The Beauty of Discomfort

1904. Edward S. Curtis

“The first noble truth says simply that it’s part of being human to feel discomfort.” ― Pema Chödrön

Humans are creatures of comfort. Take a look around the modern world and try to tell me otherwise. We adapt to however much comfort we have access to. But when we become too comfortable, we end up inventing problems for ourselves that we would otherwise overlook. Similarly, when we remove difficulty and discomfort from life, the smallest nuisances end up seeming like a big deal, and we forget how to truly be grateful.

Take a simple example— if you walked around New York City 100 years ago handing out iPhones, you would be treated like some sort of sorcerer. Such an incredibly powerful device relying on thousands of years of cumulative human innovations would astound you. It would facilitate an easier life and make things like getting around, contacting people, and finding information infinitely more accessible. It would be like a gift from God himself.

This reaction would be almost exclusively because people 100 years ago didn’t have the knowledge or historical necessity to take such a modern invention for granted. We, on the other hand, take almost all of our modern luxuries for granted. We have grown so comfortable that we have forgotten how to feel blessed by default. Mere survival and indulgence is so easy that even extremely poor people can eat themselves to oblivion and become obese. Our lack of spiritual intuition stems from this sort of overabundance.

Ancient spirituality developed partially as a coping mechanism for difficult times. Without these difficulties, we cannot transcend our carnality or materiality and experience life in a deeper way. This makes life feel meaningless and shallow— is it any coincidence that consumerism, nihilism and existentialism emerged specifically from modernity? We need to confront uncomfortable ideas like death, disease and struggle if we want to fully understand how to live. Just because we can do whatever we want doesn’t mean we should.

I sometimes think the modern world could benefit from a week of “ancient living”, in which the hot water is turned off, electricity unplugged, and all books, devices, contraception, drugs, doctors, money, and processed foods locked away. Then what? City living would become nearly impossible. Eating and drinking would be difficult. Life would be really hard for a week. Then the electricity would come back on and the vaults would open and people would feel a bit more grateful for these things they assume they are entitled to.

These are material examples. The key principle here is that we only are forced to recognize what we have in times of scarcity. Life doesn’t have to be this way if we train ourselves to be grateful for little things every day and learn to live with less. This is as simple as paying close attention to each moment.

Make a habit of recognizing blessings in your daily life. This ‘attitude of gratitude’ begets more gratitude, which leads to a happier and more peaceful existence. When we appreciate what we have and where we are, we are less likely to greedily thirst for something else. Life becomes more about the moment than about tomorrow. This is a simple but important reorientation.

Lastly, find controlled ways to make yourself uncomfortable. Meditate, diet, volunteer, go to the gym. Try to give something up for a week or a month so that you learn to appreciate it again. Instead of procrastinating, do the uncomfortable thing now. Have awkward conversations. Be honest with people. Assert yourself. All of these things are uncomfortable but also crucial to living a meaningful life.

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