Life is uncomfortable; there is no escaping that reality. From the time we emerge from the perfect, symbiotic state of the womb and enter the world, we’re confronted with the fact that the external environment doesn’t always meet our needs and our internal state fluctuates from equilibrium to disequilibrium, often a dozen times or more in the course of a single day. I remember when my son was a baby and he was suffering from digestion difficulties. I tried everything in my power to ease his pain – including limiting my diet to three foods – but nothing helped. I clearly recall looking at him one day in his tiny four month old body and thinking, “It’s uncomfortable being in a body and there’s nothing I can do to change that.” It was my first of many motherhood lessons about letting go and realizing that part of our lot as humans is to learn to endure discomfort.
What I hear every day in my work with clients are the ways in which we habitually try to escape this discomfort. For most people who find me the escape hatch centers around one’s partner: “If I were with someone else I would be happier or wouldn’t be feeling anxious.” For others it center around being single: “If I had a partner I would be happy” and for others it’s about jobs or careers or money. So, for example, a client is feeling challenged in her marriage because of parenting tension or in-law struggles and the common thought is, “If I had married someone else I wouldn’t be going through this.”
To which I respond, “You’re right. You wouldn’t be going through this. But I guarantee you would be going through something else. Do you think there’s a partner in the world who wouldn’t stir up the black gunk that lives at the bottom of your pots?”
Or a house or town or job or career or friend or family… We bring ourselves wherever we go. And we bring our life wherever we go.
So we notice all of the ways that we try to escape the discomfort of being human. We notice the escape fantasies that offer a momentary respite from the discomfort of now. Discomfort can take many forms: loneliness, grief, vulnerability, hormonal disruptions, exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, disappointment, jealously. The list is endless, really. And when we start to make friends with these uncomfortable states we realize that they’re here to teach us how to embrace this messy, imperfect human life while connecting to the perfect, whole place of love inside of us.
But how hard this lesson is to learn! And we learn it over and over and over again. At least I do. I recently came face-to-face with my own escape hatch fantasy. Just before last year’s flood here in Boulder, we had a particularly difficult summer with mosquitoes. The little buggers make camp in our backyard every summer, but some years are worse than others, and last year was bad. We could barely walk into our yard no matter the time of day without being swarmed. By summer’s end, I started to look online at other houses. I didn’t dare tell my family, all of whom are in love with our place despite the tiny bloodsuckers. I kept my little secret to myself, scrolling through dozens of online homes and imagining myself into another world where we could spend summer nights on our deck without swatting and swearing.
Then, last September, the Colorado flood hit. It hit hard and we were devastated on all levels: physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. My little escape fantasy went into overdrive in the months following the flood, for now I had two justifiable reasons to escape our home and seek the perfect next spot for us. Eventually I shared my thoughts with my husband and, given our devastation, he understood. We drove through other neighborhoods together and started to consider the possibility of moving. When I was alone, I would drive home through one particular neighborhood that I had my eye on and whisper to my husband upon walking in the door, “I’m having an affair with Niwot.” I didn’t want our boys – or our home – to hear.
But then we would stand in our yard on a crystalline winter’s day when the snowflakes fell like a miracle and created a quiet blanket of shimmering angels that took our breath away; and we would walk down to the creek who, even in the aftermath of destruction, still ran its glory and wisdom through our land; we would marvel at the 100-year old cottonwoods and tall, elegant Aspens who survived the eight-foot surges of water. We would breathe in the spaciousness and wildness and soulfullness of this land and remember why we had fallen in love.
And then, in a single moment, I would find my mind drifting back to Niwot and my fingers typing in the search parameters on the real estate websites. This pattern of falling in and out of love continued until about a month ago when I stood in the kitchen chopping vegetables and wondered, “What am I trying to escape?” And it came to me: the “much-ness” of this life. The bills, the taxes, the cooking, the grocery shopping, the limited alone time, the dishes, the cleaning up at the end of the day, the garden, the lawn, the flood repairs, the fitting it all in amidst the busyness and going and moving and intensity of life with young children. And I realized that there is no escape: there is not a house or town in the world that will offer respite from the “much-ness” of life as it is right now, and that if we move, we will take this exact life with us. It’s not the mosquitoes or threat of flood that I’m trying to escape; it’s the list. And, of course, I will bring the list with us wherever we go.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I finally articulated my inner experience and named what what was happening. In naming it, I could breathe again. And I could connect back into my truth: I don’t want to leave this house. And I don’t want to escape this life. On the other side of the much-ness is the indescribable richness and endless blessings of the fullness. I can easily imagine myself into a time when our boys are launched into the world and it’s just my husband and I living here, wondering how the house got so quiet and how the days became so long. While time is a precious commodity right now, there will come a day – and it will be here before we know it – that time spreads out like an endless field, a place for us to lie down among the grasses as we please. There will be plenty of time for the lists and the dishes, and then there will be other discomforts to breathe into and endure.
There are so many ways to escape. The internet provides a fantastically endless escape hatch. With the click of a button we can dream ourselves into other people’s lives, troll the celebrity world, or research our next vacation or supposed “perfect” home. And the creative mind can easily imagine itself into a thousand unhealthy scenarios by hitching a free ride on the “what-if” train. As anxiety is often sensitivity gone awry, the ungrounded and unguided sensitive soul veers off into negative what-if land as a way to try to manage the onslaught of uncomfortable sensations which reach the nervous system with greater intensity than the average person.
So we must remind ourselves again and again: there is no escape from discomfort. There is no perfect life, no perfect partner, no perfect job, no perfect children, and yes, self, no perfect house. Sure, we might be able to escape mosquitoes or flood risk, but I guarantee there would be other imperfections: perhaps difficult neighbors or a dog next door who never stops barking. And in gaining a mosquito-free environment, we would invariably lose a hundred blessings that surround us now.
The repair path for intrusive thoughts or images is simple to understand and difficult to implement, as I wrote about here. The first step is to recognize that the thought or image is a messenger, coming to deliver information that something in your inner world needs attention. The most difficult piece to grasp is that, after you address the real need for accurate information that the thought may be signaling, if you give the thought or image itself any attention after that it will continue to grow. This means that as soon as you become conscious that your mind has drifted to the escape hatch, you resist the impulse to Google it, journal about it, research it or seek reassurance about it in any way. Any attention you give it will fuel its fire.
1. Acknowledge that the thought or image has entered your mind. Say, “Hello, thought or image!” Bringing a little lightness to anxiety is always helpful.
2. Resist the urge to seek reassurance in any way.
3. Remind yourself that there is no permanent escape hatch for discomfort.
4. Breathe into the discomfort that lives underneath the thought/image. A practice of Tonglen is very helpful in these moments: Breathe into the pain (an umbrella term for anything uncomfortable) and breathe out what’s needed. Practice this for one breath cycle or as long as you can until you feel softness and spaciousness replacing the discomfort.
5. Connect to gratitude. Gratitude and love are powerful antidotes to the discomfort of life.
In the end, there is no permanent antidotes for discomfort. There is only making more and more room for it, increasing our tolerance by remembering that pain isn’t a disorder to diagnose and fix; it’s an inextricable part of life. There is no cure for being human. But there is the lifeline of remembering that the more fully we allow ourselves to feel our pain in all of its manifestations, the wider our capacity for joy becomes. And this is what it means to be fully human: we feel all of life as deeply as we can – the pain, the joy, the overwhelm, the uncertainty, and everything in between.