Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

The following blog post is an early excerpt from my new book set to be released next year .

Little beads of blistering hot sweat bubbled up and dripped down my red face. The desert heat was sweltering. My heart heaved in my chest as my lungs pulled in the thin, dry air. Through my squinting eyes, I could see my coach walking toward me as I sprawled on the grass next to the finish line. Admittedly, it was all a little dramatic: Finish the race, flailing and gasping in pain, only to stumble 20 feet to collapse as if I’d been shot by the starting gun. My coach hated that stuff.

His ominous shadow blotted out the sun like a god. Maybe I had died? This was it. I’d finally gone beyond my physical limits, somehow finished the race, died, and was now at the pearly gates.

All the blood-curdling training sessions and muscle-searing races I’d endured had led to this moment. In the last two years, I’d been depressed, endlessly anxious, and worried about winning, losing and the trajectory of my running career. I’d won some big races, received a scholarship, even made a few national teams and been honoured with awards, press and scholarships. If validation led to a feeling of self-worth, I’d had my share in spades, and it hadn’t made a damn bit of difference. In the past year, I’d had injury after injury, and in the months leading up to this particular race, I’d tried to come back from yet another injury, too quickly, and was running on a stress fracture.

 

Running through BC’s semi arid landscape

I was still chasing the ghost of approval. The reaper had arrived.

Once I was politely told to get my ass up off the grass, we slowly walked a few laps together. A good coach isn’t just there to make you a better athlete; they are there to make you a better person. They are there to call you out when you’re in a bad way. My coach knew me well. He cared about my well-being beyond the fleeting accolades I’d helped add to the track clubs’ name. My running stride was smooth, long and fluid, but inside I was a twisted mess. Change was needed. Not a coaching change. A life change.

The “cool down” is both necessary for the well-being of muscles and a tradition of sorts. Following the adrenaline dump of the race, a light-hearted (or foul-hearted, depending on how it went) mental-reflection helps pass the rest of the built-up energy and emotions so one can move on.

Following the chat with my coach, I cooled down by jogging into the sage-covered hills that rose out of the valley. I was in Kamloops, British Columbia. Maybe it was the delicate aroma of sage, or being doused with vitamin D, or the soul-opening feeling of being in a more expansive space. Regardless, as I jogged along the narrow trail in the setting sun, with grasshoppers criss-crossing my path in scattered flight, I realized I was in need of a much longer cool down than just this little post race jog. It was at this moment that I decided to leave the sport that had defined me for over a decade—forever—or just for an extended period of time—in order to re calibrate and reconnect with my own inner goodness.

Most cool downs I’d done throughout my career were around 20 or 30 minutes. I don’t know how long I lingered on my slow rhythmic jog with the heat of the desert still in the air. By the end, I was simply looping the inside of the track in the dark under the stadium lights – the moment reminded me of those goodbye embraces in the movies where the person doesn’t want to let go…

Like most things in life, there was a silver lining. My running career came to an unhappy ending of sorts, however, in the months and years that followed, I came to appreciate, and reconnect with, aspects of the sport that had become burdensome.

I probably should not have run competitively for as long as I did. It had mostly made me miserable, and I had not stuck with it for the right reasons. That said, sticking with it had taught me a great deal about being comfortable being uncomfortable—whether it was the discomfort of a training session, or sacrificing certain pleasures to commit to my purpose, or feeling crippling nerves and still showing up to perform. Ever since, I was never afraid of stepping into new challenging and uncomfortable things.

As my life progressed, I thrived on the Salto mortale! A beautiful Italian term meaning—dangerous leap into the void that comes with that oh so fluttery feeling we get before we know if we’re actually ready to commit! I had done it so many times, it was second nature. I thrived on pushing myself and my experiences to the edges of what could have been deemed impossible: starting new businesses in industries I knew nothing about; travelling to the fringes of the developing world; even, stepping into intense personal development through the vulnerable exploration of my own inner demons and insecurities.

