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Calm • Perspective

The Consolations of a Bath

It is easy to get carried away imagining a happy life. One mentally sketches the perfectly job, the ideal relationship, a wide set of fascinating yet always cheerful friends.

It’s lovely to think about such things, but to get very attached to these hopes is unhelpful: life perhaps just won’t live up to them. One will be forever disappointed. Which is why there’s a wisdom that focuses on the reliable pleasures and satisfaction that lie within our grasp. A hot bath fits into this category.

It’s best when the water is deep and, at first, almost too hot. You venture a foot, wince, and run a burst of cold. Slowly you lower yourself in. The water surges up round your sides as you go down, a little wave goes over the side – but you’ll live with that. You lie back and put a foot up by the taps, getting one knee into the warmth. Then you change legs.

There’s a little surge of gratitude as you think for what a tiny sliver of history this easy comfort has been around. This apparently modest achievement (a modest tub of liquid heated to X% of body temperature) is the outcome of epic labours: dams and reservoirs were constructed on distant rivers; people with broken fingernails laid the pipes; long dead inventors fretted at night to come up with the prototype non-drip tap; wind farm entrepreneurs, nuclear scientists, frogmen on oil rigs and mining engineers have ensured that hot water is constantly on hand.

Credit: Anna-Maria C Sviatko, from Flickr

The bath allows us to be both uncovered and cosy. Unless we inhabit a few favoured zones of the globe the physical environment is normally dispiritingly hostile: by day we have to swaddle our skin in careful layers of wool and cotton and at night, encase ourselves within sheets and duvets. Then, briefly, in the bath, none of that is necessary. A bath is an artificial warm afternoon in mid-summer. It is a return to the easy nakedness of our primal ancestors. And it echoes too the months when we first floated in warm water, in the little sealed bath of the womb, soothed by the rumblings of our mother’s digestive tract and growing a pancreas and some toes to the rhythm of her heart. The bath hints to the body of its distant past of complete contentment, before it was propelled across the horizon of birth into the imperfect world.

But the pleasure of the bath is primarily intellectual. Baths are ideal places to think. Their ability to ease us towards productive ideas is probably greater than that of the places we formally assign to such work: the office, the seminar room, the library or the laboratory. The reason is that our bigger thoughts generally don’t come when commanded. They tend to emerge when we’re not quite looking, like shy deer reluctant to come out of the shadows of the forest for fear of the hunter. The warm water lulls the nervous habits of the mind. We’re off the hook. We’re perfectly free not to think at all and – by the perverse logic of the brain – this actually makes thinking easier. We can risk being totally wrong, we can imagine adventurous scenarios, our fixed ideas can be set to aside just long enough for novel, and potentially better, ones to get a hearing.

Religions have long been ambitious around bathing. Hindu priests taught their followers to immerse themselves in the waters of the Ganges. In the ceremony to mark conversion to Judaism the candidate enters a deep pool. Christian baptism originally involved complete submersion. Religions sent people into water at big moments: when turning over a new leaf, starting afresh, getting another chance. As quite often happens in secular life, we are tentatively re-creating for ourselves personal versions of ancient sacred rituals. It’s not actually surprising that this happens, because religions were deeply concerned with the way a physical act – such as bathing – can affect the mind. They were very interested in getting devotees into the right mental state and were keen to use any resource that could help. Over a very long time they accumulated great expertise. We may not share their ultimate framework of belief, but their insight into the way the body can be the means of influencing the psyche are still useful. We too can turn to the bath when we wish to get ourselves into a better mental state.  

At a distance, we’re following in the footsteps of the great religions when we shut the bathroom door and turn on the hot tap. We’re not just looking to get clean. We’re trying to move on from the painful, offensive aspects of the day. We’re hoping the trauma will dissolve and gently loosen itself from us in the water. We’re seeking to liberate the better ambitions of our minds via a comfortable soak in the steaming waters of the bath.

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