Professional Student of Life
Musings from the path of personal growth
The way you do one thing is the way you do everything. ~ Unknown
One of the books I read this month is When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. It sparked what may be one of the biggest lessons of my life, a realization that started out small but continues to unfold, revealing more and more facets and applications in my life… from dealing with the sadness of my divorce, to fear of flying, to how to watch a football game. Turns out, as the truism goes, the way you do one thing is the way you do everything.
So what is this major revelation, already? That the cause of all the “suffering” in my life is merely discomfort that I’ve been either fleeing or resisting. As with every epiphany, on the surface it seems very simple. All of the so-called negative emotions – grief, anger, fear, boredom, embarrassment, etc. – are uncomfortable. Most of us reflexively avoid discomfort by trying to suppress it (denying it altogether or distracting ourselves with activities). If that doesn’t work, if the feelings are too big or too persistent to allow us to flee, we resist them instead (this is the part where we build big stories about what has happened to us and why it’s so bad).
What Pema Chödrön showed me is that there’s another alternative, what she calls “sitting with the discomfort.” My friend Dr. Trish Ring calls it “tolerating the tension.” Even my therapist has a term for it: “holding onto yourself.” What it means is simply feeling the feeling and letting it be, even though it’s uncomfortable. Not trying to rush out and find a solution for it (although ironically, if you let yourself sit with the discomfort you’re more likely to arrive at a solution that actually works than if you react reflexively in an effort to resolve the tension at all costs).
Let me give you a few examples from my own life this month, ranging from the profound to the ridiculous. Of course, going through a divorce provides a whole cornucopia of uncomfortable emotions to sit with, but I was more surprised by how this concept helped me deal with some of the smaller problems as well. For instance, I hate to fly through turbulence. I spend the time clutching my armrests and bracing for imminent free fall, all the while pretending to my daughter that I’m relaxed and carefree so that she won’t absorb my irrational fears.
This time, when I noticed how uncomfortable I was, I decided to just focus on feeling the feeling itself rather than projecting into my story of how we were about to fall from the sky and what THAT would be like. Surprisingly, my anxiety (without the story) was actually pretty tolerable. Focusing on it brought me back into the present moment and what was actually happening (we were bumping around a lot) and out of the un-real future moment I was envisioning.
Here’s another one: I’m not really a huge sports fan, mostly because once I get “invested” in a team I get too caught up in the artificial highs and lows of winning and losing. Honestly, in what way would it actually detract from my life if the Seahawks lost the Superbowl? And yet, I find a game in which they’re not playing well very uncomfortable to watch, and I generally flee (which means I missed their amazing comeback against Green Bay). So I’ve decided that the Superbowl will make a great test case, with no personal consequences, for practicing my new philosophy of “sitting with discomfort.” Of course, I’m hoping that I won’t need to use it!
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