The point is still to lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than to protect ourselves from it.
-Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
Tim Ferriss once said that a successful life is measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations you are willing to have with others.
I hate to admit it, but it’s true. We only learn and grow when we are willing to lean into discomfort – all of that discomfort that we would rather do anything else but face. Only then can we see our fears clearly and confront them with a heart full of fear but empty of cowardice.
I love this quote because it doesn’t eschew fear. Having fears is human as fuck.
When Milarepa, a Tibetan sage, returned to his cave dwelling, he found it overtaken by demons. He attempted to reason with them, to teach them kindness, and to show them compassion. But the demons only chortled and continued their barbarous freeloading of Milarepa’s books, food, and bedding. Finally, after exhausting his patience and choosing to lean into this discomfort, Milarepa capitulated.
“Well, I’m not going away, and it seems that you’re not leaving this cave either. So I suppose we will have to live together.”
At that point, all of the demons (except one particularly ferocious-looking holdout) departed the cave.
At a loss of what to do, Milarepa surrendered. He leaned in (literally) into the demon’s mouth and asked him to eat him if it so desired. And that demon too departed.
Our demons are fears. They will inevitably find our cave and take refuge, consuming our resources. The more we resist and attempt to reason them away, the more our demons grow defiant, emboldened. But the second we surrender and allow ourselves to lean into this discomfort, the demons lose all power. Fear is a self-feeding vicious cycle. If you cut off resistance, you cut off fear’s power.
I sometimes experience fear before I teach classes – often with lower-level students. I often ask a question and meet total silence. Sometimes that silence extends as long as 30 seconds. Yet it feels like 30 years. I am a teacher. Shouldn’t I be teaching? In a speaking class, silence reeks of failure.
But more often than not, if I wait it out, if I wade through the discomfort, students will either produce an insightful response or utter the magical three-word answer.
“I don’t know.”
I find that Korean students avoid these three words like the plague. Everyone is so concerned with their ranking in class, their relative status as students, that no one is willing to admit ignorance. I can’t say I blame them. I was a high school student once too, sitting on my hands and nodding rather than ask a “stupid” question and surrender my “brilliance card.”
If only I knew the value of discomfort – the value of challenge – back then. I’d likely be healthier and wiser than I am now.
However, I still see the value of balancing comfort and routine with discomfort and uncertainty. A morning routine is an anchor. It keeps me grounded and secure as I seek our opportunities to challenge and stretch my knowledge and skills.
Balance is a must. If we stretch too often with no refuge of comfort, we expend ourselves into a puddle of emotional and mental jelly. If we grow too comfortable, we grow stagnant and depressed. Balance is a fine-tuned skill that we can all improve.
In the past several months, I traveled much more than before. On one hand, I appreciate these opportunities to lean into discomfort and to grow stronger. By subjecting ourselves to moderate levels of stress, we can test limits and expand our physical, mental, and emotional resources. But I also felt rundown at time. Running around on buses from Daegu, Suncheon, Yeosu, and Gwangju often left me drained come Sunday evening. As a new workweek loomed ahead, the Sunday blues multiplied. Not only did I have to work the following morning, but the weekend left me dog-tired.
And yet I managed. I survived. We don’t know what we are capable of until necessity forces us to plow ahead. While I look forward to more relaxing weekends in the near future, I do know I am capable of spur-of-the-moment trips – trips that often satisfy me more than they deplete me.
Yet after taxing our physical, mental, and emotional resources, rest is in order. While challenges induce the stimulus for growth, rest produces the growth itself.
Life rarely lets us lie in calm waters. Life throttles us in a chaotic ocean. As waves lap against our boats and threaten us with sea-sickness, we have a choice. If we can counterbalance the movement of our boat by leaning into the bobbing waves, we can avert nausea and discover peace in adversity.
Armoring ourselves against life’s discomfort is a futile effort. No one has a strong enough shield. Moreover, insulating ourselves from life only amplifies our fears and despair. The demons grow stronger on our own mental food.
More often than not, when we lean into discomfort rather than sequester ourselves away, we find that it pales in comparison to our imaginations. We often overhype the pain that life will bring.
That’s not to say life will not be painful if we accept it. Life will always bring us pain. But it doesn’t have to bring us suffering. Resistance brings suffering. Insulation brings suffering. Acceptance brings peace.