February 21, 2014

How Discomfort Removes Suffering.


blossoming is blissful web


When I was six years old I loved Roy Rogers. I wanted to be a cowboy.

I longed to sleep out on the range. But I lived in a New York City apartment. So in lieu of nights under the stars, my mother let me set up a tent and camp out in the living room.

The hardwood living room floor was uncomfortable.

But that very uncomfortableness was satisfying. Whenever I felt my bones rubbing against the hard floor, I knew I was getting closer to being a cowboy. So, inwardly, I smiled.

In the process, I tapped into one of the keys to spiritual awakening and getting unstuck from reactive patterns?
What does sleeping on hardwood have to do with spirituality?

Spiritual development is a learning process. And all learning includes uncomfortable moments. When we’re learning a new way of being in the world, or a new way of relating to our experiences, it’s inevitable that we’ll be clumsy at first.

The habits of mind or behavior that we want to transform have strong neural pathways. They’ve become our default mode, through thousands of (mostly unconscious) repetitions.

So, when we begin to make a change, our nervous systems are working hard to wire in the new ways of thinking and acting.

Whenever we take on a new behavior, new project or a new way of relating to our lives, we won’t have it mastered on day one. We’re at the base of a learning curve and as we walk our way up that curve, some stumbling is inevitable.

Curiously, it’s not the stumbling that makes the process uncomfortable. Yes, stumbling can be satisfying.

It’s our interpretation that counts.

Remember my living room camp outs?

When I rolled over onto the hardwood floor and bruised my hipbone, I took that as a sign of progress. I was that much closer to being a cowboy. That’s what makes being uncomfortable satisfying: when we recognize that the discomfort is taking us closer to our goals. When we understand the discomfort as a signal that our body/mind is working intensely to build new patterns. Then we’ll gladly lean into our discomfort.

We’ll seek out experiences and opportunities where we can lean into our discomfort. Not simply to feel the hardwood rubbing against our ribs, but because we want to grow, learn and develop. And opportunities abound. Think about a conversation that you know you’re going to have in the next three days.

Pick one that is important and that will take both courage and skill on your part if it is to go well. Bring that situation to mind.

When you bring the upcoming situation to mind—intensely picturing and feeling it—you’ll activate your body/mind. Let yourself sense the energy that starts swirling in your body.

As neurobiologists tell us, even if the intensity seems to be less than when we’re in the “real” situation, the neural pattern is the same because our neurology doesn’t distinguish between being in that conversation and thinking about it.

The same neurological patterns are stimulated whether we’re having the person-to-person encounter or imagining it.

This is good news!

We can start to lean into our discomfort before we walk through the door. We can begin to change our experience before we’re in the conversation. We can begin to develop new and more creative responses—in the privacy of our own awareness.

We can infuse the experience with meditative awareness. Here’s how:

First take a meditative posture.

On a cushion or chair, sit at full attention without tension. Then, breathe naturally and attend to the rhythm of the breath. Enjoy the pulse of the breath and the quality of release that comes with each exhale. Letting go of tensions, open to the breath and discover the stillness that is available.

Then, in your mind’s eye picture the upcoming conversation.

Imagine it “over there” at a comfortable distance–so that you can maintain that sense of stillness and breath. Now, bring the image of the conversation closer, closer—until you begin to feel a subtle tension, a triggering response.

Next, re-establish your connection to the breath.

Re-establish the inner balance and stillness—even while you also are aware of the pattern of tension. Yes, be still and completely relaxed as the tension arises, and gently imagine a new way of being in that conversation. Visualize yourself bringing more peace, presence, and resources into that situation.

Lean into your discomfort and let your neurology system experience a new way of being in that situation.

Remember: practicing in meditative awareness builds new neural pathways that support new ways of behaving and interacting.

You can do this in 60 seconds.

Make an appointment with yourself a few times a day. Lean into your discomfort in the privacy of your own mind. By intentionally and mindfully leaning into your discomfort, you stimulate your body/mind and catalyze inner resources that develop greater flexibility and choice. You’re engaging in self-directed neuro-plasticity—changing your brain through meditative practice.

How wonderful it is to watch the organic inner changes that occur as you lean into your discomfort. Don’t rush.

Remember, the idea is to lean into our discomfort, not to radically transform ourselves overnight.

Learning doesn’t happen that way. We build mastery incrementally. Enjoy the process as it unfolds. Appreciate the learning journey.

Because fifty years later, I’m still not a full-fledged cowboy, after all.

Where are you leaning into discomfort?

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Siddhant Gawande/Pixoto

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