Befriending Discomfort

Recently I have been challenged by several students to explain the value of engaging in practices they dislike, or why it matters whether certain habits are indulged in or not. And why does change take so long? How come things improve but don't stay that way? Why so much beginning again and again? Underlying these "why" questions is the conditioned belief that we should be able to 

  1. feel better when we make changes;
  2. see immediate results;
  3. retain those results without further effort or engagement.

As Carrie Fisher said, "instant gratification takes too long." We want to understand everything right away, then "set it and forget it."  

This is not how nature works, however. When we cultivate mindful awareness -- in movement and in meditation -- we are acting according to nature and the way we naturally function.

F.M. Alexander recognized that our sense of what is innate and organic in our body-mind has become unreliable and inaccurate. He sometimes described this as "debauched kinesthesia," the sense that what we are used to doing (the "wrong" thing) feels right, so when we are guided out of habit and into a more free and easy way of being (the "right" thing), it feels wrong. We are comfortable with the familiar and sometimes deeply uncomfortable with the new and the unknown. 

I used to stand with most of my weight on my left leg, barely using the right for support. When I began Alexander lessons, my teacher would bring me into more balanced standing, and it always felt like I was listing to the right. I would look in the mirror and be surprised to see this wasn't the case. This feeling of leaning to the right (we began to call this my "starboard stance") happened every time I allowed this change in my standing, and every time I was always surprised. I had to prove to myself that it was a faulty perception, over and over again. This lasted for several weeks pretty consistently, and then my kinesthetic sense became more refined, and I was able to recognize more accurately where I was in space and how I was balancing myself. 

That feeling was uncomfortable. I didn't like it. I was especially disturbed by the knowledge that my sense of myself was so off-base. And there were many, many more incidents of this "wrong" perception, the more I studied the AT. Yet I stuck with it, because I trusted my teacher and I could see quite clearly that my willingness to tolerate the discomfort of these changes was directly proportionate to the increasing freedom and skill I was gaining in living my life.

In the stress reduction course, we engage in various mindful practices, both formally and informally. Students often have strong opinions about the practices, loving some and hating others. The Body Scan, for instance, is a process that builds concentration of mind, and cultivates one's ability to direct attention in a flexible way, from a tiny specific place in the body like a toe, to a wide awareness of the body as a whole. People frequently find it a challenge to pay attention to physical sensation, to be with their bodies as they move progressively through each part. "Boring," "annoying," "pointless," "disturbing," are all adjectives I've heard over the years (and to be honest, I've said similar things myself). I was asked point blank: "why should I do something I hate? How does that relieve my stress?"

The answer is: to transform the hating of it. The problem is not the practice, it's how we relate to it. If, in the middle of an awareness practice (in the AT or in meditation), I encounter the thought, "I hate this," then that is what I can work with. What is it about this that feels like such a chore? What is so scary about this odd new feeling of balance in my movement? How can I tolerate this unknown, shaky sensation? 

And what do I expect, anyway?

Expectations about how it should be/feel/change are where we get caught, not the direct experience of anything. If we just follow our feelings, the mind's chatter about how things ought to be, we won't progress very far. Ajahn Chah, the great Thai Buddhist teacher, said this about sticking with practices that are challenging:

Keep doing it until you're fed up and then see how far that laziness goes. Keep looking until you come to the end of laziness. Whatever it is you experience you have to go all the way through it before you overcome it. It's not as if you can just repeat the word 'peace' to yourself and then as soon as you sit, you expect peace will arise like at the click of a switch, and when it doesn't then you give up, lazy. If that's the case you'll never be peaceful.

It's easy to talk about and hard to do. . . .  Everyone would like to search for peace in that way. Actually, peace does lie right there, but you don't know it yet. You can follow after it, you can talk about it as much as you like, but you won't know what it is. [Just Do It!, 1978]

"You have to go all the way through it." Indeed. In order to do this, we need to make friends with our experience, to become kind toward the unavoidable discomfort of change.

I've been working along these lines now for more than 25 years, and "still" I need to ask myself some questions on a regular basis:

  • Am I willing to sacrifice my sense of comfort, my attachment to the familiar ways I already know, in order to cultivate positive, healthy change?
  • Even though I claim to want to be rid of the pain, the numbness, the chaos, am I truly willing to allow present-moment discomfort and unease to arise? 
  • Can I trust that this process requires me to embrace the unknown, over and over again?