I believe the greatest challenge of our time is learning from discomfort.
To make life more tolerable, to get through tougher moments, we tend to seek out "discomfort dissolvers." These choices often make the small and large stressor manageable. They bring us to a more stable frame of mind. We rarely make time to question these choices, but would we become more awake and abundant if we choose to resist and sit in the discomfort? Would those moments uncover more fruit if we theoretically took more cold showers?
"I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few." Brene Brown
The external world makes it difficult to navigate our discomfort since there is an abundance of distractions to choose from that don't serve our health or happiness. At times we embrace our vices because we feel we deserve them. Other times we welcome them because we are convinced life is too short and we want just to live a little. I've come to realize that all the ways we pacify ourselves away from negative thoughts or feelings are potential teachers. Our discomfort dissolvers are there to wake us up. No matter what you choose to calm the unsettled feeling in your mind and body, it is a temporary experience. The cookie, cigarette, or coffee only lasts so many bites, puffs or sips. What you are left with is another temporary feeling of "oh thank god, peace has been restored" which may well fade in minutes or hours. Soon, you'll be reaching for another discomfort dissolver. Stopping the cycle is where lasting transformation begins.
Elvin Semrad, psychiatrist, and psychotherapist said,
"Through the work of psychoanalysis, the patient must come to acknowledge, experience, and bear the reality of his life - both the painful reality and the pleasurable reality of it. Then, he can finally put into perspective the feelings that arise in the process of living." (From the book "Semrad: The Heart of a Therapist")
Ah, bear the reality of life. So there must be something to discover when sitting in discomfort or pleasure without reacting or getting involved. Let's keep exploring.
This is where the ancient teachings of yoga and the sages come in. Their charge was to gracefully and skillfully lean into the discomfort knowing that it could bear fruit. They were able to step into the friction of the thinking mind, drop deeply into the present moment, feel the full flowering of that discomfort coursing through their veins and then, finally, let it all pass through them. They learned how to be in the "raw reality." They knew that life was more than a series of pleasant moments linked together. Instead, they discovered what it was like to be in the unpleasant feelings and sensations so they could observe, through the lens of the witness, an inner sea change in the body and mind. In yoga, they call this entire process tapas. It's truly one of the greatest gifts that the ancient tradition bequeathed to us because tapas enables transformation.
"Tapas is a purification that builds strong character, willpower, and intention. When tapas is appropriately applied, it leads to tejas (radiance), which expresses itself in courage, love, and a melting tenderness that draws all hearts. To create tejas through tapas, you must overcome a healthy amount of resistance." My teacher, Rod Stryker
Hmm, a healthy amount of resistance...I think that is where the cold shower comes into play. :)
You become stronger than the worldly offerings when you skillfully resist. When you feel the heat of discomfort flood the body/mind, you first must command yourself to slow down. This allows access what it feels like to embody those emotions, the tensions, the thoughts - all of it - the raw reality! The resisting your discomfort dissolver becomes your best teacher. When you allow tapas to build, consciously, you feel fully alive because there is something deeply human about being present for the "bear reality."
I wonder, has this peaked your interest?
As I was composing this article for you some weeks ago, one of my teachers, Kathy Ornish, based in Michigan, sent a message to her community with a graceful process for moving towards and learning from discomfort. With her blessing, I share those steps with you now in hopes that it will guide you towards the practice of tapas.
1. Begin to notice when you have an uncomfortable bodily sensation, thought, or emotion that arises.
2. Then, “shine a light” on it – actively look at it with curiosity; try not to push it away.
3. See it, but don’t identify with it. What does this mean? Look at what you see as if it’s not yours – no judgment, no wishing it different, no diving into the story associated with it.
4. As one of my students asked, “What do you do with the stinker once you see it?” The habit to respond and dive into the feelings and the story are strong, so if you feel it growing as you look, relax further, step back and observe more, and – very important - have compassion for yourself.
5. It is through repeated looking with compassion that it begins to decrease its potency and reveal some insight.
Hey, try these 5 steps and let me know how it goes. Or just let me know what you think of this whole "discomfort/tapas" conversation. I'd love to hear from you today!!
Now, I'm off to take a cold shower, JOE