The notion of a misogi practice is brilliantly simple. Design an exercise challenge so audacious that you’re not even sure you can complete it, search your circle of friends for the few that might “get it”, then come together towards the end of the year and try your damnedest to finish whatever it is you’ve set out to do.
You’re asking, “Um yeah, but why?”
Misogi (禊, mee-so-gee) is a borrowed term in our context. In Shinto Japanese it refers to a ritual of purification of the body and mind. While the traditional practice itself is not specific it has frequently been a “cold water ritual”. A common form is for practitioners to stand under the flow of a freezing cold waterfall, in winter, nearly naked while chanting mantras.
The upside may not be immediately obvious. The intent is to place oneself in a situation that fosters a mental wrestling match; one where thoughts of quitting as a way to end the pain and discomfort are forced away and supplanted with beliefs of strength and courage.
Enduring an ordeal like this brings with it valuable teachings. You’ll reveal stamina you may not have otherwise discovered and in so doing you’ll redefine the limits of what you believe to be possible. Then, and most importantly, this knowledge can be drawn upon when life inevitably presents other seemingly insurmountable situations — knowing absolutely — that you have the fortitude to withstand whatever it is you’re confronted with.
In recent years a few folks have adopted the misogi philosophy and replaced the cold water exposure with heroic binges of exercise. The most familiar story may be of NBA player Kyle Korver and friends who carried an 85-pound rock 5 kilometers across the bottom of the ocean. For Korver, his annual misogi is something he draws upon to help him survive the grind of the 82 game pro basketball season¹.
Ultra-endurance athlete David Goggins, who may well be the toughest man on the planet, has developed a misogi-like mentality that he’s used to achieve what should be humanly impossible. He’s come up with a concept he calls the “Cookie Jar” — his personal collection of the obstacles and hardships he’s overcome that he “reaches into” during trying times as reminders, “as fuel” he says, to keep fighting².
With a misogi practice, you too can begin developing a similar mindset, one that doesn’t accept the perceived limits on ability, one that persists in the face of adversity, one that you can use to begin building an inventory of experiences — reminders that you have the resilience to persevere during life’s most challenging times.
There are no hard and fast rules around the design of a misogi practice, and while I have no authority to dictate how one should be assembled, I’ve given this topic much thought and believe there are some important elements that should be incorporated whenever possible:
50% Chance of Success— This is perhaps the most critical element of a misogi practice. The difficulty level needs to be at the edge of your ability and beyond your comfort level. The design needs to be hard enough that when you envision it you are not certain you will be able to complete it, and that when you are doing it, you are forced to fight the temptation to quit. Remember that even though this is physical exercise in form, it is training of the mind that we are after and that is only achieved by slogging through uncertainty and discomfort.
No Specific Training — You shouldn’t specifically train for a misogi practice. Recall that we are preparing for the unpleasant surprises that life throws at us and we certainly aren’t given advanced notice and time to train ahead of those events. That said, there should definitely be an overlap of your current level of fitness and the demands of your misogi. In the end battered, sore, and exhausted is fine but seriously injured and out of commission misses the point.
Get Outdoors — Rain, wind, cold, high surf, heat, etc. We are preparing ourselves to be better equipped to navigate uncertain and uncomfortable periods. If you can do your misogi practice outside, where you are exposed to some of these random elements, all the better. We aren’t sheltering from the “weather” of life. Get outside, if you can.
Shared Experience — Your misogi experience should be shared with a small group of close friends. Life is not something we navigate alone and we sometimes need to utilize the strength of others, or to offer ours, to get through it. Misogi is an opportunity to practice that. Also, it’s awesome when a past misogi is the furthest thing from your mind and one of your coparticipant friends says “Remember that time we…”
Frequency and Timing — The target for a misogi practice routine should be once per year. Beyond one year the recency and its potency as an experience from which inspiration can be drawn diminishes. Contrarily, if you are performing misogi multiple times per year you should examine the efforts and ensure they‘re “big enough” to have the intended effect.
I believe the best time to undertake a misogi is at the very end of the year, days before the new year (or just after). Use it as a purification ritual, a catharsis, to let go of the passing year, and as a launchpad to blast into the coming year with momentum and renewed energy.
Be Creative — Take the train to a stop 50 miles away and run/walk home? Do burpee broad jumps down the beach for a couple of miles? Carry a sofa through the night up to the top of a 14,000-foot peak for sunrise. How about a vertical 5K on the climbing wall? The equivalent of Mount Everest on a stair master? All been done by the way. Put your thinking cap on — the possibilities are endless.
What if I Fail? — You’d think that a misogi designed with a 50% chance of success would carry with it an equal chance of failure, but this is an illusion — success is baked in so long as you show up and give it everything you’ve got. Quite simply, there is no way you can come away from a misogi, even if you’ve fallen short of your goal, without a better understanding of your own mind - real, tangible insight into your brain’s reaction to discomfort, where your limits currently are (and aren’t), what’s preventing you from going further, and ideas about how you might be able to think differently to absolutely smash it next time.
It should also be said that fear of failure is probably the most powerful force working against us. It sets our boundaries for what we deem possible and our minds go to great lengths to ensure there’s plenty of safety fencing between us and the failure cliff. Only by climbing over the guardrail and going out to the edges will you truly learn where the limits lie.
So you might fail? Good!
But what if you discover the edge isn’t as close as you thought it was?