Americans don’t bathe much. Oh, they stay plenty clean by showering and showering may even be a better way to get clean. A bath is not so much about getting clean but more about soaking and getting relaxed, maybe very relaxed, and that might be why Americans don’t bathe. Just today, in a conversation with a lady friend, she admitted that the last time she took a hot bath she couldn’t lift herself out of the tub she was so relaxed. It is a fearsome thing to get that relaxed, and many of us are in no shape, both in body and mind, to dare it.
The ancient Romans loved their baths and plunked down elaborate bathhouses wherever they conquered. The best way to civilize a barbarian is to get him to bathe or so those ancient Romans must have thought. Their baths were as large as swimming pools and came in varieties from very hot to tepid to cold to suit every mood and temperament. Business and politics were conducted at the baths and they must have discovered that after a hard day of conquering or cheering the blood spectacles at the coliseum, there was nothing like a hot bath to soothe and calm the nerves and muscles.
The other famous bathing culture is the Japanese. They don’t usually wash in the bath just soak and socialize and relax. It is something of a mystery to me how the Japanese can be so technologically advanced, hard working, and industrious and at the same time be a bathing culture. Perhaps one of the keys to their success is that they have learnt to enjoy and indulge their need for relaxation in their baths and it has proven to be the renewal they need that allows them to work hard, when they must, and to succeed at what they do.
A shower can happen in a few minutes. A bath should take some time, maybe a half-hour or more, in order to obtain the benefits it can offer. There is almost nothing that I can think of that is more relaxing than a warm or hot bath. It is almost impossible to stay tense when immersed in pleasantly warm water. Muscles will inevitably have to relax, tensions melt, and even the cares and concerns of daily life start to melt away in a warm soak. It is almost impossible to resist and that may be the problem. Do we want to get that relaxed? Will we ever recover enough to function again? It is a real fear.
We have a whole nervous system devoted to rest and relaxation and it is called the parasympathetic. Those nerves oppose the sympathetic nerves that give us the fight or flight response. And it is fight or flight that often defines how we feel and react most of our waking moments. Stress, tension, drive, ambition, identity, ego exist in this realm of the sympathetic nerves. It is where we often feel we are centered and from where we derive our essential being. But there is another realm of existence, expressed through the parasympathetic nerves, as natural to our being yet often smothered and rarely heard from. And yet it is quite natural to indulge this other side of our being, to rest, relax, release, and to feel easy, peaceful, and pleased, but how much of that do we ever really see in the world? It rarely seems to happen. There is a real hesitation, even fear, of peace and ease and rest. It may appear too sweet an indulgence, a dangerous surrender and too very seductive; that it will drain us of will power, drive, ego and ambition and that we cannot let happen. No, not ever.
So we avoid the bathtub and soaking in it. There is real danger there and it is to be avoided at all costs. Our very identity, our sense of self, can melt in the tub and be washed away and that we cannot let happen. So shower, get on with your busy life, and don’t look back. But if your racing heart, tensed muscles, and fevered brain have ever had enough, then slip into a tub and find out, at last, what you have been missing.