The way to master discomfort is to do it comfortably. That might sound contradictory, but it’s not. If you tend to avoid setting goals or undertaking activities that may be difficult, requires effort or you lack enthusiasm for, you will probably give up and fail, and go back to comfort.
So do it in small doses.
- Pick something that’s not hard. Take meditation as an example. It’s not really that hard — you just sit down and pay attention to your body and breath, in the present moment. You don’t have to empty your mind (just notice your thoughts), you don’t have to chant anything weird, you just sit and pay attention. If you don’t like meditation, try a new healthy food, like kale or raw almonds or quinoa. Or a fairly easy exercise if you’re sedentary, like walking or jogging.
- Just do a little. You don’t have to start by doing 30 minutes of something you’re not used to doing. Just do a few minutes. Just start.
- Push out of your comfort zone, a little. Zen priest Susan O’Connell has a favorite meditation instruction that you can use for any activity actually: when you’re meditating and you feel like getting up, don’t; then when you feel the urge to get up a second time, don’t; and when you feel the urge to get up a third time, then get up. So you sit through the urge, the discomfort, twice before finally giving in the third time. This is a nice balance, so that you’re pushing your comfort zone a little. You can do this in exercise and many other activities — push a little.
- Watch the discomfort. Watch yourself as you get a bit uncomfortable — are you starting to complain (internally)? Are you looking for ways to avoid it? Where do you turn to? What happens if you stay with it, and don’t do anything?
- Smile. This is not trivial advice. If you can smile while being uncomfortable, you can learn to be happy with discomfort, with practice. When I was practicing Kung Fu 1997, it was 2 hours of discomfort — sit-up, doing pushups, toughening our forearms with each others and broomsticks and other exercises, and being tired and hungry and cold. And yet, I practiced something simple: I tried to maintain a smile through all this discomfort. It’s an important practice.
Repeat this practice daily. It will be strange, perhaps difficult, at first, but soon your comfort zone will expand. If you practice it enough, with different activities, your comfort zone will expand to include discomfort. And then you can master the universe.
What You Can Now Master
If you master discomfort, what can you now master as a result? Just about anything:
- Procrastination. We procrastinate to avoid something that’s not comfortable, but if you can learn to stay with that task, even if it’s not comfortable. The discomfort isn’t bad.
- Exercise. We avoid exercise because it’s not comfortable, but if we expand the comfort zone a little at a time, we can make exercise something we’re comfortable with, after a little repetition.
- Writing. If you want to write but always seem to put it off, that’s because writing is often difficult, or less comfortable than checking email or social networks (for example). Stay with the discomfort, and you’ll write more than ever.
- Eating healthy. It’s amazing how much our taste buds can change over time, if we gradually get used to healthier foods. That means going through small periods of discomfort, but it’s not that bad in little doses.
- Meditation. We avoid the discomfort of sitting and doing nothing, of focusing on the present. But it’s not that hard — just a little uncomfortable.
- Waking early. Waking early means being a little tired for a little while, but that’s not a horrible thing.
- Learning a language/instrument. Want to learn something new? That means doing something you’re not used to, by definition, and so we often quit before we master this new skill, simply because (you guessed it) it makes us uncomfortable. Stay with the discomfort, and before long you’ll enjoy learning this new skill.
- Clutter. Clutter is just another form of procrastination. You don’t put things away, or you let a pile of things you don’t need build up, because it’s not comfortable dealing with it right now (as compared to, say, browsing the Internet or watching TV). But dealing with something right now isn’t that hard once you get past the discomfort.
- Reading novels. We tend to avoid simply sitting with a book, because we are pulled towards something more comfortable (again, Internet browsing as an example). If we can just sit with the book and a little discomfort, we can read more.
- Empty email inbox. Another form of procrastination — you get some emails, maybe look at them, but put off dealing with them right now because it’s easier not to.
- Debt. This is a series of things we have to deal with that are uncomfortable — listing out our debts and bills, making a simple budget, doing things that are free instead of shopping, etc. But I got out of debt by finally facing all of these things, and it was wonderful.
- New adventures. Many people stay with places they’re comfortable with, which means missing out on new experiences that might be a little uncomfortable. Even when they travel, many people stick with the tourist sights and food that they’re used to, rather than finding strange but more authentic experiences in a new land. We avoid meeting new people, speaking on stage, letting go of what we know, being open to new things … to avoid discomfort.
And that’s just the start. Within each of these areas there’s many things you can work on over the coming years now that you’re not afraid of discomfort, and there are many other areas of exploration now open to you.
Discomfort can be the joyful key that opens up everything for you.
‘Discomfort is very much part of my master plan.’ ~Jonathan Lethem