Mindfulness is everywhere. You cannot pass a magazine rack or read the news without coming across some mention of this ancient and recently popularized practice. It is being introduced in schools, medical treatments, and businesses as a way to deal with the stresses and anxieties of a demanding and distracting world.
Before I go any further, let me disclose that I believe that mindfulness practice transformed, and perhaps saved, my life. It was nothing magical really – it simply gave me a concrete technique for being with the discomfort of my own stress and anxiety. Most importantly, it helped me to develop a much more wholehearted approach to life and to others. This was a big change after spending decades trying to escape my discomfort with nothing to show for it but broken relationships and poor health.
As a coach, I work with people who procrastinate work they have committed to, yell at the people they love, put off important conversations, eat an unhealthy diet, deprive themselves of sleep, consume themselves with work at the cost of time with family, spend money they don’t have, argue with anyone at the drop of a hat…these behaviors are (conscious or unconscious) attempts to feel better – to seek comfort or avoid discomfort.
Which brings me to four points that I think are critical to any discussion about mindfulness.
- Discomfort is an inevitable part of life. It is a biological reality from which there is no lasting escape.
- Nobody dies of discomfort, but plenty of people die in their efforts to avoid it.
- Mindfulness is a powerful practice for seeing and accepting the inevitable nature of discomfort and accessing our profound capacity to be with it peacefully.
- Mindfulness is incomplete without heartfulness. Bringing awareness, acceptance, and compassion to our own discomfort opens us to the reality that everyone experiences discomfort and struggles against it – no matter how wealthy, smart, beautiful, powerful, or famous they are. Everyone.
When we use (or sell) mindfulness as another tool for escaping discomfort – as a way to be “happy” in the sense of feeling pleasant – we have missed the point. There is a reason this has happened – the promise of feeling good (or at least less bad) is a great marketing tool. Hyping mindfulness as the cure for just about everything is almost certain to lead to disappointment. When we sit down quietly with the expectation that we will suddenly feel relaxed and at one with the universe, and what we actually encounter is a frantic mind and restless body, we are bound to conclude that there is something wrong with us or with the practice.
So what is so great about being with discomfort? The ability to accept the entire spectrum of your feelings facilitates your willingness and ability to serve others and to serve your values and goals. Let’s be honest, it can be very uncomfortable to see someone else suffering or to put energy into a project you really care about when the outcome is uncertain.
Putting yourself out there and living a full life with deep connections to others is likely to trigger a range of emotions – some of which feel good and some of which do not. Sidestepping these feelings can easily steer us away from meaningful and fulfilling experiences. “Should I have that important and uncomfortable conversation that I have been putting off, or should I watch another episode of Game of Thrones?”
Sitting with discomfort can also lead to the discovery that we are free to respond to life based on something more enduring than what we are feeling in any given moment. Freedom from discomfort is not the absence of discomfort – it is the ability to choose a response in its presence.
Look, the fact that we prefer comfort over discomfort is not a moral weakness, it is our biology. And savoring pleasant experiences is really good for our physical and emotional health. It’s just that, when it comes to wellbeing, minimizing discomfort is not equivalent to maximizing fulfillment. Obsessively trying to minimize discomfort (or maximize comfort) puts us on a treadmill that does not lead where we hope it will. Accepting discomfort as a normal part of the human condition creates some space to make more principled and purposeful decisions about where to put our attention and energy.
And the research on this is clear – resisting discomfort actually leads to more intense discomfort. Avoiding situations that are associated with discomfort actually strengthens the association. Someone with social anxiety who avoids being around people because of their discomfort can end up being a total recluse because the brain makes a stronger and stronger connection between the discomfort and being around others. In mathematical terms, discomfort + resistance = struggle, and discomfort + avoidance = struggle. On the other hand, discomfort + acceptance = discomfort.
Okay, so the options on the table are:
- To use mindfulness practice as a method for escaping the uncomfortable aspects of humanity
- To use mindfulness practice to build the skill of meeting discomfort with awareness, acceptance, and kindness
Why choose #2? Because life is miraculous, challenging, finite, and uncertain. To be human is both inexplicably wonderful and intensely heartbreaking. Everyone struggles with something – at least some of the time. Given all of this, is there anything that makes more sense than kindness?
We can wholeheartedly acknowledge that to be human is to experience pain, loss, upset, frustration, sadness, fear, anger, love, joy, and wonder. Rather than avoiding this reality, we can use it as motivation to be as understanding and supportive as we can. I believe that this is our best chance of living lives of fulfillment and meaning.