Many people consider winter to be a grin-and-bear-it season, the clammy feet and numb fingertips an unwelcome challenge, maybe even cause for depression. But what if we could recast the harsh, dark months as an opportunity for attentiveness, a gateway to clarity and fleeting beauty? How does place influence practice? How does climate interact with meditation? The Zen of cold—is that a thing? 

In December, I took a break from writing a long personal essay about working in Antarctica (I’m a chionophile, a lifelong lover of cold and snow) to call my friend Beth O’Halloran for her thoughts on the subject. From previous conversations, I knew she had plenty. She picked up the phone and immediately told me, with glee in her voice, that Ireland, where she lives, was currently experiencing record-breaking low temps. Perfect!

Beth is an educator, Zen practitioner, and visual artist, and her drawings illustrate the book Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, a collection of letters and diary entries written by her older sister Maura O’Halloran, one of the first Western women to train in a traditional Japanese monastery. (Maura died in 1982 and is often referred to as the “Irish Zen Saint.”) Beth also spent years on the cushion overseas, but she emphasized, at the start of our discussion, that her take on the relationship of cold to Zen is unscholarly. Put another way: Beth isn’t a detached expert—she’s an engaged chionophile, her words those of a woman who appreciates the contemplative dimensions of winter and enjoys remembering her time as a monk.

I want to talk about cold, but first, what’s your backstory with Zen? My sister Maura is a bit of a Buddhist rock star. She was 14 years older than me and traveled to Japan in the late 1970s. Moving into a monastery was a happy accident—she was just up for things, looking for experiences—and she took to Zen like a duck to water. At the age of 27, she became an enlightened Zen master. While traveling in Thailand on her way home to Ireland, where she planned to open a Zen center in Dublin, she was killed in a bus accident.

I was 14 when Maura died. She was a huge influence on me—I read a whole lot of Zen philosophy in my teens—and it always seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do: move into a monastery. That said, it happened unexpectedly for me, as it did for her. I was living in New York City in my 20s, trying to make it as an artist. I went to Japan, assuming I’d stay a few months, take a short break from the urban grind, maybe draw some monks, maybe go to a monastery on the weekends, as if it was Mass or something.

Beth O’Halloran | Photo by Fionn McCann

I landed in Okayama, which happened to have an intense training monastery—Sogenji, a 300-year-old Rinzai temple—run by Shodo Roshi. The first visit was all it took. It was January, really cold, with a thick dawn fog, and I didn’t know where to go. I heard this thud-thud-thud from the meditation hall, like a lovely slow heartbeat, and followed it to the open-to-the-public Sunday sitting. You have to take off your shoes and socks in the hall, and I remember the image of everybody’s little pink frozen toes. I was mesmerized by the entire place and soon after asked if I could move in permanently. I ended up staying three years.

I like the image of those pink frozen toes. Can you say more about the climate and conditions at Sogenji? Japan has a lot of variation in climate because it’s so long. The northern island of Hokkaido is practically kissing Russia, so they get proper Siberian cold, and that’s where Maura trained. Okayama is in the middle of the country, so I experienced severe snowy winters but also incredibly hot summers. There was a sesshin every month at Sogenji, a full week devoted entirely to meditation. The schedule lightens up around May, when the heat arrives and it’s just too hard to concentrate, then picks up again in September. The whole calendar is a big buildup to the eighth of December, the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and this challenging sesshin called Rohatsu, where you’re encouraged to sit for twenty-four hours a day in full lotus.

“The cold helped you see, and hopefully pass through, your agitation.”

In our training, that was the epitome of harshness. The meditation hall was a low-ceilinged space with a small kerosene heater. After every twenty-five-minute sit, you were allowed to move your legs, and then after an hour you’d do kinhin, walking meditation. But get this: they’d open all the windows and all the doors, so whatever heat might have built up vanished. I used to think: Noooo! My ears and fingers would routinely suffer from frostnip. 

