Ben Ahlers is an actor, writer, and producer in New York City. He spent several months in Tromso, which has grown to feel like a second home. He will be joining our page as an occasional columnist. He can be found on Instagram @benahlers.
From the outside, Tromso feels like a secret. A quiet northern paradise, tucked away in the mystical mountains of the arctic, it’s been protected as a commitment to its beauty by its locals. I had never heard of it prior to meeting my girlfriend, Laura, and I still can’t quite pronounce it. But in today’s day of globalization and internet marketing, more and more people from around the world have caught on to its magic. Tourist shops and the crowded airport prove – someone can’t keep a secret.
Sorry to add to the crowd. As a New Yorker, coming from the fast paced, (sometimes) mean streets of downtown Manhattan, arriving here felt like stopping in the middle of traffic. Amidst the calm of low season, I traded the chaos of the city streets with a confrontation with my own inner life. Adapting to the fast-paced chaos of New York winds you up. I think fast, talk faster, and walk at a pace most people would call a slow run. Sitting still? Who’s got the time? I was forced to sit down and deal with the subsequent mental whiplash.
Welcomed by the beautiful people at Pust, the cafe became my refuge. A cup of coffee in hand, I was so touched by the kindness and enthusiasm of people each day, cafe regulars always lending a helping hand, dear friends of the employees, and some people just passing through the city, a photographer and yoga instructor who live out of their van still come to mind. Amidst this warmth, I found solace, yet underneath a river of habitual thought patterns and unprocessed stress bubbled to the surface without my constant movement to distract me. There seemed to be no escape.
Five minutes away, however, sat a floating temple in the quiet harbor – the sauna. Now, excuse the melodrama, but after living over one of New York’s busiest late night bars for a year, any quiet place boarders on sacred. I’ve been an avid sauna user for years. And soon, daily sauna practice became a ritual for me, the Tromsalstinden looming high above. Each day, it felt like I had 45 minutes to purge whatever was blocking me up. Whether alone or with other health-minded people, I could feel the sense of home in the space, a quiet cave away from the rest of my waking life.
The second half of the sauna ritual – the cold plunge – was a different story. I had seen all the Instagram reels and podcasts on the new fitness fad. I’ve been welcome to several friends’ homes to utilize their commercial cold plunges. It’s a hell of a feeling afterward, and I was eager to “dive in” in a more natural, immersive environment.
Boy, was I surprised. I’d say the difference between the Arctic Ocean and a commercially produced cold plunge is like the difference between driving a Ferrari and riding a tricycle. They’re completely different things.
For one, there’s no escape. The water in a small cold plunge warms up from your body heat over time. You make no impact on Mother Nature.
Secondly, to be engulfed in the ocean carries a feeling more epic and whole. The experience is far more intense than a bathtub in your friend’s backyard. And early on, jumping in with seasoned regulars, I noticed it would take me awhile to adjust to the difference. Many people have their own protocols and takeaways, but I thought I’d share mine.
I’ve never been good at time limits. There’s something excruciating about the way time can bend when you are praying for the seconds to go by. Two hours with the love of your life can go by in five minutes. And two minutes in the freezing ocean can feel like a lifetime.
I prefer to “count walls.” A wall is a moment of resistance, the “Oh f***,” where you need to get out. I try to meet this place and rest through it to the other side – to an inner feeling of stability- and then wait patiently for the next wall to come. Two or three of these walls, followed by a brief meditation without the help of the sauna, will get your teeth chattering, and your vibe elevated for hours. And now that I’m away from Tromso and writing this essay, I’m getting hungry for the next chance to jump in.
But with all things, whether its cold plunge or meditation or journaling or any other self help venture, the real work begins away from the practice. And as I’ve been away from Tromso now, for a few months, one mantra keeps playing back to me as I try to hold the wisdom from my time there.
The only way out is through.
When I dive into the almost freezing ocean, I’m confronted with sensory over load. It feels as if the ocean swallows me into a frozen block of ice. It’s quite jarring, a notably claustrophobic experience. At the most basic, instinctual level, dipping one toe into the freezing water would be enough to send the normal human being running, never to return. Gazing into the water, though, there seems to be a teacher, a deeper understanding to turn to. Humans have always been seduced by the sea, even if covered in ice. But through consistency, continuing to just show up, my effort taught me something: I have a great deal of agency in my suffering.
The cold is cold. It’s not going to be anything but cold. Trying to fight it, to push through, adds to the struggle. In that initial moment of panic, I try to give myself a soft reminder, in order to feel this at all, there has to be a part of me that’s strong enough to endure it.
I’m in the process of enduring no matter how much my brain resists. As the alarm bells and stress signals fire without end, the mind becomes a storm.
How can you stop a storm? Can you go in the middle of a snow storm with a lighter and melt the snow? Can you push back the wind? Can you catch the rain before it hits the ground? Or can you let the storm be the storm?
One may call this surrender. To let the cold be the cold and for you to be undeterred, creates a distance, a bit of wiggle room to stand peacefully unmoved in the chaos. I learn to cohabitate with it, to adjust, to engage in a bit of a dance. Since I’m no longer blocking, denying, avoiding, the energy is allowed to move freely, and eventually pass, as all things do. The only way out is through.
In our modern times, many of us feel overwhelmed, claustrophobic, endlessly flooded with input. Sensory overload is the norm. The average life today brings anxiety, distraction, disassociation. There often seems to be no way out. When I enter the cold and surrender to its power, I find a soft place inside that no one can touch. And returning to the practice as often as I can, the more familiar that soft place inside becomes. To live a life without stress, without pain, without fear is a child’s wish. That is its own form of resistance and destructive fantasizing. But to be able to sit with pain, to give yourself a bit of a buffer, a little space, a small – breath – you’re able to decide with full control and responsibility how you act. And soon, the enemy of the cold – now a friend – helps to shape and welcome the real me who sits patiently waiting, calmly in the eye of the storm.
The changes Tromsø, and each of us, will continue to undergo over the coming years of global reshaping will feel scary, chaotic, confusing. But if each of us make the daily effort to find and nurture the deeper place inside of us, the more freedom and flexibility we’ll have to deploy all of our wisdom and effort to guide the direction of our lives and our culture with compassion and balance.