When our life situations challenge us in ways that are uncomfortable our natural urge is to move towards comfort as quickly as possible. We react negatively to the unpleasant sensations that arise in our bodies as a result of what has entered through our sense doors. By this I mean, what we’ve heard, seen, smelt, tasted, felt or thought. Information that enters these door causes discord and conflict within our internal landscape. This can be a very painful experience and because we don’t like it we fight to return to what we do like and to the comfort of certainty and safety.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable and free of pain. However we all know that discomfort and conflict is part of our lived experience. We can’t avoid it and the more we cling to comfort, safety and certainty the more we’re unhappy when we don’t have it. In other words avoiding the challenges of life is unsustainable. This is not to say that we need to seek discomfort but instead learn to acknowledge it and thus master it rather than the challenging situation master us.
By having an aversion to the discomfort we conversely amplify it. If we can learn to observe it rather than identify with it we begin to build a better relationship with the disquiet of life. Of course this is easier said than done.
One way we can do this is by ‘learning to stay’. This is a very useful tool and is something the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron teaches in ‘Getting unstuck’. Learning to stay literally means waiting. When anguish, stress, illness, anger, fear and all the painful experiences of life appear we can just stay with it and as Pema says, “relax into it and pour some loving kindness into the whole situation”. By this she means kindness to ourselves and the whole human condition.
We spend a great deal of time setting up avoidance strategies. This might mean drinking, taking drugs, watching TV, becoming workaholics etc. The restlessness of loneliness and boredom is a big discomfort in our human experience. To avoid this we may distract ourselves with texting or immersing ourselves in the internet. What ways do you distract yourself from discomfort?
I know I find learning to stay very difficult but the more I practice the easier it gets – for example, I may have a desire to feel good. Therefore, when conflict comes into my life I might have a need to sort it out as quickly as possible. Over the years I’ve learnt to stay a bit longer with whatever the discomfort might be and I’ve found that one of the keys in learning to stay is the understanding that everything changes. When we’re in the grip of difficulties we have the tendency to believe they’re never going to end and nothing is ever going to change. We catastrophise but everything in our lives and in nature is in constant flux.
Staying with it, knowing that everything changes and being kind to ourselves are key to working with discomfort and personal challenge. Learning to stay is something we can apply to all aspects of our life, from the smallest irritation to the greatest trauma, it is a useful tool in the journey through our lives.