Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Being human is a rich tapestry of experiences. There are so many wonderful and terrible things about human form. One of the most baffling is our ability to adapt and survive. Some people can experience an endless string of loss and challenge and remain stubbornly hopeful, shaping a new life for themselves more beautiful than the one they lost. Others can have all the resources and support available to them and feel too afraid to make change, too scared to try, so mired in confusion that their life is over well before they're in the ground. It's hard to know why those who survive and thrive do so.
Sometimes, our adaptability is a blessing and it gets us through troubled times and to a place of victory, joy and confidence. At other times, our lizard brain, the primal part of us howls at us not to make any sudden moves, to lay low and stay quiet so that we can continue to survive. There are times when stillness and silence are the best course of action, but there are also times when that path is harmful to our sense of self, our safety and the quality of our present life and the future we are dreaming of.
We can stay in relationships and settings which don't serve us, which are actively hurting us because over time, we become accustomed to it. After enough time has passed, if we aren't able to move away from the danger, we can come to mistake its familiarity for safety and the once bright vision of a better life dims until it seems impossible and even undesirable.
When some part of our life no longer fits, we can do ourselves a great disservice by trying to make it bearable. This is how we can end up staying longer than is healthy, our energy slowly being drained, our attention being redirected from taking action toward what would be a better fit. Sometimes, there are difficult situations where the way out and forward will cost us dearly in time, money or health and so we must make it bearable and move at a pace which we can sustain.
It goes without saying that not all discomfort is a warning sign that change is needed. I think of ongoing discomfort as the emotional equivalent of a "check engine light". And when we override our early warning system, we can find ourselves in pain or danger, wondering how we got to this place.
A number of years ago, I started practicing yoga. I was working in a job which was so unhealthy for me that my anxiety became overwhelming and I developed sciatic nerve pain. Sitting was uncomfortable, but so was standing or crouching or lying down. While I was in denial about my emotional and mental turmoil, I was unable to ignore the pain coursing from my low back down to my knees.
It had been some time since I had a regular movement practice and I felt hesitant. Within a few weeks of regular classes, I was amazed that my pain eased. In the moments of seeking rest in child's pose or corpse pose, there was finally enough quiet and stillness for my body to stop screaming at me and for my heart and mind to let me know what I had to change. I went on to quit that toxic job and within a month of quitting, my anxiety eased and my nerve pain was completely gone. It has never returned.
That's a nice, neat little ending for a difficult experience. The truth is, I might never have gone back after my first class. I felt awkward and clumsy, self-conscious of my body, sure that I was the only one doing it wrong. What's worse, it was uncomfortable and I had spent so much time avoiding discomfort.
I am so glad I went back-- otherwise, I might never have received some of the most precious wisdom I have been gifted. There were many wonderful teachers, but during one class, as we moved and breathed through practice, Cynthia spoke to us about the difference between discomfort and pain. We were doing a pose which I found challenging-- it was uncomfortable and I felt flooded with intense sensations.
In a moment of clarity, I began to pay more attention to my breath. Her words landed with me. I sent my breath to the parts of me where sensation felt overwhelming. And I quickly began to realize that I was not in pain. I was experiencing discomfort, but I was not in danger. I wasn't hurt-- I was simply very aware of my body.
That realization was an initiation for me. I began to wake up to all the places in my life where I had misread discomfort as danger and seen challenges as an attack or a threat. It was difficult to look at, but I was able to soften my heart toward myself and remember that it wasn't modelled for me, how to tell the difference between being uncomfortable and being endangered. It was a new skill I had to learn and every day I am grateful for that skill.
If you have been waiting for the discomfort to end and it seems there is no end in sight, breathe into that truth. It's the truth for right now, not forever. And if stillness and quiet are accessible to you, make some time for them and notice if any glimmers of insight present themselves. Sometimes, just the act of regularly listening to our being is enough to turn down the volume on the static of fear and confusion. Sometimes, clarity emerges and creative solutions appear. May you receive all the resourcing you need to stay with yourself and choose to listen to your discomfort so you can move from the familiar to the ease and peace which is your birthright.