Poet and speaker, David Whyte, likes to sprinkle his talks about poetry, creativity, and philosophy with wry references to the “fully realized hot tub humans in California”. (1) I understand the stereotype he gently mocks; those who believe enlightenment will come easily through the pursuit of pseudo-spiritual states of ‘bliss out’. The remark never fails to make me smile and wince, because I am one of those humans. Sort of. Here’s the case for my thesis. You be the judge.
My love affair with hot tubs started, appropriately, with sex. Not just any sex, but passionate, sensual, first-of-its-kind cosmic sex in a backyard Jacuzzi. You don’t have to be a brain scientist to imagine the neurological frenzy that ensued of mapping the erotic pleasuring of the body with heated water and air jets. Scientifically speaking, repetition of the experience created a finely tuned sequence of synaptic firings that ensured a conditioned response. In other words, just dipping my toe into hot water began to make me feel happy. And this was good.
Then came the first visit to Esalen, where I went to look for myself during my early 30’s. I was transfixed by the nirvana of those mineral baths, perched above the cliffs, full of contentedly naked people. Being considerably “plus-size”, it took a lot of courage to bare all in order to join the Esalenites in their sacred spring. But this act of bravery proffered the most important gift of that trip. The implicit acceptance of all body types—fat, old, skinny, dangly, wobbly bodies relaxing together without a care in the world—radically shifted three decades of internalized shame around being fat. Facilitating that enlightened view of our physical being was a level of consciousness and intelligence I had never experienced before. My brain map of hot tubs acquired an enduring component of Mind and Spirit and Healing.
The next 20 years brought divorce, single motherhood, unrequited love, financial insecurity, a moribund creative life, illness, grief and loss…the usual stuff. Survival instincts led to a focused pursuit of healing experiences, which eventually zeroed in on everything mythic and Jungian. During a really stressful few years where it seemed like my life was a case study for all top ten psycho-social stressors, I found myself retreating to a local hot tub resort more and more frequently. This haven of private little hot tubs, with a view of lake, sunset and stars, became my secret retreat. The silence and solitude allowed me to reflect, sob, sing, dance, create, float, and even pray to whatever god was alive in my imagination at the time. And this, I propose, has become my highly personalized spiritual practice.
Not Zazen. Spazen. You think I jest? Let me lay out the evidence.
Transformational Elements of Hot Tubbing
Let’s take a (slightly) more academic and considered approach hot tub bliss. Can hot tubbing be seriously considered as a spiritual practice? Let’s start by defining spiritual practice as a set of behaviors, performed regularly, that facilitate a greater sense of connection to that which transcends the personal ego—whether you call it God, Goddess, Great Spirit, the Self, the Tao, or the Evolutionary Impulse of the Unfolding Universe. Spiritual practices come in a variety of denominations, structures, frequencies, and intensities. Most importantly, though, is that the practice fit the person: it should suit you. If your spiritual practice does not fit into your lifestyle, inspire, reflect, replenish and enliven you, it will ultimately fail. This is a truth I hold to be self-evident. I encourage dissidents to write their own essay.
How, you may be wondering, can this quintessentially California New Age, hedonistic activity be considered transformational and not self-indulgent? First, I never said it was not self-indulgent. Second, there are many layers of my personal hot tubbing experiences that contribute to its elevation from the merely recreational to the nearly transcendental. There is the sequence of events, which closely mirrors Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey (fodder for another essay); the ease of creative expression that occurs regularly—singing, expressive movement, and composition happens without much effort; and, although brief and rare, the experience of having ‘no thoughts’. But for this essay, my focus will be on the aspects that synergistically create a temenos, or sacred space, where my practice can occur.
Most spiritual practices occur in a particular place that has been set aside and protected specifically for that purpose. You don’t find folks meditating in the meat department at the supermarket, or reading the Torah on the toilet. The temenos is an important element in most spiritual traditions, and H-TASP is no different. (Hot-Tubbing As Spiritual Practice. One cannot discuss a new concept anymore without resorting to an acronym, so we have now gotten that out of the way.) The temenos, in this case, is created by the physical features of the place as well as the inclusion of the four Classical Elements (air, water, earth, and fire). In my particular location, the hot tubs are located on a natural hillside in a large county park, overlooking a lake and the wonderful San Gabriel Mountain range. The natural beauty of the place, and its relative seclusion in the midst of freeways and the suburban sprawl of Greater Los Angeles set it apart. As do the semi-enclosed huts that provide privacy as well as a view. Even more significantly though, is the presence and interplay of the four Classical Elements —Earth, Water, Fire, and Air--which have been integral components of philosophical, psychological, and spiritual systems across Western and Eastern thought for millennia.
