My friend is dying. As we sit together, her sadness, fatigue, and pain fills the room. All I want to do is tell her something that will make her feel better. I want to tell her that she will get through it, that everything will be okay. I want to tell her to look on the bright side — she has had a wonderful life filled with people who love her. The desire to fix her discomfort feels like it will gnaw it’s way out of my chest if I don’t say something — the right thing. And, I know that what I am really feeling is how much I want to avoid my own discomfort.
Letting go of trying to fix either of us leaves some space for me to be with her and to listen. She tells me all the things she will miss and the simple things she desires — to be held, to be hugged. We talk about our kids, and we laugh about some of the crazy things that people do. We hug. Being human together in the midst of this thing that we both want to escape so badly is an experience for which I am deeply grateful.
A full and happy life includes discomfort. There is just no way around this. In fact, our relationship with discomfort may be the most important relationship in our lives. If we are not careful, the habitual avoidance of discomfort and pursuit of comfort can be a controlling force that distracts us from what matters most and leaves us frustrated, exhausted, lonely, and empty.
Discomfort is information. It is possible to accept the reality of uncomfortable feelings without wallowing in them or suppressing them. They are not the truth and they are not the enemy. While no one has ever died of an uncomfortable feeling, plenty of people have died trying not to have them.
Discomfort often contains wisdom. There is a lot we can learn by encountering sadness, fear, anger, resentment, boredom, and pain with some curiosity. We can look directly at discomfort rather than reflexively looking for what is wrong or who is to blame. We can use upset as a compass needle pointing to what we value most.
One of the greatest discoveries of my own life came from dealing with chronic anxiety. I learned that freedom from discomfort does not require its absence. This is a good thing, because even the happiest of lives contains loss, disappointment, injury, illness, uncertainty, rejection and failure. There is no philosophy, belief, or diet that changes the fact that discomfort is an inevitable subset of human experience. There is no permanent escape.
Driving back from seeing my friend, I became stuck in traffic. Actually, I was participating in traffic — it’s not like the traffic was happening to me — I was doing my part to create congestion by being on the road. Anyway, I found myself feeling the discomfort of impatience. My first reaction was to tighten my grip on the steering wheel. And then I remembered what a gift it is to be alive, and impatient. Participating in traffic is just part of the whole miracle.
It is possible to have a more accepting, curious and effective relationship to discomfort. We can encounter it peacefully and work with it skillfully. We can cultivate powerful internal resources such as awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion and awe. We can choose purposefully where to put our attention and energy when we are uncomfortable. These practices allow us to include the inevitable truth of discomfort in the happiness of our lives.