Comfort is something we all seek. The notion of “being comfortable” is highly prized (and promoted) in our society. It is considered a major selling point if you are in the market to buy a bed, clothes, a car, a pair of shoes — almost anything. But the overvaluing of comfort in our lives can come at great cost.
Our relationship with comfort and discomfort is influenced by our culture, our personal history and our personality. If we are born in a tradition in which failure is not an option and social success is the norm, we may challenge ourselves with long hours of work or study to avoid the discomfort of failure. If we are born into a family where depression or anger was part of the daily landscape, we may want to avoid these emotions at any price and dissociate when these feelings arise. Taking a deeper look at our relationship with comfort and discomfort provides us insight on our path toward acceptance and happiness.
Discomfort exists at many levels:
- At the physical level, it may manifest as a headache, a digestive issue or a skin irritation.
- At the emotional level, it may manifest as anxiety, worry or depression.
- At the mental level, it may manifest as constant agitation, an inability to focus or ambivalence in decision-making.
- At the heart level, it may manifest while experiencing loss, change or separation.
- At the spiritual level, it may manifest as existential angst, lack of purpose or a feeling of disconnection.
Certain life events can be challenging and unfamiliar. If we are clinging to any form of comfort, we will limit our ability to adapt and grow. Through the years, the overpromotion of comfort, happiness and pleasure has created tremendous distortions. There is no tolerance for any amount of discomfort and tremendous impatience for any kind of pain. When comfort is the only choice, resilience and the ability to overcome adversity are lost.
Running from discomfort
If you want to stay centered and at peace, you need to stop running away from discomfort (or always running toward pleasure). Running from discomfort prevents us from being able to see and feel what is present. It holds us in a false state of reality and never allows us to know our true selves. On the other hand, being uncomfortable teaches us to transcend pain and pleasure, thus allowing us to be true to ourselves. It also allows us to see clearly when challenges occur.
The constant promotion of pleasure and comfort has contributed to the emergence of addictive behaviors. For example, many individuals use food, medication or gaming as a way to soothe their pain or “escape” their stress. This starts with a tremendous obsession of the mind that makes us believe there is only one way. When our mind gets frantic about one thing, there is no room for anything else and our behavior becomes extremely reactive. As soon as we grasp for more comfort, we become intoxicated. Intoxication does not necessarily have to involve a substance such as alcohol. We can be intoxicated with power or greed. As soon as we are intoxicated, we lose our intelligence and our ability to be present.
When you experience discomfort, we suggest that you stay away from labeling it, contracting and wondering when the pain will go away. None of us came to Earth to suffer, but none of us came to earth to run away from suffering either. Every time that you hit your limitations, you have the opportunity to unfold and open.
Mara, one of our clients, was struggling with tremendous discomfort. She was never satisfied with herself and experienced ongoing anxiety about her future. She dealt with her pain by consuming alcohol. After several years of doing this, Mara was no longer able to follow through with much of anything, and she ended up getting fired from her job. This was a much-needed wake-up call for Mara to realize that she needed help. When she first came to see us, she had a strong motivation to rid herself of her discomfort. But as she learned to develop a sense of compassion for herself, she grew more able to embrace her discomfort. Mara came to understand that when she was trying to cover up her discomfort, she was actually opening the door to self-destruction.
Accepting our discomfort is led not only by bravery but by our heart center. At that moment, we choose to accept who we are. Our will does not help to heal our pain; our heart does. For Mara, getting fired was the saving grace. Others may go deeper into negative coping mechanisms that further enhance patterns of self-sabotage before determining to change their relationship with discomfort.
Often, when we experience discomfort, we perceive it as a threat. We want to separate from our discomfort to protect ourselves. When we do this, we create the opposite of what we are looking for. The more we separate from our discomfort, the more we separate from ourselves, and the more pain we experience as a result.
Underneath any discomfort, there is a fear. For some it could be the fear of missing out. For others it may be the fear of not being in control, or the fear of being overwhelmed and losing sense of self.
The longer we numb our discomfort, the more stuck we may feel. The longer we reject our discomfort, the louder our ego becomes. The practice of allowing discomfort is the practice of integration. Integration occurs when we allow our behavioral patterns, traits, emotional states and experiences to come together in a more unified and organized state. Without integration there is separation, and with separation there is distortion.
The purpose of pain is to awaken the heart, not trigger the mind. It is not about overcoming pain; it is about recognizing and being willing to learn from it.
