I have spent about 30 years studying, teaching, and coaching the principles and practices of wellbeing. My search began in response to my own struggles with anxiety, perfectionism and insecurity. My life’s experience has led to a deep interest in discomfort. More specifically, I am fascinated by two phenomena — The Gospel of Comfort and The War on Discomfort.
The Gospel of Comfort goes like this: immediate and/or everlasting comfort and pleasure is what you should be striving for. (Pursuit of happiness anyone?). This societal mantra is a great way to sell stuff – just connect your product to the promise of comfort or the reduction of discomfort.
Over the last several decades The Industrial Happiness Complex has seized on this idea to sell books, seminars, retreats, webinars, and countless apps. Again, the premise here is that you will know that you are living a good life when you feel good all the time. Comfort is offered as a virtue to be achieved rather than a state that naturally ebbs and flows. Happiness is a complex experience that includes purpose, relationships, health, vitality, learning, growth, and contribution — it cannot be boiled down to something as fleeting as feeling pleasant.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear – I have nothing against feeling good. I like to be comfortable. My point here is that comfort is not the ideal or default state that we should be striving for all the time. Discomfort and comfort are simply normal aspects of being human. A good life does not come from extinguishing one and only having the other.
A natural result of The Gospel of Comfort is The War on Discomfort. Rather than provide people with the skills to work with unpleasant feelings and unwanted challenges, we have declared anything that we do not connect to pleasure as the enemy – disagreement, traffic, headaches, humidity, insects, waiting for a meal, boredom, restlessness, and the DMV – to name a few. If only we could fix these things, then we could finally live the life we really want.
Perhaps the most universally agreed upon enemies in The War on Discomfort in modern civilization are stress and anxiety. Reducing or eliminating these two, the story goes, will clear the way for happiness. Schools and companies are spending A LOT of money trying to find ways to create comfortable working and learning environments where people will worry less about uncertain outcomes in a complex world. This is all well-intentioned, and might be marginally effective in the short term, but what happens when people leave these environments?
The most recent weapon added to the arsenal in the battle against discomfort? Mindfulness. The message that is conveyed by smiling faces on the covers of magazines and the advertisements for meditation apps is that, if you sit quietly and pay attention to your breath, you will be relaxed and peaceful. The narrative is clear – mindfulness is a great way to escape the stress and anxiety of life, perform better, and get to the nirvana of no discomfort.
I find this modern conception of mindfulness more than a little ironic. The practice of mindfulness was specifically designed as a way to see comfort and discomfort for what they are without becoming attached to one and averse to the other.
To be fair, if you actually open many of the magazines and read the articles, you may discover a more thoughtful presentation of the topic. If you actually use the apps, you may find that you can access some peace and relaxation in the presence of discomfort. The challenge is that, if you buy into the marketing of mindfulness, then you are likely to be disappointed by your actual experience when you try it. Or, perhaps worse, you can spend years using mindfulness as another form of escape from your life.
I know much of this from my own experience — I sat in meditation thinking that I could stop my nervous system from producing anxiety, stress, worry, fear, anger, sadness, frustration… When I read something about “freedom from afflictive emotions,” I translated that into “absence of discomfort.” It took me years to realize that “freedom from” meant “choice in the presence of.” This is a really, really, really important distinction that can come from practicing mindfulness without the expectation that it will be comfortable.
Mindfulness is a practice for reducing struggle, not discomfort. Struggle is the exhausting expense of energy that goes into resisting life as it is or trying to bend the universe to your will. It comes in the form of physical contraction in your hands, jaw, chest, lower back and shoulders. Struggle is spinning in your head at 2am about a past and a future that do not exist. Struggle is the energy it takes to point fingers, yell, brood, stamp your feet, rehearse emotional pain, and confess the sins of others. Struggle is friction – energy lost from the system that does absolutely nothing to move things forward. Ease, therefore, is not the absence of discomfort, but the absence of struggle.
Missing from the way that mindfulness is marketed by the Industrial Happiness Complex are the elements of acceptance and compassion. Accepting discomfort as part of the human experience is central to mindfulness practice. Acceptance is an antidote to the struggle that comes from resisting, avoiding, and indulging unpleasant feelings as a way to escape. Compassion is our capacity to feel things fully rather than get lost in our judgments of them.
When we cultivate acceptance and compassion, we can see that everyone experiences discomfort, and everyone struggles. Just like us. We can see that no amount of money, fame, sex appeal, achievement, recognition, or social media likes will keep this from being true. We can give up on the exhausting pursuit that distracts us from being with the miracle of life – including all its wonders and all its challenges.
So, what have I really learned in my lifetime from wrestling with my own anxiety, sitting quietly everyday, studying the research and enduring wisdom, and coaching people from all walks of life? There is a lot of insight to be gained by paying attention to your feelings – comfortable and uncomfortable. We can observe whatever shows up inside us and cross-reference it against our deeply held values and commitments. We can focus on something more enduring than the fantasy of a life absent of discomfort.
In short, in order to live with more peace and fulfillment, we can stop trying to feel better all the time.