John Douillard interviews author Scott Carney on how to tolerate a little more discomfort (which can be a good thing). Also, read more on the role mindfulness plays in controlling knee-jerk responses and building strength.
April 5, 2021 | 65 minutes, 22 seconds
The Gap Between Sensory Experience and Response
From the Ayurvedic perspective, healing, transformation, and our ability to expand our consciousness and glimpse our full human potential happen when we access something called sandhi, or the gap. In my podcast with Scott Carney, author of The Wedge, he describes the power of the gap, or wedge, in modern terms and the many ways we can achieve it. In 2011, Scott attended the very first seminar taught by famed “iceman” Wim Hof. There were just three students there. Shortly after that, Carney climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in just 30 hours—shirtless with Hof and just one other student, while the rest of the group turned back due to extreme conditions.
Some say Hof is a superhuman who can endure extremely cold temperatures. But how does someone like Carney, who is not a superhuman, nor an endurance athlete, perform what might be considered superhuman feats? Carney, who has spent countless hours with the iceman, makes it clear that Hof is not superhuman and that any of us can do what he does—with proper training and exposure.
Modern humans have been spoiled by 24/7, 365-day-a-comfort, moving from one 72-degree-Fahrenheit environment to another. But this is a relatively new convenience. Our recent ancestors had to hunt, grow, harvest, and prepare each meal from scratch, with many meals missed because of shortages. Staying warm in the winter meant sitting or sleeping near a fire. And we adapted wonderfully to the cold—and were healthier for it. Today, we are weaker without it! Carney describes the wedge, in the case of cold exposure, as that space between the sensory experience of the cold and your response to it. Jump into a freezing cold lake or shower and notice your instant response is to shiver and gasp. Your mind likely convinced you to start shivering before you even entered the shower. It subconsciously closed the gap between the sensation and response for you. Meaning the response to the sensation was instant, preprogrammed, and predictable—cold is bad!
With practice, Carney was able to widen the gap, or put a wedge between the cold sensation and the body’s response. Carney found that the more comfortable he became with cold exposure, including shirtless winter running and ice baths, the more he was able to relax into the experience and witness the cold sensation and the predicted response. He found that with practice, he was able to control the response and slip into the wedge—or a mindful space where he could create a peaceful, calm response to what was once perceive as a major stressor or threat. He says we all have the ability to do this. In fact, it’s called hormesis, which essentially is a manifestation of the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” There are studies that back up cold exposure as a way to elicit a strong immune response.
Through practice, a once-numbing cold shower can become a relaxing enjoyable shower. With practice, stressors that were once overwhelming can be transformed into a deep state of self-awareness or inner stillness.
Ayurveda and Finding the Gaps in Your Life
Learning how to stay calm in the face of fear by widening this gap or wedge between stimulation and response is an ancient Vedic principle used for healing, transformation, and spirituality. In nature, these gaps, such as the equinox or solstice, are transitional periods when cleansing and healing are optimal.1 On a daily basis, there are circadian rhythm shifts with gaps between each cycle that are subtle windows for spiritual and physiological transformation.2 Ayurvedic marma points used for healing are the actual gaps or junction points between joints, muscles, and bones.3 There are also gaps between breaths in many pranayamas, represented by kumbhaka, breath holds—a technique that is called intermittent hypoxia in Western science and is linked to self-healing.4 Lastly, the longer the space between each heartbeat, the better your heartrate variability and the more relaxed and healthy you are. In Ayurveda, we train for this with Ujjayi Pranayama.6 Additionally, practices like slow yoga allow you to experience the gap between stillness and dynamic movement.7
The cause and cure for all disease, according to Ayurveda, is found at the junction point between consciousness and matter. In quantum physics, an underlying vibrational field shifts to become atomic particles and the human body. It’s when the body forgets that it came from this underlying field of energy (called pragya paradh or the mistake of the intellect) that it is susceptible to disease
The key to to restoring the memory of wholeness is to take our awareness to the place where the quantum field meets human physiology, which we can consider a gap. While our minds may be challenged to experience this gap, techniques like yoga, breathing, and meditation have been shown to wake us up or bring awareness to these spaces. Bringing the body’s attention to this gap, junction point, or wedge allows the body to become aware of both the physiology and the underlying field of consciousness. Much like a lamp in a doorway shines light in both rooms, our awareness can act to restore the memory of consciousness and wholeness into the broken parts or our bodies.
The Power of Stillness and Co-Existing Opposites
Practicing widening the gap in meditation or with breathing practices trains your brain to be comfortable in that place of silence (or cold) and postpones an immediate immune or survival response, like shivering and gasping. Meditation, repeating a mantra, or witnessing the breath teaches the mind to be still like a morning lake while being alert at the same time. Learning how to master the gap, or wedge is really about training the body and mind to mimic nature in its most powerful forms. In Ayurveda, this is thought of as the co-existing opposites—a concept that fascinated me in my early days when I was researching the runner’s high, in which athletes would say “my best race was my easiest race.” Athletes would report slipping into states of superhuman performance, in which the mind was still while the body was breaking a world record. Roger Bannister said when he broke the four-minute mile in 1959 that, “I felt like the world was standing still, like I was going slow.” Yet he was running faster than any person had run before.
The co-existence of opposites is when the most powerful forces in nature co-exist with silence. The gap or wedge, as Carney calls it, is being able to experience both of them at the same time. Hurricanes, solar systems, and atoms have silent centers with powerful forces spinning around them. In fact, the bigger the calm, silent mass at the center, the more powerful the force it creates around it.
Test it out for yourself and try working your way up to a shiver-less cold shower. Listen to the podcast to learn more about how.
Podcast Show Notes
In this episode of the Ayurveda Meets Modern Science podcast, host John Douillard, DC, CAP, interviews best-selling author Scott Carney (also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) about the secret to human resilience and how we can control our responses to stressful events, including the bitter cold, through awareness and mindfulness practices. Carney is author of The Wedge, about the limits of endurance. Watch The Wedge book trailer and learn more about the book here.
More Resources on Human Resilience
- Wim Hof Method
- Tibetan Yoga: Principles and Practices, by Ian Baker
- Brian Mackenzie
- New York Times: Sensory Deprivation Tanks Find New Converts
- Justin Feinstein, PhD
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Ayurveda Meets Modern Science is hosted by LifeSpa Founder John Douillard, DC, CAP, produced by Alanna Zelac, and edited by Kumara Etzel.