Some spiritual traditions will bring discomfort to the core of their practice. The intent is to teach the practitioner to stay whole while in pain and to prevent the mind, led by the ego, from directing the experience. The focus is not on overcoming pain but rather on surrendering and allowing the experience of pain to expand where it wants to be. It teaches the mind not to separate but to allow. It teaches the mind to go beyond subject-object relationship. At that moment, there is an alchemy happening in the body, and one may shift from pain to bliss because the mind is not locked into form.
The practice of being uncomfortable
Regardless of your spiritual tradition and belief system, meditation is a great way to learn to be still with discomfort. Many people express difficulties when trying to learn to meditate and often give up, believing they are not good at it. The purpose of meditation is not to add pleasure or pain but rather to develop a neutral mind that allows whatever arises. Consistency in a meditation practice paves the way for acceptance and humility, which are two beautiful qualities of the heart.
If you are able to stay still during pain, without hoping for pleasure to come, you are free. If instead of fighting against the pain, you welcome it fully, you will shift and heal. When this happens, you will realize that pain and pleasure are not opposites, but simply sensations; you are now living beyond polarities.
Being uncomfortable does not always relate to pain or pleasure; our own fears and limitations can create great discomfort. To avoid discomfort, we may prevent ourselves from taking risks and put our self-development on hold. Some may feel stuck and have pushed the pause button, whereas others might operate on autopilot by staying with their to-do list. For example, some people may stay in a relationship or job even though they know it is no longer serving them. Both are forms of avoidance.
As we learn to allow pain to be part of our experience, we need to notice other possible scenarios that prevent us from learning about our discomfort. The first scenario is to be attached to our pain, allowing it to become our identity. At that moment, our life revolves around our pain, and this limits our ability to heal and make positive changes. The second scenario is to be uncomfortable with others’ discomfort. This steers us toward being “people pleasers,” constantly focusing on others’ well-being and avoiding being in touch with ourselves. Related to this second scenario, it can also be challenging to be around someone we deeply care for who is experiencing a great deal of discomfort. We may want to “fix it” or change it as a sign of love.
The practice of being uncomfortable teaches us to stay connected with ourselves, to be curious and open. It teaches us to be relaxed and surrender into the discomfort. The more we want to control our discomfort, the more stuck we become.
Allow discomfort to be part of your experience. Welcome it fully from the heart center. At the core of your pain or fear, you will grow and you will learn.
To become comfortable with the uncomfortable, we invite you to try the following practices. As with every practice, consistency and repetition are key to gaining insights and creating change.
Practicing in itself can create discomfort. It is when you are the least inclined to practice that it may be the most beneficial. Practice teaches you to go beyond your emotional reactivity. As you keep showing up for yourself, it will get easier.
Tonglen is a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism and used to awaken compassion. Through acknowledging our own and others’ suffering, we open our hearts.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Lengthen your spine and draw your shoulders down your back. Soften your face and jaw. Close your eyes.
- Connect to one part of you that is in pain at a physical, emotional, mental, heart or spiritual level.
- Notice the quality of your pain.
- Imagine all of the people with a similar experience and inhale their pain. Do not be afraid to “inhale” others’ pain. You will not get more pain. In fact, you may feel some relief.
- Exhale; send relief.
- Repeat the process for at least three minutes.
Some of you may be really reluctant to start this practice and others may simply love it. The benefits of journaling are priceless. It helps you process emotions or situations with more awareness and clarity. It is a safe container to express your voice. Research on journal writing therapy indicates positive outcomes related to identifying emotions and feelings and reducing stress. It can be a catalyst for change and healing.
- Think of something that makes you uncomfortable. Is this new or old? What are the main emotions you are experiencing? What behaviors or strategies have you implemented? What did you learn about yourself?
Taking action is where the true learning takes place. You get an opportunity to truly assess your relationship with discomfort and stretch yourself.
- Do something outside of your comfort zone.
This article is based on a chapter from our book WAY TO BE – 40 Insights and Transformative Practices in The Heart of Being. For more information, go to www.40waystobe.com.
Shari Gootter is a licensed professional counselor and certified rehabilitation counselor with decades of experience in designing and leading workshops for diverse populations. Her focus has been on helping people shift while going through losses or adjustments. She has also created programs for counselors that assist them in developing a framework that supports lasting transformation. Shari is a therapist in private practice and has taught yoga for decades. Contact her at email@example.com.
Tejpal has over 30 years of experience supporting individuals on their journey toward healing, life purpose and real joy. Tejpal blends her intuition, energy healing, creative processes, life coaching and yoga into her work. Tejpal was born in France and moved to the U.S. 25 years ago. She has worked with people from many cultures and traditions.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
I reread the chapter in the book after reading this article. it has helped with physical pain most certainly, but have to work on emotional level