The Art of Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

In my mindfulness elective last year at a local high school, I ran a unit on technology. Through a series of exercises, I asked students to examine their relationship with technology and decide if there's anything they might want to experiment with changing. Most students were able to notice ways their technology use was negatively impacting their lives, and set goals to put their phones away before 11pm, not have it out when they were hanging out with their friends, or not use it just because they were bored. One student, acknowledging an excessive use of technology, had not interest in putting it to the side.

"I use technology when I am not feeling good to distract my mind from all the difficult thoughts," she candidly shared, "and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, or that I want to change it." 

The desire to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is a human condition I am confident all of us can say we've encountered, battled with, or succumbed to, from time to time. It has led humans to many avoidance tactics, from technology to drug use, from overexercise to constant busyness. I have made countless choices that ultimately hurt me in my life, all in an effort to avoid discomfort. I have not had difficult conversations when I should have because I didn't want to squirm in the awkwardness. I have binged on food to suppress anxiety. I have had netflix marathons in order to forget sadness. These habits have come to light over years of self observation, and I work towards having compassion towards them while still setting an intention to face what is true.

Because how often do we stop and wonder what we lose when we back away and hide from these internal challenges? 

I have learned, and continue to learn, through intensive meditation retreats and daily practice, one of the most valuable lessons: the art of being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I have sat with an itch that intensified and then fell away when I did nothing to alleviate it. I have sat with physical pain for days on end, with little movement, and watched the pain shift and morph over time, offering sweet moments of relief I would never had seen had I shifted my body or distracted my mind. I have observed horrible thoughts cross my mind— imagining the death of friends and loved ones, anguished guilt over unskillful words spoken to a child, deep worry over the state of our world— and I have watched them go. Because of these experiences, I do not find that my mind is always clear when I sit, but  I have become much more okay with the clutter that arises and take it less personally.

Developing comfort with discomfort is not the same as grinning and bearing it. We do not muscle our way through, or grip as we are faced with these difficult emotions and thoughts. We do not force ourselves to face them with stoicism and grit. No, we soften as these things enter our consciousness and acknowledge them. We notice where in the body or mind we might be bracing against and invite those areas to let go. We learn to be with each moment without pushing it away, or clinging, but letting it be as it is. 

However, in order to learn to do this, we need to make that space and time to practice and see that we can. Practicing mindfulness, especially when it is uncomfortable, is what grows this skill, and our confidence in our own depth and capacity to truly just be with what is.

When I run trainings with teachers, they often ask me, "But is it wrong to be lost in a beautiful memory or do important planning while meditating?" Or they will say, "but what about the students who don't like it?" I always assure them, first, I am not there to make a moralistic judgement. It's not wrong to be lost in beautiful thoughts or to like or dislike a practice. But mindfulness is not just about having blissful, calming experiences. It is also about learning how to be with difficult ones. It is about learning that you have the strength to not turn away when it is hard. 

For students, we are teaching them this too, albeit at a student-friendly level. We may ask them to see if they can remain still EVEN IF there is a distraction in the room, or in their bodies, and see what's that like. We may ask them to get curious about their boredom- What does boredom really feel like? What thoughts often accompany it? We may ask them to get familiar with anger, and what it feels like in their bodies. These are not pleasant experiences, per say. They may not make them calm. However, these short moments create the building blocks for them to be with all that arises.