Training on Sand Dune in Farwell Canyon

It wasn’t that I was sadistic, taking pleasure in pain and discomfort. Maybe I wasn’t totally not sadistic either. However, I learned that there is a reward in struggling and working through discomfort. That many burdens were actually “good burdens” as friend and author Cristina Crook put it.

The reward for willingly struggling against resistance (of any kind), is a greater strength, earned skill set, and confidence to face all that life throws at us.

This, however, was the opposite of what I was seeing in society at large. In the age of ultimate conveniences, as Michael Easter so aptly puts it, we are in a “comfort crisis.”

Too often, to feel bad, is bad. To feel unsafe is bad. To have to struggle too long to climb the proverbial corporate ladder is bad. People that don’t listen to their teachers, or fall in line with what society wants of them, are bad. Being bored or even boring is bad. To not be able to live in total comfort, eating at our favourite restaurant any time we want, is bad.

We’re so fucking comfortable nowadays that, according to Easter, we tend to take for granted how good we have it. We are surrounded by expeditious convenience and comfort, and our feelings are protected by overbearing helicopter parents, meddling governments and societal structures.

To cope with discomfort is all too easy as well. Turn on Netflix or Apple TV. Order takeout from a fast-food delivery app. Ghost the Zoom meeting due to “technical difficulties” because you’re not feeling up to it. Listen to another podcast instead of actually diving into the work you really need to do. When we can’t stand silence we have Spotify to fill the void. When we need a pause, we instead take on more work. I’m not throwing shade at modern conveniences, technologies, and quality entertainment—a little of the above is great from time to time—but we’ve lost, or are losing, an important aspect of reliance in this comfort crisis.

It has become as the saying goes, “too much of a good thing.”

Often, I find, with myself and my coaching clients, that there is a little nagging voice inside letting us know when we need to change it up. To push ourselves. To break the comfortably convenient routines and habits that embed themselves into our daily lives. To curb the excuses we make for ourselves. This inner wisdom is speaking to us from our ancestors reminding us who we are and how we can live—like a tether to our primitive instincts that kept us alive and enabled us to thrive and achieve the comforts we enjoy today.

This wisdom warns against the philosophical and intellectual movement that champions the idea that widely available sophisticated technologies alone, can and should, improve the human condition.

We have fundamental inherent capabilities. Nowadays, we depend less and less on those abilities and, instead, increasingly depend on data, words, numbers, internet connections and pixels.

We look at struggle as bad. But our ancestors struggled to survive. Every day.

This isn’t to say that, for instance, getting teased at school, or a nasty tweet directed your way, is good. They’re not. But they do serve as opportunities for us to overcome the likely negative emotional surge that accompanies them.

This isn’t to say that getting into a small physical tiff at school is good either. But learning how to solve this problem yourself, versus a teacher or parent stepping in, teaches us how to fend for ourselves. Of course, we need to integrate these lessons so they don’t have negative consequences; which is exactly the point. Not to avoid them.

Struggling for success makes us appreciate it more. We can feel the positive and affirmative belief that we “deserve” something, like a job role or success, but that doesn’t mean we’re entitled to it. Even if that promotion, for example, was just handed to us, we may not really appreciate it because we didn’t struggle to acquire it. Or we may not be ready to handle it because we didn’t go through the process of growth required to earn it.

Even at the most basic human level physical struggle has been removed.  The literal, physical struggle of going somewhere or getting something you need, like food for instance,  takes little to no effort today. Not needing to walk, hunt, grow or forage for our food  means being less active. This can lead, not only to physical degradation, but mental health problems over time.

As Michael Easter points out :“We are moving about 14 times less than our ancestors. We spend 95 percent of our time indoors and spend 11 hours and 6 minutes a day engaging with digital media. So, we went from never having this  digital media in our lives to now it’s essentially become our lives. And that’s had consequences for our attention, or awareness, how we spend our time and also our interactions with others. Things have really changed, and we’re too comfortable now.” 

