Being mindful, we look at the experience of each moment with curiosity and openness, without judgment. That means being with the unpleasant experiences as well as pleasant ones. Allowing discomfort to be present takes courage because it exposes hidden stories and shame to the light. Personally, I would rather leave the unpleasant hidden in the dark. I really don’t want to have any problems. So, the hardest mindfulness practice for me to apply is being OK with not being OK.
I have had 60 plus years’ experience answering the question “How are you?” with “I’m fine.” Even when I am not fine. After my divorce, I was “fine,” except for the days I was physically sick, probably due to suppressing my unpleasant emotions. My mom was the queen of brushing anything unpleasant under the carpet. I am just a princess, but I learned from the best. When anything unpleasant comes up, just ignore it. Distract yourself with a good book or getting busy. I think for most of us, we were never encouraged to experience the unpleasant. Although our brains are wired with the negativity bias, our culture says look on the bright side. Do whatever you can to avoid anything painful or unpleasant. Seek comfort instead.
I like being comfortable. But Steve Armstrong says, “Comfort is not a goal worthy of your effort, have the courage to meet the discomfort in order to stay aligned with our aspiration to be awake, to meet the moment, to see what is going on, to see the mind in all its range of possibilities.”
There are four things that I’ve observed about not feeling OK.
- One, our inner critic fuels not feeling OK.
- Two, if we ignore it or are simply not aware, we tend to fall into the deep, dark hole.
- Three, when we are in the hole, often the choices we make push us deeper in the hole instead of helping us climb out. We lash out and react instead of responding, making a bad situation worse.
- And four, we wallow, not allowing ourselves to take in anything good or accept any help. Think about a toddler having a tantrum because she can’t have the toy she wants. That is the discomfort of grasping, holding on to the idea that nothing will make you happy until you have what you want.
Besides grasping, another type of discomfort is aversion. For example, if I push away my discomfort with my unconscious bias, I might get defensive when anyone brings up the subject. I may hold tightly to my beliefs, even if I feel my body contracting when I think them. Instead of listening to be changed by what I hear, I listen to win the argument. Holding on even when I know I am wrong. Then I beat myself up for being prejudiced. Which just confirms I am a bad person.
The third type of discomfort comes from confusion or delusion. I think someone does something to make me angry, when in fact they are having a bad day and their suffering is overflowing.
Our limbic system is designed to have us resist and avoid discomfort, whether it be physical or emotional. When we are feeling not OK, we can go from: “I don’t like this feeling.” to “I shouldn’t have this feeling.” to “I’m wrong to have this feeling.” to “I’m bad!” But aversion to what we don’t like actually feeds it. When we try to push it away or ignore it, in niggles in our unconscious, taking up a lot of our precious energy to keep pushing it away or keep it hidden. We resist when our life doesn’t go according to our plan. Instead we need to admit that the unpleasant or painful external situation exists and we cannot control it. Then let it go.
“When we struggle with discomfort by obsessing why it happened and what we’re going to do about it, we’re feeding it. When we turn away in denial, but it lingers in the back of our minds, we’re feeding it. Resistance feeds negative emotions. They weaken if we stop regurgitating them in our minds and maintain a mindful, compassionate attitude.” Chris Germer
Chris Germer suggests we go through five stages of acceptance.
Stages of Acceptance
- Aversion—resistance, avoidance, rumination
- Curiosity—turning toward discomfort with interest
- Tolerance—safely enduring
- Allowing—letting feelings come and go
- Friendship—embracing, seeing hidden value
No need to beat yourself up when you begin with resistance, avoidance or rumination. That is natural. To move out of this stage, get curious about the discomfort. Ask yourself:
- What is going on right now?
- What most needs my attention?
- What am I believing about this?
- Where do I feel it in my body?
By looking deeply at the discomfort, it may not feel quite as scary, permitting you to tolerate it. Ask yourself:
- Can I be with this right now without trying to fix or change it?
- Is it safe?
