Working with Discomfort

Building a full relationship with the world and with ourselves through centering.

Andrea Mignolo


In life we all face bumpy moments, periods of turbulence and uncertainty, times of just not wanting things to be the way they are. The scenarios are vast: receiving feedback that is hard to hear, dealing with a difficult colleague, not getting funding, getting laid off, having our hearts broken — there are so many ways that life can be uncomfortable and intense. The natural inclination is to fix whatever ails us and bring life more in line with our vision of what it should be. And sometimes this is the right approach, when there is a clear solution that is within our control to implement. But more often than not we deceive ourselves about what we can control and spend a lot of time exhausting ourselves pretending otherwise.

Photo by Jonathan Bowers on Unsplash

Fittingly, I’m writing this article in the darkness of my home office, a single candle brightening the space but certainly not warming it. The power has gone out on a winter night. We’re in the midst of a bomb cyclone here in California and the wind just blasted off a part of my neighbor’s roof which is now sitting on the power lines as the storm rages. It is cold. I just broke out my subzero sleeping bag.

I do not like this. I have things to do. I hate being cold and have bad circulation. My nose is an icicle.

And so I center.

This is now my current reality. I can try to control (avoid) the reactions the situation brings up in me by tensing and pushing away my frustration, distracting myself online, or pouring a glass of wine. Or I can accept what is, let the frustration move through me, and move into action. I gather lanterns, chargers, blankets, headlamps, and anything else that would be helpful to navigate this night. I call my boyfriend and ask him to pick up something for dinner. I light a candle and sit down to write this article in the dark, at least while the battery is charged.

“But Andi,” you say, “that’s a pretty tame scenario. Of course you were going to get candles and blankets and figure out food.”

Which is true, but if I had moved into action from a place of frustration and reactivity I may not have considered all the things I did. I may not have been open to the way a suddenly new and novel situation was asking me to move in different ways. I probably would have overloaded my nervous system and been grumpy the rest of the evening.

Here’s another one by way of example: recently a part of my brain has decided to raise the possibility that every decision I’ve made in my life was the wrong one. What it lacks in logic it makes up for in emotion. Whenever this idea pops up it grabs me and my body starts to freak out. Tense muscles, shortness of breath, spiraling thoughts. It feels real. I can try and control this by pushing it away and focusing on something else or I can center.

Centering calms my nervous system and gives me the capacity to be with the fear (née terror) that I have followed the wrong path. That I have really messed up somewhere along the way. I allow it all in, and bring compassion to myself and what I am feeling. I can ask myself the question, “what if this is true?” and have the presence, fortitude, and curiosity to explore the fear. It’s not comfortable, but I can hold it all. And when I do this, when I work with the fear rather than try and control it or avoid it, a few things happen. The first is that it doesn’t seem so bad. Even if it were 100% true that doesn’t mean that the next decision I make will be the wrong one. The second is that I now have awareness and choice available to me, there is energy that can be moved into action.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler describes centering as “…the broad and abundant platform from which we launch into a full relationship with the world, and ourselves.” Centering is the practice of bringing the head, heart, and body into alignment and becoming fully present. It’s ridiculously simple to do, and deceptively hard to master. But what centering creates in us is the ability to relax into ourselves so that we can hold more discomfort, be with the intensity, and face reality as it is. Centering is not about being Zenned out, shut down, detached, or peaceful. We center to deepen our ability to feel more, not to feel less. As Alta Starr says, “We center so that our aliveness is as full and available to ourselves as possible. We center to be alive.”

The basics of centering go something like this:

  1. Focus on your breathing: when we are moving from a place of reactivity our breathing tends to be shallow and rapid. Bring attention to your breath and take a few slow, deep inhales. Let the exhale go wherever it goes. Breathing works, just ask the science.
  2. Shift your posture: notice how your body is shaping itself and shift into a more centered and aligned place. Wiggle your toes and fingers. Feel the length of your spine and reach the top of your head towards the sky.
  3. Bring your attention to the present: stop time traveling into the past or the future! Focus your attention on what is going on right here, right now in your immediate environment. On what is going on right here, right now, in you. Allow yourself to feel the discomfort of disappointment, anger, hurt, sadness, powerlessness, uncertainty, and fear with deep compassion for yourself. It’s okay to be here. This is where you are. Allow your body to hold everything that is in your awareness.

As you do this, notice what starts to shift. Discomfort often “grabs” us and pushes our nervous system into overdrive as it executes the motions of avoidance (whether that’s fight, flight, freeze, appease, or some combination therein). What usually happens for me as I sit with discomfort is that my body softens and the weight of the discomfort begins to ease up. As this happens, my field of vision widens and I can start to see possibilities for taking conscious, intentional action.

You can do all of this in about 30 seconds. For an even shorter technique try Wendy Palmer’s instructions:

Inhale up and lengthen your spine, exhale down softening your chest. Think of something that makes you smile.

Interestingly, centering is also a great practice when life is filled with joy, ease, and flow. Centering allows us to deepen our capacity to receive gratitude, success, and positive regard. I have worked with so many people who really struggle to fully let in and feel the fullness of their own competence and the impact they’ve had on others.

So give it a try. Build a simple centering practices into your day. In the morning with a cup of coffee. Before a meeting. In the evening as you wind down your day. Center to unify action and being. Center to feel your aliveness.

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