Karen had an intense crush on Oscar all through high school. Her friends often reminded her that she was free to talk to him – or even tell him how she felt. Just the thought of it sent her into a tornado of imagined scenarios of rejection and embarrassment. At her 5th year reunion, a few cocktails gave Karen the courage to approach him and express what she had felt all through high school. He smiled and responded – “I felt the same way, but I was too nervous to tell you.”
Our relationship to discomfort
In my experience, many important conversations and human interactions never occur because they are associated with discomfort. Dreams are not realized because the execution requires the acceptance of discomfort. Disrespect, unkindness, and even violence can be the result of attempts to mask or escape anxiety and overwhelm. Addiction often begins with the slavish pursuit of pleasure as a way to avoid the discomfort of being human. We compulsive chase success, fame, recognition, power, wealth, or admiration in the hopes that at the end of the rainbow is happily ever after and discomfort never after. For the first time in human history, our children are not expected to live as long as their parents – this is primarily because of the behavior that results from our obsession with comfort and our avoidance of discomfort. Our poor diet, lack of movement, lack of sleep, stress-related illness, and lack of meaningful human interaction can, to a large degree, be traced back to our relationship with discomfort.
Look around, you will see it everywhere.
Walk into a coffee shop on any given day and just observe people for awhile. Look at their body language and their facial expressions. Listen to their words. Some suffer quietly – spinning around in their heads. Some fan the flames of discomfort through finger pointing and complaint. Some try desperately to avoid using food, entertainment, alcohol, shopping… We beat ourselves up for feeling uncomfortable. We promise ourselves that something good or bad is going to happen next. Once you start paying attention, you will see how much our response to discomfort drives our behavior.
Freedom is not the absence of discomfort.
Emotional freedom is often confused with the absence of discomfort. There is some idea that if you live the right way or engage in the right self-improvement strategy, then anxiety, stress, fear, doubt, overwhelm, sadness, frustration, and anger all evaporate from your life. We see smiling self-help gurus and think that they are no longer having the same human experience as we are. We are told/sold the idea that a weekend seminar will create the breakthrough we need to permanently reside in blissful happiness and joy. This is marketing. This is not the human experience.
Enlightenment is not magic.
The Buddha’s moment of enlightenment was actually pretty basic. After sitting for 40 days, he saw Mara – often referred to as a demon, but also translated as emotions that pull us away from focus and calm. The Buddha says to Mara “I see you,” and grounds himself in the present by touching the Earth he is sitting on. In this moment he sees discomfort for what it is, and he grounds himself in the embodied understanding that he has what he needs to deal with it. That’s it. Not a big deal really. We can do the same. Each time we do, we experience a bit of enlightenment about the human condition and how to work with it.
This wisdom is not new and not solely Buddhist
St. Augustine was painfully aware that “We are certainly in a common class with the beasts; every action of animal life is concerned with seeking bodily pleasure and avoiding pain.”
In 145 AD, Epictetus wrote in his classic Enchiridion, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, puts it this way, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In other words, your only real choice in life is how you respond to all the stuff that shows up — within you and around you. You can base your choice on principles and values, or you can base it on escaping discomfort – these often lead to very different choices.
Working on the inside allows us to work with the outside
When we see discomfort for what it is and stop obsessing about getting rid of it, we have more bandwidth to give attention and support to others. Life is finite. Do we really want to spend our days running from something that is always going to catch us? Do we really want exhaust ourselves trying to control the uncontrollable? Given the universal nature of human struggle, doesn’t it make sense to put more energy into being more supportive, loving, and kind?
Discomfort is normal.
The idea that we can escape discomfort ignores some pretty basic biology. One of the primary responsibilities of the human nervous system is to create emotions and sensations – many of which are uncomfortable. The goal of these feelings is to prompt behavior that helps us survive. There is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable. However, our relationship to discomfort has a huge impact on the quality of our lives. And I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, no one taught me how to work skillfully with discomfort. We are usually left on our own to figure it out.
Attachment, fueling, avoidance, promising
Our habitual strategies for dealing with discomfort often make it worse. We attach to the feelings as if they define us and the world we live in. We fuel it by rehearsing the story of who is wrong (often ourselves), what is unfair, and what awful result awaits us.* We avoid it with procrastination, digital screens, and any number of clever distractions. We promise ourselves a positive outcome *despite the fact that we cannot know what will happen in the future.
There are alternative strategies.
Different ways of working with discomfort allow us to see it for what it is and work with it effectively. We can build a lot of skill in these strategies with daily practice. Initially, they can feel…wait for it…uncomfortable. This is because they are new, and part of your brain does not trust new behaviors. This part of your brain just wants you to do what you have always done. When you do something new it produces…wait for it…discomfort.
Mindfulness – the practice of awareness and acceptance – builds the skill of observing the sensations of discomfort and accepting them as a normal part of the human experience. Despite the fact that mindfulness is often marketed as a way to be comfortable, it is, first and foremost, a practice for being with the whole human experience less reactively. If you sit in silence, you will see the full range of thoughts and emotions show up. You can begin to see feelings as events rather than commands. You can just observe them, do nothing, and be just fine. They pass. You do not have to scratch every itch.
When we find that we are uncomfortable and all we want to do is escape, we can acknowledge this with “Of course.” Of course you feel discomfort. Of course you don’t want to. This is because you are human. That’s all. Giving yourself (or others) this understanding and compassion creates connection and opening. “And, you are up to it.” This is the confidence piece. Let’s face it, if you are reading this, then you have always worked with whatever has come your way. Maybe it wasn’t pretty, but you dealt with it and you survived. When faced with discomfort, the practice of “Of course…and you are up to it” can be a powerful tool.
Rather than putting our energy into escaping discomfort, we can put our energy into the goals, commitments and relationships we value most. We can ask ourselves “What’s most important?” and “What is needed?” Then, we can make a plan and put our effort into meaningful and fulfilling action, whether it is comfortable or not. This is freedom.