On Comfort

In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh describes walking meditation:

“Although we walk all the time, our walking is usually more like running. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. . . .

If you feel happy, peaceful, and joyful while you are walking, you are practicing correctly. Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now it is time for us to take care of her.”

When I try walking meditation, I like to put my feet down very carefully. Don’t slam them down on the earth; like Hanh says, try to step gently and with love. But even more importantly, I try not to do damage to myself when I walk. Usually, when we walk, there’s a certain speed we like to maintain. It’s a trade-off between pain in our feet or elsewhere in our bodies and getting to where we want to go as fast as we can. The same trade-off is true elsewhere: if we’re working, eating, or even talking, we sacrifice some part of ourselves in order to get things done more efficiently.

Presumably, you’re sitting down at your computer right now, reading this. Take a second to notice your posture. Why are you sitting the way you are? Are there any uncomfortable spots in your body? I’ll bet there are.

As we grow older, we learn how to handle a certain amount of pain, to suck it up or save it for later. We learn to hold our bladders for a long time, since there’s a lecture at school that needs attending to, or since you need to wait til the next gas station to stop the car. We learn how to get by on less and less sleep, or eat unhealthily, taking shortcuts. We’ve been conditioned to ignore our own pain. Habit has taught us to tolerate a certain level of discomfort for practical purposes. Unfortunately, many of us go through life without realizing this, and thus we never “turn it off.” Even in our downtime, we are likely to neglect our bodies; we must finish this article, read another e-mail, watch the movie through til the end, or get to the end of the chapter in a book. The compulsion is overpowering, and causes us to ignore aches and pains.

Forget about all this for a second, and focus on your body. Try, for just an instant, to be as comfortable as possible. Stretch out, find a stable, pain-free position, and enjoy the feeling of being in your body for a little while.

Nice, isn’t it?

If you’re able to maintain this focus, you will find mindfulness. The next step: move around, but don’t cause yourself any pain. Don’t rush. Don’t worry. Believe it or not, things will still get done if you don’t worry about them. Take a walk, and for a few steps, put your feet down gently, so that you don’t stress the tendons in your arches, calves, hamstrings, lower back, shoulders, neck. When you stomp, or even step vigorously, a lot of stress goes into your body. You can feel the force shoot upwards from your feet and rattle all the sore spots.

If you can move forward without causing yourself any more pain, then you are moving in the right direction. It’s possible to enjoy everything, physically, viscerally, on the bodily level, if you take your own comfort into account. Every movement is a potential celebration. Pay attention to the sensations that are going on in your body—pay attention to the pain, the host of discomforts and anxieties we ignore as we try to maximize productivity. Try to alleviate this discomfort. Really!

Return to your body. Sore back? Try to soothe it! Sore muscles? Massage some of the pain out. You will find that the world, the body, is a very wonderful place to dwell in.

Now that you’ve isolated your comfort, you can begin to be comfortable outside of your comfort zone. That’s how you grow. Consider exercise. But I can hear you say: “Exercising isn’t comfortable! It sucks, it hurts!” A little pain is a good thing sometimes; just be aware! It’s OK to be tired or sore, but you don’t want to pull a muscle or get shin splints. Picture a worst-case and a best-case scenario, depending on your initial shape: if you are a wonderful runner, you run a mile, and you obtain an Olympic record. Your performance is a testament to the ideal functioning of the human body. Fantastic! If you are in very bad shape, you may fall down and break an ankle if you’re not careful. Ouch!

Pay attention to your body, like you learned how to do when you found your comfort. Since you’re familiar with your limits, you know the proper distance to push them. You must subject yourself to marginally increasing discomforts, and adapt to the stress. Eventually, you will be comfortable, in your element exercising, when it was not that way before. You might start to crave the release of endorphins and seratonin that comes from a good workout, when previously you dreaded it! Your experience with exercise has become positive, and you have increased the quality of your life in the meantime. You have more energy, sleep better, are less stressed.

To put it in another context, consider a social setting. If you are extremely anxious, and immediately get thrown into a high-pressure social situation, like a speech or music recital, you might crumble and choke, or even have a panic attack. On the other hand, if you are very socially adept, these occasions could be crowning achievements in your life. The same growth process happens; you get out of your room more and more, meet with new people, start to joke with them, and eventually they become good friends, or even lovers. Each step involves the toppling of a wall of discomfort. You didn’t want to introduce yourself to them initially, for fear of shyness; you didn’t want to make that first joke, because you could have seemed like a geek if they didn’t get it. And think of the courage it took to make that first romantic gesture! But because you went through with all these things, there is a new level of emotional fulfillment in your life.

When you apply practice to a particular thing, if you have made a consistent effort to stretch past your boundaries, negative experiences become positive. If you stretch your muscles out, slowly and patiently confronting the pain that ails you continuously, you will be more comfortable in your day-to-day life. When all’s said and done, you’ll have something new to cherish, some new object of love in your life.

You’d be amazed at how many things work the same way. Find your comfort, and try to gradually expand.

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