This tradition can’t have arisen without somebody being aware that the mind is going to fixate on the discomfort of the cold specifically. Is it fair to say that the cold is the practice? Absolutely. Your shoulders want to curl up. Your hands want to disappear into your sleeves. It was always an interesting internal conversation: I’ve chosen to be here—I’m not here against my will, like in a prison—and yet it’s so torturously uncomfortable! My ears feel like they’re bleeding! When will the bell ring? Like life outside the monastery, there’s always something—some sensation or some circumstance—to blame for why we’re in such a bad mood, for the discomfort and emotional upset in our lives. In my understanding, part of the significance of the cold is that it was so enormous and clear to define. It blotted out the small stuff and made you aware of your habits of resistance. It helped you see, and, hopefully, pass through, your agitation. And it was unifying because everybody was feeling it.

There’s also a physiological element. At the heart of Zen is a narrowing of focus, a narrowing that ultimately leads to expansiveness, openness. The point of concentration is in your gut, your tanden, two inches below the belly button. There’s a lot of talk in the tradition about different ways to help a person focus on that area, and the Roshi would often say it’s much harder to sit in the heat because the chi rises to your head—you get that flopsy, light-headed sensation. When it’s cold, the body naturally sends blood to the main organs, so your appendages hurt, but there’s this razor-sharp focus. He’d enact it with his hands, like pushing a big marshmallow down, like mercury dropping in a thermometer. Same with our energy.

So, cold as a somatic technique for short-circuiting thought? That’s what the whole thing is about: instead of the jittery analytical mind, you have the slow attentive mind. So much of monastery life, from t’ai chi exercises to sweeping the floor, was meant to get you back to that below-the-belly-button place. The Roshi would say: see from your tanden. He also used to talk about the mind as a snow globe, all shaken up, but with practice, we can watch the snow drift gently down and settle.

Sogenji’s pagoda in the winter | Photo courtesy Beth O’Halloran

I want to read you a quote from writer Anders Morley, who skied solo across Canada with a heavy sled of gear. At one point, he’s on the Great Plains at dusk, totally exposed, and he sees an abandoned shack and considers pitching his tent inside of it for extra protection, but there’s no time to ruminate. He writes: “In deep cold the thoughts that under other circumstances punctuate actions are absorbed into the movements themselves, resulting in a stream-of-consciousness activity.” Yes. I thought of polar explorers all the time at the monastery, particularly during Rohatsu, because it was such a physical ordeal requiring resilience and grit. It always conjured up survival stories, people who find themselves, either by choice or by accident, in severe environments. 

Seems to me that wilderness travelers and Zen meditators are in many cases seeking a similar state of being. Both are trying—it’s a cliche, but it’s true—to live in the moment. The Roshi used to say it all the time: you have to live as if you’re on the knife’s edge. No matter how cold and hungry and hard your experience here at Sogenji, remember that this is basically playtime. You’re pretending to do something extreme. It’s like a laboratory experiment. This isn’t real life. We call it training because it’s preparing you for something else, something real, something that will be difficult—a friend dying, a pandemic, life beyond the monastery walls. Act as though this is your last breath. It could be.

We can emphasize the severity and strictness of Rinzai Zen, but as your teacher said, sitting in the meditation hall is essentially a game. Thinking about the playful, joyous aspects of cold brings a quote from Maura’s diary to mind: “After shoveling snow in the sunshine, my body felt strong, straight, and young. It was wonderful striding through the snow, shovel on my shoulder, breeze in my hair.” She was shoveling the roof of her rural temple, as I recall. Maura was a fun person—really, really alive—and she wrote with a similar exuberance about the monthly door-to-door begging called takuhatsu. Even though it’s snowy, you wear a pair of sandals made from string, like a loop over your toe, and that’s it. Maura described doing that in the Hokkaido cold: the sharpness of the air, the thrill and challenge of winter. 

In Okayama, one particular takuhatsu was bitterly cold, and this very sweet elderly lady invited us to rest in her yard. She brushed snow from the chairs, put down these lace doilies on the seats as cushions, and presented us with a giant bowl of matcha green tea and another of mochi rice dumplings. I still remember it so vividly, like a tattoo in my mind: the wooden cups in our hands and the steam rising, the rectangle of lemony winter sunlight on the ground, and all these pink frozen toes gravitating toward it. My Japanese was crap—it was cause for embarrassment—but we had a warm, joyous time, and everybody was brimming with gratitude. That was a life-affirming moment. Because we were so sensitized by the cold, we felt more alive.