One of the immediate benefits of a mindfulness practice is that it can make you feel more calm. Even just a few minutes of intentional breathing or focused attention can slow your heart rate, regulate circulation, and shift your body from “fight or flight” into “rest and digest” mode. Many people who engage in regular mindfulness practices (even short ones) over time report lower levels of general anxiety, insomnia, and even depression, as well as reduced physical symptoms of chronic stress. In other words, mindfulness can help you feel more comfortable, which is super ironic because it’s designed to help you tolerate just the opposite.
At the heart all the positive things mindfulness can do for us is the increased ability to tolerate discomfort. We develop this ability by gently encouraging ourselves to acknowledge when our mind wanders, and bring it back to our focal point during practice without raining down an onslaught of judgments against ourselves for not being “good” at meditation. We do it by noticing the restless urge to move on to the next activity, and choosing to stay present for one breath more. We recognize our internal reactions, and observe them before making the decision how to respond. We learn through experience that discomfort is different than pain, and that, with a little help from our breath, we can handle it.
That’s the idea anyway. Nobody said it was easy, though. You know what is easy when you’re feeing uncomfortable? Pushing it away. How do you do that? By replacing it with something else, also known as the fine art of distraction.
When we don’t want to feel anxious, scared, challenged, or even bored, we don’t have to. We can look away. More precisely, we can look towards other things to capture our attention and keep us from feeling those awkward feels. We do this reflexively, constantly, and some might argue, obsessively. We don’t finish sentences, walk into traffic, even fall off of cliffs over it. Has anybody new liked, commented, shared, responded, invited, or created anything new that we can’t go another moment without seeing? Is something happening that we don’t know about? We numb ourselves with the external because it’s easy, engaging, and always available. It feels good. It also keeps us from moving forward, though. Distraction is a form of procrastinating our own growth. When the screen does dark, you’re still there. As JKZ says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” You’ve got to learn to deal, or you’re going to be dealing with the same stuff forever.
Uncomfortable feelings, insights, and even conversations are often catalysts for growth. In general, the surest route past something is usually right through it. Learn to tolerate discomfort in small ways, and you will be more capable of managing it when it’s supersized. It starts with one breath, and the choice that for this moment, you will stay awake. You will stay present. The rest of the story is up to you.
Photo credit: Ian Schneider