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#5: Sitting With Discomfort


Optical illusion of gray grid with black dots


Being human is hard. It's really f*cking hard. Life is full of aches, pains, anxieties, regrets, disappointments, sicknesses, and heartbreaks – to name just a tiny fraction of the fun. It's hardship in one form or another that most often draws us to try meditation in the first place. My conscious mind wasn't willing (perhaps unable) to admit this at first. When I initially started experimenting with Zen meditation, I would point out how excited I was by the surreal and enthralling philosophies. But the truth was – I was struggling with anxiety and desperate to find a different way of living.


It's our pain that gives us the genuine motivation to try something different that leads us beyond the Goldilocks quest for happiness.


Sadly, many people who give meditation a try are shocked to find that it isn't what they thought it would be. Their experience doesn't align with the countless images they've seen on magazine covers, websites, statues, etc., of beautiful people sitting serenely with peaceful, satisfied looks on their faces. When they bump up against their pain in a practice that’s supposed to offer respite, confusion sets in. Then judgment. Fairly quickly, many people bail on the endeavor altogether. 


What I find most sad about this common occurrence is that it’s not a failure on the part of the novice meditator to “do it right,” but a combination of (mostly) misunderstanding the true intention of meditation, combined with impatience that causes them to conclude “it’s not for me.” 


Most people don't realize that meditation is not a quick fix. Actually, it’s not intended to be a “fix” at all. Instead, it is a means to cultivate greater intimacy with our lives. That means we’re learning to be open and receptive to ALL of our experiences, not just the pleasant ones that we naturally want more of. And in a strange, almost mysterious way, when we find the courage to face our pain and discomfort with kind acceptance, it leads us to a deeper, more sustainable form of happiness.


So how does this work? Let’s mindfully zoom in and look closer at the experience of discomfort.


Everyone who’s tried meditation for almost any length of time can tell you something about discomfort. Sit still long enough, and you’ll discover aches and pains showing up in the body due to the unfamiliarity of maintaining a still posture for longer than a few minutes. Imbalances in posture also cause discomfort (e.g., head too far forward, hips tilted back, spine curled like a cashew). Additionally, when we quiet down and focus inward, pain from injuries or chronic conditions can become more noticeable because, in everyday life, we are usually distracted to some degree from these bodily sensations.


On the emotional front, a myriad of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, such as fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, anger, frustration, regret, loneliness, and longing – also muted by the hustle of daily life – can suddenly surface in the stillness of meditation. They may manifest as a general sense of unease, specific memories, or even as physical sensations linked to emotional states.


When faced with discomfort, whether physical or emotional, our natural impulse is usually to escape it. This reaction is deeply rooted in our survival instincts. The desire to avoid pain and seek comfort is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. In meditation, this often shows up as restlessness, an urge to shift position, to stop meditating, or to distract oneself with thoughts or external stimuli.


This automatic reaction to pain unintentionally amplifies the discomfort. The underlying desire for these pains to diminish leads to internal resistance or a pushing away at our experience. Ironically, this yearning for the pain to subside, coupled with frustration when it persists, adds another layer of discomfort often referred to as the "second arrow" of suffering. The first arrow is the pain itself, while the second arrow is the further emotional distress we inflict on ourselves through our resistance or judgment.


One of the reasons the container of MBSR is so powerful is that it invites us to begin to rewire these unhelpful automatic tendencies. MBSR proposes a paradoxical approach: it invites us to turn toward and stay with our discomfort. Rather than avoiding or resisting it, we practice sitting with our discomfort, simply being with it.



And not for nothing. 


Learning to sit with discomfort is life-changing. And it builds our resilience.


First, when we sit with discomfort, we gain a certain clarity that is empowering. We see more clearly how we’re relating to our experience (often reactively and with great resistance). In the body scan, we’re given the opportunity to observe what’s happening – an itch, an uncomfortable sensation, a thought – and our automatic reactions to said happening. Over time, when we stay with the experience and come back over and over to a space of nonjudgmental, neutral observing, we unearth a great deal of agency to choose how to relate to our experience – differently than our knee-jerk, survival-brain reactions.


Renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl beautifully captured the essence of this ability when he wrote:


“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In our last cohort of MBSR, one participant reported that they initially hated the body scan because it made them acutely aware of chronic pain in their lower back, a sensation they usually tried to ignore or distract themselves from. However, as the weeks progressed, they continued exploring their ability to gently approach their pain with curiosity. They started to see clearly that when they treated the pain as “an enemy encroaching on their meditation” and tried to push it to the periphery, it grew in intensity and made them irritable, sometimes outright angry. They also discovered that when they related to their pain in the same way throughout their workday, their interactions with coworkers were terse, their fuse was shorter, and they were more negatively impacted by unanticipated hiccups in their workflow. As they became more and more aware of this pattern, they were able to catch themselves and choose a kinder, gentler, more inclusive response. While the pain itself hadn’t really changed – it was still present in their practice and in their everyday life experience – it became more tolerable. It was no longer the all-consuming force it had once been.


Second, we build our tolerance for discomfort. When we practice meeting “the unwanted” with some degree of openness – sitting with an itch, gently observing a headache, watching an emotional storm blow through – we recognize that we actually have a remarkable inner strength and capacity to be with difficult experiences. Far more than most of us thought. There’s an enduring part of us beneath the “storm” that can weather both small and big discomforts (see the Mountain Meditation). And just like the participant who bravely worked with their chronic back pain, when we train in non-reactively meeting discomfort in our practice, we build our tolerance for discomfort in everyday life. The traffic jam. The angry co-worker. The throbbing pain in our knee. The painful breakup. They’re still fundamentally uncomfortable, but we have more space, agency, and trust in our ability to navigate them safely.


In a podcast interview with Ezra Klein, the poet Jane Hirshfield reads the following poem:


A Cedary Fragrance

Even now,

decades after,

I wash my face with cold water—

Not for discipline,

nor memory,

nor the icy, awakening slap,

but to practice

choosing

to make the unwanted wanted.


~ ~ ~


Hirshfield shares how the poem is a reference to the three years she spent in her twenties in formal Zen training at a wilderness monastery. The accommodations were very sparse – no electricity, no heat, only kerosine lamps and cold tap water in the bathroom. She would wake every morning at 3:40am (which is the time Zen monks rise) and wash her face with cold water out of necessity. She strongly disliked the experience of cold water and still does, but she continues the practice to this day:


I’ve written many, many poems out of the need to find a way to say yes to what I would, at first, rather say no to. Because our whole lives consist of such moments. Many things will happen to us that we would prefer not. We would prefer our loved ones don’t die. I would prefer the world were more sensible and kind and compassionate. I would prefer there not to be forest fires of such extraordinary devastation as we’ve been having, or fill in the blank.
But a human life requires all of these things. And so to every day begin the day with this simple affirmation of “I will make the unwanted wanted” has been a practice of decades for me now.

Third, in learning to acknowledge and embrace our discomfort, we develop greater empathy towards ourselves and others. When we see how instinctual our emotional reactivity is and how terribly easy it is to be hooked by discomfort, we begin to appreciate the complexity of human emotions, including the struggles associated with addiction and mental health challenges. This understanding naturally fosters a sense of compassion, both for ourselves and others, as we realize the universal nature of suffering and the enormous effort it takes to manage it.


In summary, constantly railing against or trying to escape discomfort is exhausting. And it’s futile. This approach of turning towards is truly radical and liberating because it offers a much different and more easeful path. When we can more consciously choose how we relate to our experiences, steadily build our tolerance for discomfort, and feel greater compassion, we unlock fresh energy for living. We get out of holes more quickly and choose different streets to walk down altogether.


And with each moment of discomfort that we meet head-on, we deepen the reservoir of trust in our ability to weather any storm life sends our way.


I’ll close here with one of my favorite quotes by Louisa May Alcott:


“I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

With love and gratitude,

Ryan

2 Comments


Paradoxically, when I sit with discomfort I also gain greater discernment regarding what is actually uncomfortable or grating or displeasing to me. Whereas I used to unconsciously push thru uncomfortable situations outside of meditation, now I more quickly recognize them and assert my boundaries (even with little things, like skipping a song I don’t enjoy). I think that comes from greater body awareness and greater awareness of what my emotions are telling me. I personally love this development.

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Guest
Feb 15

I have a feeling I'll be returning to this post over and over again. Thank you, Ryan.

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