The Russian Baths are a 100+ year-old bathhouse in the East Village. I go about twice a week. It’s my church. It’s a sacred experience and a shared one, where bathers sweat together in 350 degree heat. Something sort of psychedelic takes place down there, in the dungeon-like bowels of 10th Street in New York, a sort of collective energy where bathers’ bodies reach death-defying levels of heat as their brains respond with a flood of chemicals-dopamine to be exact-in response to the body’s belief that it is dying. At least that’s how it’s been explained to me anyway.
There’s a shared high happening. I think it has something to do with the feel-good chemicals that promote bonding as well as the fact that this is a ritual, and group rituals are a collaborative effort towards a common goal. The goal here is to cleanse. Detox the body and the soul. When I exit the baths back out onto the streets, it’s as if anything toxic that ever took place above ground has fallen away.
It’s also an exercise in slaying the ego. Doing anything that is uncomfortable and you are keeping your ego in check. You are showing the part of you that likes to be in control who’s really boss and who is really boss is your true self, before it got corrupted by family, religion, society, etc., whoever told you who you need to be in order to survive in the physical world. Which is a bunch of baloney anyway so it’s good to quiet the ego.
Something that I find underlines the baths camaraderie is the attire. You’re given a robe, swim trunks, or a towel. Or you my B.Y.O. bathing suit. But gone is your real world armor and self-expression. The baths uniform is the great equalizer. I tend to judge guys based in part on the shoes they wear, but here, all men are created equal in their salmon-colored, plastic shower sandals. You can see celebrities down there-but you almost wouldn’t know it. Reclining about in their sad, thin bath towel, they look and therefore are treated just like civilians.
So we sweat and suffer together, half-naked and non-judgemental in our half-nakedness. And it gets me wondering something I tend to not like to wonder about because I love clothes-is this sort of physical uniformity and nakedness something that supports our goal here? We destroy our ego and whittle ourselves down to a spirit level. Our true self can’t hide behind the clothes we choose, with our ego-affirming convictions. I am *this person* so I wear *that* kind-of-intention. Without our above-ground, real world clothes, we are our true and transcendent selves, free of any public face or phoniness.
It’s always funny when you make friends with someone , and then run into them at checkout or whatever, and they are back in the clothes they’ve selected for themselves for the day. I’ve met perfectly cool people down there who I later saw above ground and was horrified to learn they wore crocs or a stupid hat and then I make all sorts of judgement calls on who they are based on my own prism. Suddenly you no longer see them in their pure “beingness.” You see a person that you are now applying and projecting all your judgements onto. And I fancy myself in the upper echelon of the enlightened, yet I’m so obviously not if I’m put off by someone for their choice in footwear.
The spiritual path can be challenging when you are also a fashion person. The basis of spirituality is that we are just beings on this earth plane, and our true being-ness is what matters before our public face, the clothes we wear, the language we speak. So how do you reconcile that with a judgemental take on a guy’s shoes, or the fact that you own five fur coats (not going to apologize here but…I work in vintage)? Obviously I don’t think clothes and spirituality are mutually exclusive-the whole basis of this blog is that they are deeply tethered to each other. But I wonder if the moment I’ll reach actual spiritual attainment is when I am not tethered to the clothes. I can walk in that guy’s dumb shoes and still feel intrinsically me.
I think the idea of this kind of spiritual attainment is you want to feel like you do at the baths. I am me and you are you, not, you are Michael and I am American and we are in New York. Because none of that stuff matters. We want to be/are stripped down, naked, star stuff that transcends the physical plane and can’t be summarized in words or a pair of shoes.