Sitting with Discomfort

A lot of us are struggling with discomfort right now. Not knowing when the worst of this pandemic will be behind us. That’s uncomfortable. Having to miss out on events, not seeing loved ones, having to change our routines. That’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, when my nose is itchy and my sunglasses are fogging up and the backs of my ears are sore, I am physically uncomfortable.

We’re at a moment where a lot of things are coming together and blowing up. A pandemic. Political turmoil. A system of racial injustice that is, if you are a white person, calling you to confront some uncomfortable truths or, if you’re not white, actively threatening your personhood.

This is hard.

It feels like an attack. The constant flow of conflicting information is an assault on our ability to reason rationally. The discomfort wrought by this pandemic pushes us into resentment and rejection of fact. The polarization of ideas, the chaos of politics, it tries to force us into hardened, inflexible positions where we lose discourse, empathy, humility. We feel angry. We get defensive. We forget logic.

Trying to make sense of it all is hard. Really hard.

It’s tempting not to try, and instead let ourselves flow down whatever river seems to put fewer obstacles in the way of our understanding.

So, if the information about Covid-19 feels incomplete, anything that offers an alternative becomes very attractive. When an article about how mask wearing is actually bad for our health pops up, we want to believe it. When even our good intentions are shown to be further perpetuating white supremacy, we want to turn away, give up. And social media, which gives us much of the information we consume, just feeds us more of whatever we like to see, whatever causes us less friction. We crave whatever validates our discomfort and alleviates us of the burden of responsibility. 

But it is exactly in a circumstance like this, when we don’t have all the information we need, and when there are a lot of unknowns, that we need to be ok with the discomfort of it all.

Leaning into Discomfort

When I practice yoga or do exercise, I tend to think that the poses or moves I hate the most are the ones I need the most.

Doing things that are easy for us is… easy. It’s when we feel uncomfortable–that’s where the growth happens.

[Important sidebar: This sounds like a self-help trope. It does get abused a lot. But to be clear: there is a definite difference between discomfort and actually being in danger; learning to accept discomfort is not the same as pushing beyond our warning signals. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes, especially if we’ve experienced trauma. This is where professional help is really useful.]

Yoga has always been, for me, a physical meditation, a merging of physical and mental consciousness. The physical challenge is a way to pull our attention onto our body and breath and nothing else. The river of our thoughts can meander quietly but our focus stays with our feet planted firmly on the floor, mindful of our body in this one, single position. In this one, single moment. When we feel uncomfortable, we are meant to meet it, not avoid it, and simply allow it to be, understanding that even the discomfort cannot shake the solid connection of our body to the floor.

We all need that right now. Grounded acceptance, that can allow us to be with the discomfort we are all feeling as a situation much larger than any of us alone messes with so many aspects of our lives.

When we lose that grounding, we are directed by the chaos of all the challenges we’re facing at once. We give up, give in, and harden into positions that feel more comfortable in the moment, but will harm us or other people in the long run.

How do we find the ground?

I’m not a psychologist or a counsellor, so I won’t write a prescription, but I can offer what I am trying to do. For me, the most effective thing comes from mindfulness. I try to notice and ask questions about those feelings of discomfort when they come. When I realize I’m getting defensive or angry, or starting to say something like, “this is bullshit,” I try to pause and dig into that feeling, try to understand its origin. There’s usually another feeling underneath it: anxiety, grief, exhaustion. And that is the feeling I need to address, not the surface feeling, which is calling for a quick fix.

I cannot do this all the time. Like I said, this time period feels like an attack, and sometimes the onslaught is too fast and relentless for me to take The Pause.

So then I suppose the second part of the approach is having some compassion for myself and the fact that sometimes I will give way to the superficial feeling. That’s ok, because there will always be another chance to try again. I think that’s the ground: knowing that even when we fall, we can always try again.

Another technique I’ve been using is being ok with not knowing.

We seem to be in a period of black and white thinking. It’s uncomfortable not to have an answer, so we like to find one and grip it like it’s a life raft. But sometimes actually sitting with our discomfort looks like shrugging and saying, “I don’t actually know the answer to this.”

We’ve been conditioned to think that not knowing is weak. But more and more, I’m realizing that saying “I don’t know” is quite the brave act.

Why would I, a person with no medical background or training, be expected to know everything about a new virus that hasn’t even existed in the world for a year yet? I can’t have all those answers. I can only do my best to evaluate information and listen to the people that do have both access to the data and the ability to process it. And even those people don’t have all the answers.

We have to be ok with that.

Defensiveness is an exhausting state. Constantly defending our views burns a lot of energy. Letting go of that defensiveness and allowing for uncertainty is a relief, like finally releasing the rope in tug-of-war. That slack is respite.

The more we do it, the easier it gets. I have confidence in my intelligence and my powers of analysis and reasoning. This used to feel like having to know the right answer all the time. But I’ve been practicing getting ok with the feeling of not knowing. I’ve realized that instead of feeling less than, admitting “I don’t know” is an opening for inquiry and growth. With that mindset, I feel stronger (and smarter) when I decide I need more information.

This is especially pertinent to racial justice issues. I can’t know everything about the experience of non-white people in North America. It is not my experience. When my understanding of the world is challenged, defensiveness feels like the path of least resistance. Digging in feels easier than digging deeper and accepting that what I thought I knew isn’t true for everyone. I’ve come to realize that that initial defensiveness is like a beacon pointing me to the places where I have to dig deep and do more work to find the weak points in my understanding. Shoring up the foundation will only make me stronger.

Why Am I Writing This?

In my last post, I mentioned my desire to write about all the things that set my soul on fire. Well, right now, this is it. For one, this is, as ever, me grappling with my own feelings of confusion and frustration.But also, I’ve seen a lot of people I know and love falling down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and building resistance to evidence-based information.

My initial feeling is to be dismissive. Even angry.But I have to resist that.

Because I know that underneath all of this: it’s discomfort. Anxiety. Grief. And damn, I can relate to those feelings.

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So that’s the point where we come together. That’s the shared experience. I feel that when we disagree with one another, we have to find the common ground first and start from there.

I guess this is my attempt to do that. It feels like everything is shaking beneath us right now, whatever you “believe.” Instead of yelling at one another while we all get tossed and bumped around, perhaps we can recognize the discomfort and worry in one another and figure out how to move ahead together.







Featured Image attribution: “Uncomfortable” by Adrian Black on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

2 responses to “Sitting with Discomfort

  1. Moving ahead together…I think it’s listening attempting to understand the feelings that are lurking underneath the anger and defensiveness, having some empathy and loving those who may always see things differently than I do. Thanks for writing this!

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