We’re all familiar with discomfort—from a rough night’s sleep in an unfamiliar bed to an unrelenting case of poison oak. Or sometimes, it can be a lot worse, like a chronic illness, deep grief or anxiety, making comfort feel like an impossibility.
It’s a part of being human, though, these instances of discomfort. From our earliest moments out of the womb, discomfort is all too familiar. So we try to avoid it; doing our best to focus on what gives us the most comfort and pleasure in life. And often times, that effort in trying so hard to avoid discomfort can make us pretty lousy at dealing with it when it does occur. Had the flu recently? Then you most likely know what I’m talking about. No matter how great your life is otherwise, those three miserable days in bed with body aches, chills and nonstop sneezing and coughing can make you feel like you’re going to lose your mind, right?
There is, of course, another way of looking at discomfort. It may also be an opportunity to be fully present, to be aware of what’s going on, rather than being fully wrapped up in it.
Spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle is known for talking about our “painbody,” which is an accumulation of our emotional pains that can easily be triggered by even the slightest discomfort. When something uncomfortable happens, like getting the flu, or being stuck in traffic, we connect that experience to all the other times in our lives when we also felt discomfort. This is why some people are incapable of handling stressful or painful situations and react with emotional outbursts that may inflict pain on others. “Often, little situations trigger enormous reactions. Be there, present for it,” writes Tolle.
By being present when discomfort sets in, we can avert our energy away from feeding into the painbody that comes alive when those challenging moments arise, says Tolle. “At that moment, when it does take over your mind, the internal dialogue, which is dysfunctional at the best of times, now becomes the voice of the painbody talking to you internally. Everything it says is deeply colored by the old, painful emotion of the painbody. Every interpretation, everything it says, every judgment about your life, about other people, about a situation you are in, will be totally distorted by the old emotional pain.”
As we continue this practice of observing our levels of discomfort (it also works when we’re overwhelmed with great joy or comfort, too), we become more deeply connected to the awareness that discomfort, like all human experiences, is only temporary, and does not define us.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But simple things can help, like coming up with your own code word for when you’re feeling uncomfortable. “Peppermint” might remind you to take a breath, relax and observe the experience rather than be overrun by it.
Another way to learn to manage discomfort is to journal about what you’re feeling as it happens. Does the traffic jam make you think about something that happened when you were a child? How does looking at your emotional state in the moment help reduce the discomfort?
Get outside. While that may not be a reality when in bed with a 103 degree temperature, even just sitting near an open window can help you breathe better and think more clearly. It can aid you in processing and observing the situation. Tolle says, “If you are present, the painbody cannot feed anymore on your thoughts, or on other people’s reactions. You can simply observe it, and be the witness, be the space for it. Then gradually, its energy will decrease.”
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