When you can be with it, you quit contracting so much. You stop clinging to the storyline behind it. And you turn off your limbic system and engage your prefrontal cortex. This allows the feelings and emotions to move through you. You may be able to see the unpleasant as a teacher or a guide, helping you to grow.
So how do you increase your tolerance for discomfort? You practice being uncomfortable. You start by allowing moderate discomfort or unpleasantness. I started with not scratching an itch. When an itch came up, instead of scratching right away to get rid of the unpleasantness, I just thought about how itches arise with causes and conditions. Then I wondered how long the itch would last. Knowing that the itch was not permanent gave me the ability to just watch it. This relaxed me. And soon my mind wandered and the itch was gone.
Contrast this to the itch you have on your back that you can’t reach. You go into panic mode, contracting your body and ruminating about how you will never satisfy this itch. The itch tends to get stronger and stronger all fueled by the story line that you cannot control the itch.
The message here is that the only way to ease our discomfort is to experience it fully. Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening, learn to stay with the itch. Once we learn we can be with discomfort, we quit resisting it. When we ignore the unpleasant by brushing it under the carpet, it continues to grow until we can no longer ignore it. When we push it away, it gets stronger.
“Fighting what we’re uneasy about only makes things worse. The more we can accept the anxiety, physical discomfort, sleeplessness, and pain of disconnection—and the self-doubt that goes along with it—the better off we’ll be.” Chris Germer
Our discomfort zone is where we learn, where we meet our edge.
“Admittedly, it is difficult to maintain awareness in the present moment when distress is present, because to truly experience the present as it is means we have to refrain from our most habitual defenses, such as justifying, trying to get control, going numb, seeking diversions, and so on. The sole purpose of these strategies is to protect us from feeling the pain we don’t want to feel. But until we can refrain from these defenses, and feel the physical experience directly, we will stay stuck in the storyline of “me,” unaware of what life really is in the moment.” Erza Bayda
To be with discomfort, we have to establish a new relationship with our thoughts and feelings. Rather than pushing them away or ignoring them, we have to just look at them without trying to fix or change them.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers
This is definitely not easy to do. But we have a tool to help us, meditation. When we practice meditation, we train ourselves to look at what is happening in the moment without the filters of greed, aversion or delusion and without judgment. When we are aware of emotions arising, we can choose to get lost in the storyline, push it away, ignore it, or hold it gently.
Holding it gently requires us to feel the pain. And sometimes the pain we feel is much less than we thought it would be. We can be with the pain and let it move through us, knowing that it won’t last forever. Neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor notes that the physiological lifespan of an emotion in the body and brain is 90 seconds. That is if we don’t fuel it with our storyline.
But holding the pain is a very uncomfortable place for us. We are not following our habit energies to get rid of the pain, so we are left with an uncomfortable feeling. We don’t know what will happen. Our inner critic is warning us of disaster. And it is very easy to hold onto it as “my pain.” I have been holding onto a pain for a long time. In the last year or so, I have been trying to hold it gently. But it was still “my pain,” and it felt like it would never go away. I was obviously still feeding it with stories.
Recently I tried a practice, called tonglen, that took a lot of courage. The practice is to try letting in the pain of all those who were suffering from the same pain. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with more pain, I found that I was not alone. The pain wasn’t just mine, and I could release my grip on it just a little. So, it made a lot of sense when I heard Frank Ostaseski say he was not very good at self-compassion, but when he lets compassion arise for all the people suffering like he is, some of it spills over onto him. I think that is what happened to me.
I am starting to accept that life won’t always go according to my plan or my timeline. And that I don’t have to make myself unhappy when life doesn’t go according to plan. I can still enjoy the present moment, even if it was not the moment I had planned.
“This week take a stand for yourself, for feeling as good as you reasonably can. A stand for bearing painful experiences when they walk through the door – and a stand for encouraging them to keep on walking, all the way out of your mind. This is not being at war with discomfort or distress, which would just add negativity, like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Instead, it is being kind to yourself, wise and realistic about the toxic effects of painful experiences.” Rick Hanson
“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Richard Rohr