Comfortable with Discomfort: How to be a Bodhisattva

For many people I’ve spoken with this past week, restlessness, agitation and discomfort have been at an all time high. Maybe it’s that the novelty of staying at home has worn off. Or the distractions we’ve used to soothe ourselves inside of the experience have lost their sheen. We might have been meditating to feel “at peace”, but once off the cushion the reality of circumstances brings us right back to our anxiety. In times like these, it’s natural to seek relief. But the dharma points us to the wisdom of being with discomfort. To paraphrase Pema Chodron, one of the greatest misunderstandings of the human mind is that true relief comes from making ourselves more comfortable.

Once our efforts to soothe or transcend run dry, we actually gain the perfect practice opportunity. We can think of it as sinking into the deepest, darkest, most fertile dharma mud. Down there, we may feel far from enlightenment, but we’re actually closer to the wisdom of “endarkenment”. We can turn towards the sensations of discomfort and become intimate with them. What does it feel like when the lights appear to be off, and there’s little relief in sight? What does it smell, sound and taste like? What happens when we stop running and allow ourselves to listen to what lies beneath the surface?

Down there, we’ll likely find all kinds of friends. Others who know the terrain well. Addicts, sex workers, the homeless, our own disavowed parts – people who are familiar with the below. In being with the darkness, with discomfort, with our pain and anxiety, we cultivate true connection to others who live there. We become fellows. Interconnection is no longer theoretical. Our openness to our own experience has us more capable of opening to others. We have less need to turn away from the underbelly, to judge it, or to look down on it with pity. We become more friendly and at ease with our own darkness – getting to know its true nature – and so have greater capacity to meet others there too. This is the work of a Bodhisattva… and the path to true relief.

Tips for practice:

Sitting with Discomfort – In your meditation this week, try sitting 15 minutes without moving. When uncomfortable sensations arise (an itch on your nose, a pinch in your hip), rather than shifting to alleviate it, stay still. In this moment of discomfort, practice opening to the sensation and allowing its intensity to enter you. See if you can relax with it, and notice what happens as you do this. Watch what occurs in your mind – the thoughts and reactions. Use the discomfort as an opportunity to discover something new, and expand your capacity to be with something uncomfortable.

Aversion practice – Think of one small thing you don’t like. A smell, a taste, a sound, a texture. For some it may be cilantro, for others the booming bass from an upstairs neighbor. Pick just one. This week when it appears, rather than pulling away, turn towards it. Put the small leaf of cilantro on your tongue and get curious about the distasteful flavor. Or sit right beneath the booming bass and allow its rhythm to play across your mind and body. Whatever your unliked object is, see what happens when you stop, turn towards it, open, and invite it in.

Articles and Links:

Six Kinds of Loneliness – Pema Chodron
Vimilakirti – Robert Thurman