fresh.
Much like a team sport, at group plunges, you get to have both a very individual and collective experience. We enter the water at our own pace, to the level that we like, but once in, the ritual of saying what we are thankful for begins.
A group plunge that depicts the individual and collective experience. Photo: Zoë Pawlak.
We go around the misshapen circle of our own various winter bodies and share about what was the highlight of the week, what we overcame or what breakthrough or revelation we had. No practice better connects me to the great poet, Mary Oliver, quite like this.
‘...Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.’ - Mary Oliver
Mary’s life was lived almost exclusively outdoors and her word sings praises to the great wonder of nature. I have seen suns rise that I never would have had I stayed in bed, I have met the deep whispers of wisdom that the morning has had for me. I have ‘stayed in’ when I wanted to ‘go’, I have built in myself, a deep capacity to follow through and weather what is happening regardless of how I would have willed that part of my story to be different.
The cold water has taught me that collectively we can endure much more through a spirit of lightheartedness than we can through defiance, that surrender is a far better process to apply to what's hard, than resistance, and in fact, that resistance makes everything truly more difficult. The ocean at its very starkest has stripped me of all the chatter of my mind. It has taken me in without reservation, when I have met it with routine. Cold water plunging has become one of my great Teachers, so I continue to take journey-sized steps into the water to honour my teacher.
The practice has shown me that friendship; sweet, sincere, reliable friendship and the gathering of humans meeting each other just exactly as we are, is a tender life raft that will carry us through.
Two of Zoë's friends and fellow cold water plungers. Photo: Zoë Pawlak.
Living during a pandemic, I can't think of a better practice to cultivate the two things I most desperately needed: resilience and community.
Many of us didn’t know each other pre-plunge and because people come and go from the practice, the weekly Saturday group ebbs and flows. We love when someone new comes for their very first time.
For the first timer, the love of this practice doesn’t necessarily start in the freezing water. While that part is full of adrenaline and fun, the love of plunging for first-timers often creeps up on them. It begins when they get back home, take that first warm shower, warm up and engage back into their day. They realize that they feel very at home in their body and many feel a warm calm over them for many hours post-plunge. This is the endorphins at play, having been released as the body’s reward. While the thrill of the dip and the subsequent benefits may be what get people coming out for the first time, it is the weekly appointment with nature and kindness of stranger-friends that keeps us coming back.
Like all meaningful practices, this one builds gems and teachings slowly inside you over time. Rather futile is any practice that you can’t carry into your everyday life, so I find that the integration of the lessons from the water to be imperative. When I hear difficult news or face something stressful at work, I’m now able to take more time to respond or know that we will find a way through.
The practice of cultivating equanimity is indeed being fortified daily inside me and that even when I'm deep in my regular week, all dressed up and dry on land, that the cold water is guiding my choices, urging my surrender and working it’s enduring magic on me.
Zoë making her way into a cold river in the summertime. Photo: Zoë Pawlak.