Sitting With Discomfort

I have a confession to make: I don’t believe you can feel happy 24/7, any more than you can feel anything every minute for your entire life. We are designed to feel a broad spectrum of emotions because, so far, they have kept us safe and helped perpetuate the human race.

We all know how something that feels bad can actually redound to your highest good in the future. But, being the hedonists we are designed to be, we naturally avoid pain and seek pleasure. What if sitting with discomfort helped us make peace with it, increased our frustration tolerance and our ability to accept life as it is? As Albert Ellis used to say, it’s a choice between short-term hedonism and long-term hedonism. If we forego the pleasure of the moment we can reap greater benefits in the future. In today’s society, delaying gratification is not popular; however, when we learn to sit with what we don’t like we actually build emotional muscle and can handle the next challenge with greater ease.

When we feel anxious, for example, our first inclination is for relief, which usually consists of avoidance. We can distract ourselves with TV, video games, pornography, food, alcohol, drugs (including prescription psychotropics), gambling, etc. and create new problems; or, we can do the last thing we instinctively gravitate towards: sit with the feeling. Yes, just allow it. Breathe into it. Can you feel the discomfort physically? If so, notice its characteristics. Is your breathing shallow? Is your back tense? Do you feel a headache coming on? Is your jaw clenched Are your shoulders hunched up? Is your abdomen tight? Breathe into whatever you notice.

Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. With practice, it will help you accept yourself and your reality. By resting in awareness you stop fighting what is true for you now and open to the possibility that it is all OK. You can handle what you don’t like.

Many incredibly intelligent and insightful souls, like the Buddha, Ram Dass, and Tolle have encouraged us to be here now. That means being with whatever comes up. Your job isn’t to like everything, but to be aware and open. Luckily, this becomes easier when you remind yourself everything passes, the pleasant and the unpleasant.

It is crucial to understand that the goal here is not necessarily to figure out why you are feeling what you’re feeling, but to stay with the discomfort. You may even want to cultivate some curiosity about what you are feeling.

Granted, mindfulness practice is counter-intuitive, but when you are fully in the moment you can actually relax into what is. Resisting your feelings often increases them and their power. No harm will come to you if you embrace your feelings, though it may be uncomfortable. In time, you will notice a feeling or sensation and, rather than avoid it, you will label and accept it. Another great benefit of this practice is that by gently and lovingly accepting where you are you become more compassionate with yourself and others.

Impermanence is the name of the game. Nothing lasts, good or bad. You may not care to remind yourself of that in the middle of an ice cream sundae (though it might make you more appreciative and increase your enjoyment), but it is helpful to remember when times are tough.

Once you allow yourself to be with what is true for you now, remember the quote: “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” By resisting the urge to rate your feelings, or yourself as bad for having them, you will begin to know the peace that comes from acceptance, and your discomfort won’t morph into suffering.

Here are some exercises to help you on your path to emotional freedom:

Consciously stop yourself a few times a day to do an internal check.

What am I feeling now?

Can I allow this feeling, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, without trying to repress it, or distract myself from it?

Stay with whatever comes up, especially if you don’t like it.

Try to label what you are experiencing. For example: tightness in my throat, muscle spasms in my low back, tension in my jaw, etc.

Name your emotions as if you were simply observing them, like: anxiety, sadness, anger, resentment, grief, etc.

Breathe into any area of discomfort, and keep drawing your breath there until you feel it relax.

Immerse yourself in Buddhist thought by reading books by Pema Chodron, and listening to podcasts on iTunes like: A Quiet Mind, The I.D. Project, or interviews on Sounds True.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.