First, you must have Earth: a tub made of wood, concrete, tile, etc. The mythic symbolism of Earth includes pre-rational matter, the body, containment, grounding, structure, and physical security. It provides the holding that is required for any kind of altered state experience to occur. Christians built cathedrals, and the Druids had their henges. All we need here is a human sized cauldron into which we can pour the Waters—the most powerful ingredient. Water holds many archetypal images and energies: the primordial Mother and the emotional security attached to that; the shape-shifting unconscious world of dream and symbol; the merging and dissolving of defenses and boundaries; and most importantly, our emotions, which are by their very nature, irrational. Experientially, we can recreate a womb-like state of being, silently floating with nothing but the sound of blood and heartbeat. Think about how soothing a hot shower or bubble bath is for fractured thoughts and frayed nerves, and the point will be made. Now that we are adding Fire to Water, simply by heating it up, we amplify this process of physical release, relaxation, and …melting…into less “doing” and more “being”. Paradoxically, heat also increases the energy necessary to turn all that inchoate emotional stuff into insight, much like turning on the burner beneath the stew pot will eventually transform raw ingredients into digestible food. On its own, Fire also carries the ancient symbolism of Spirit, non-rational intuition, and creative inspiration so essential to the emergence of anything new. Last, but not least, our wonderful hot tubs bring the element of Air into an important role. Those air jets (cunningly invented by the Jacuzzi brothers after emigrating from Italy to Berekely) introduce the element associated with Mind and conscious awareness. Rational thought allows us to make sense of things, create meaning, and then communicates that in some way through words or images. And this completes the classic quaternity of the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. But wait, there’s more!
Let’s take a quick look at Jung’s theories of the four basic functions within the human psyche: Sensation (processing information via the body and five senses), Intuition (processing information via that undefined “sixth sense), Feeling (assigning value via emotions), and Thinking (assigning value via logic). These functions or processes are part of every human’s psychological makeup, and each of us has different capacities for each function which combine to create our unique selves, along with the concomitant strengths and challenges. Each of us has a “dominant function”, our greatest strength, and an “inferior function”, the process we have the least capacity for. Jung further argues that material from the unconscious and the transpersonal Self—that which can lead to our healing and wholeness--comes mostly through the inferior function, which he states is “…practically identical with the dark side of the human personality”. (2)
Getting back to the personal story, and what has made H-TASP significant, is the fact that my inferior function is introverted sensation-- the interior experience of one’s own physical being. Like many American women with weight issues, becoming deeply attuned and present in the body has required a tremendous amount of self-compassion over a very long learning curve. Countless hours spent in those secluded, quiet pools of hot, bubbly water have enabled me to establish a ritual, a practice, by which I am able to accept and relax into my physical being, feel into and move through emotions that have been socked away in muscle and tissue, in order to reconnect to the calm, still place beyond my overactive conscious ego-self. That, in turn, has fed my creative voice immeasurably. In fact, the idea for this essay came during a good soak! I do not claim to receive answers to my questions or solutions to my problems, but I seldom leave my spiritual practice without feeling a greater sense of integration, well-being, and trust. Bringing the conversation full-circle, I have also grown more comfortable with myself as an embodied—and full bodied—sexual being, which means I’m bringing more to the table in terms of that ‘inferior function’ issue discussed above. I challenge anyone who merely meditates, prays, or chants to say that helps their sex lives. Case closed.
1. Whyte, David, Thresholds of Presence: Courageous Conversations for Difficult Times, live workshop, January 15-17, 2010, Watsonville, CA.
2. “Jung has called the least-developed function in each individual the inferior function. It is the least conscious and the most primitive, or undifferentiated… Since it is less consciously developed, the inferior function may also serve as a way into the unconscious. Jung has said that it is through our inferior function that which is least developed in us, that we see God. By struggling with and confronting inner obstacles, we can come closer to the Divine”. Excerpt from Personality and Personal Growth (6th ed.), Frager, R., & Fadiman, J. (2005). New York: Pearson Prentice Hall pg. 56: http://www.itp.edu/about/carl_jung.php
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