Life is full of choices. Some choices may take months or years to decide, others are so seemingly inconsequential that we may not even notice ourselves making them. The question is, why do we make the choices that we make? What motivates us to choose this over that from one moment to the next? How can we make sure that our choices serve us, not just for right now, but over the long haul? These are essential questions to answer if we want to cultivate mastery over our lives.
A great number of the choices we make in life are guided by our desire for comfort. While sitting, we unconsciously shift our weight, cross and uncross our legs, fold and unfold our arms. We don’t even realize such subtle choices are constantly occurring. We just naturally gravitate towards that which feels best for us. In this way, humans are like the water of a stream; as we flow throughout life, we tend to move along the paths of least resistance. Most of the time, this works out perfectly fine but, sometimes, it doesn’t.
One of the things I love about meditation is that it teaches us how to have a different type of relationship with discomfort. When I was residing at Henepola Gunaratana’s monastic center in my mid-twenties, we’d sit for 90 minutes every morning. With no break! The pain would be so excruciating at times that I felt like my knees were being severed by a hack saw. Nonetheless, I refused to move. The pain would grow and grow and grow until, just when I was certain I could withstand it no longer, the pain would suddenly and totally vanish. At the far end of a long corridor of torment, I found a state of unparalleled bliss. Those difficult experiences taught me the benefits of facing my discomfort, and of coming out the other side, unharmed and a better person because of it. I discovered that I didn’t need to avoid discomfort; another path was possible. This is helpful knowledge because, so very often in life, our pathway forks in these two directions.
We can choose the path of least resistance and enjoy comfort, or we can struggle through unpleasantness. At a glance, this seems like a no-brainer. Between comfort and discomfort, comfort is obviously preferable! After all, the choice between these two options can be elaborated upon to look like this:
Again, this seems like an obvious choice. Who in the world would ever choose the right path over the left?! Anxiety, doubt, nervousness, and difficulty? No thanks! Give me tranquility, confidence, peace, and ease over that stuff any day. And, as long as we think (and act) this way, we successfully manage to remain, for the most part, comfortable. Well, not actually. There’s a problem with this.
We continue to experience discomfort about certain things. What then? Just continue to avoid them? What if you fear getting in a long-term relationship? Is the solution to stay out of one? What if you fear public speaking, driving, asking for a raise, talking to strangers at a party, making phone calls, going out in public? I’ve had clients with all of these discomforts! Does the best and most obvious choice continue to be the left-hand path? What if this choice between comfort and discomfort, in such instances, were to be accurately translated into these alternate terms:
Now, seen in this way, which seems better? The left path no longer looks so preferable. While avoidance may feel comfortable in the moment, it ultimately solves nothing. It doesn’t help us become comfortable being in a long-term relationship or giving a speech, driving or asking for a raise, talking to strangers at a party or going out in public. This reminds me of the old joke about the guy who goes to his doctor and says, “It hurts every time I do this”, to which the doctor replies, “Then stop doing that.” As doctors to ourselves, certainly we can offer up a better solution.
If we habitually choose comfort over discomfort–avoidance over growth–then what’s the result? The path of least resistance (on the left) insures that our anxiety, doubt, nervousness and difficulty (which we’re avoiding) persists. Whenever we want to drive a car or ask for a raise, for example, our discomfort will still be there. But, if we instead summon the courage to embrace our discomfort and act regardless, new gifts will emerge. Now the choice between immediate comfort (on the left) and immediate discomfort (on the right) looks like:
Again, it’s clear that the left path (comfort) isn’t what we really want. We want to overcome our discomfort. We want to learn how to be able to live our lives without hiding from the things that feel uncomfortable. We want the things that feel uncomfortable to start feeling comfortable. We want to ultimately know that we can confidently handle anything, that there’s nothing for us to outright avoid or shy away from. Only in this way can we enjoy true freedom, the freedom to live fearlessly, without restrictions and limits on what we feel we can and cannot do.
But where does such freedom come from? It cannot be had by taking the path of least resistance, the path of always choosing comfort over discomfort. Understanding this, our options can be further described as:
If the choice between comfort and discomfort, at certain moments at least, is actually the choice between slavery and freedom, then now which is the obvious path? Freedom is a far more valuable reward than comfort, yes, even if it entails enduring some discomfort to achieve it. Luckily, when we choose the right-hand path, an ironic phenomenon transpires. The pursuit of freedom–rather than surrender to slavery–ultimately leads to…
Comfort! Not the the type of comfort that has us scurrying for shelter every time something scary or intimidating confronts us, no, not that at all. We achieve the type of comfort that can be described as “tranquility, confidence, peace, ease”, the exact qualities we originally thought we were getting by choosing the left path. Only this time, these benefits aren’t momentary and fleeting; they’re enduring. They become part of who we are.
I cannot overemphasize how rewarding it is for us to face our discomforts head-on. Of course, to reap the rewards of doing so, it’s important to first realize that (by definition) it isn’t going to be fun. It’s going to feel, well, uncomfortable. To navigate your way through this discomfort, focus on the greater goal. This greater goal is freedom, true and lasting freedom. If you give yourself permission to suffer discomfort, and refuse to run away or opt for avoidance, you’ll evolve from the experience. In time, as you develop a history of successfully surviving the things you previously dreaded, you’ll begin to feel more and more comfortable with them. But one last advisory about this: choosing discomfort over comfort presents a somewhat riskier set of alternatives.
In the moment, the path of comfort is usually the low-risk option. The discomfort we experience upon the right-hand path comes from the very real fact that “failure” is a possibility. Nervously ask someone out on a date and you might get rejected. Try to give a talk to 500 people and you might freeze up and forget your lines (like I did during my TEDTalk). But, remember, it is only through this possibility of failure that growth is possible. If I didn’t attempt my TEDTalk, I would have successfully not have frozen or forgotten my lines. But, really, what kind of a success would that have been? Not much of one. I tried, failed somewhat, and grew from the experience. Every talk I’ve given since has been better than the one before, all because I’ve been willing to face my discomfort and risk failure.
So, in the end, whenever there is something you want to improve upon, whenever there is a risk you want to take, usually something that stirs up feelings of discomfort, uneasiness, anxiety, and doubt, realize that you are at a choice point. You can stick upon the path of least resistance and remain safe in your place of comfort (which ultimately just perpetuates your discomfort through avoidance) or you can give yourself permission to, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward you feel, risk failure. Head straight into the places that intimidate you, knowing that this is the path through which you will achieve your ultimate goals and become transformed. You owe yourself this gift, the gift of a little discomfort right now in exchange for a lifetime of greater confidence and comfort later. Choose bravely. Choose wisely. (Even if you make a fool out of yourself every once in a while, I guarantee you’ll thank yourself for it later.)
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