Similarly, it’s harder to appreciate something as simple as the food on our dinner plate because we didn’t necessarily have to starve or struggle for it in the same way. As an aside, this is one of the reasons my wife and I moved to a farm, started growing our own vegetables, and I started hunting for our protein. Whether we were successful or not, was somewhat beside the point. I wanted to fully experience the challenge of bringing food from the farm and forest to the table. With hunting, this often meant cold, miserable and bug-infested weeks in the bush. The heavy emotion of taking an animal’s life, the physical exhaustion of getting it out of the woods, and the “can-we-just-be-done-with-this-so-I-can-go-take-a-shower” agony of skinning and butchering the animal so it looks just like those packages of steak that magically appear on our store shelves.

All that said, of course, there remain plenty of trips to the grocery store and restaurants!

Our comfort crisis has led us to record-breaking obesity, addiction and mental health issues in North America. Yet, as Michael Easter points out, “Scientists are finding that certain discomforts protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, and even more fundamental issues like feeling a lack of meaning and purpose.”

A few years ago, the itch for struggle in the form of physical exhaustion started to rear its head again. Answering the call came by way of extensive hikes, runs and even workouts in the majestic and treacherous mountains of British Columbia, and bathing in icy mountain rivers. These were all things I had done as a runner, but this time, without a stopwatch, specified distance and, often,…even a trail.

I learned this was called a “misogi.” Officially, misogi refers to a Shinto “water cleansing” that involves standing under a waterfall; however, According to Dr. Marcus Elliot, it has taken on new meaning, “ A misogi,” Says Dr. Elliot, “ is not about physical accomplishment. But rather, what we are willing to put ourselves through, mentally and spiritually, to be a better human.”

Misogi is a way we can elicit something ancient. Think long walkabouts or, in a more extreme sense, spearing a lion like the Maasai Warriors in Kenya or wearing a  glove filled with some bullet ants like the Sateré-Mawé tribes in Brazil. The rites of passage traditional cultures undertook.

I managed to concoct a similar, albeit less bullet-anty, challenge: a gruelling goat hunt in the mountains of my home province.

On this hunt my cousin and I been in the mountains for the better part of a week. After rising around 5:00am one morning, we ascended from the valley into the razor-sharp peaks where we’d seen goats the night before. Vigilant were our steps as we rose into the thinner air, with the fragile rocky ground often retreating below us. Vertigo creeping into our veins, it was not long until we realised (the obvious) that we were not goats, and reaching them was a death wish. Frustrated, we packed up our gear to make our way back off the mountain while some daylight still remained.

Trudging through seemingly endless piles of grizzly scat, prickly devil’s club and blow down (dead trees blown down by the wind), to no avail, we raced against both the darkening sky and looming storm.

Soon, the clouds opened up and showered on us, and the thunder and lightning followed. With the devil’s club now almost impassable, we instead slogged knee deep through a freezing river for three hours until, with much relief, we reached the vehicle around midnight. It was 6:00am when we finally returned home.

Upon seeing me stumble through the door, my wife almost did not recognize me. She told me I looked dead—like a ghost.

The truth is, a part of me had died on that mountain. How close was I to actual death up there? I don’t know. I was terrified of bumping into an old grumpy grizzly bear. I was beyond exhaustion and hypothermic every time I stopped moving. To me, it felt close. Almost dying, in a way, gave way to new life. That hike taught me I could endure a new level of anything. I could be reborn.

Pushing through mental doubts and fears, however, provided a new perspective of what was possible—not just physically, but in life as a whole.

Purposeful discomfort, that takes us to the edges of what we thought was possible, can re-define our potential while offering a whole host of other mental benefits—such as gratitude, self-confidence, patience and trust.

And finally, we come to the realisation that we can’t escape suffering, period, end of story, full stop! When we see we can endure it, we then know we can. And knowing we can endure suffering is how we free ourselves from it—not through the aforementioned conveniences.

This is all to say, we should change our perspective on the good and bad of comfort and struggle. Just because it’s easy for us, doesn’t mean it’s good for us, and just because something is really hard to get through, doesn’t mean it’s bad for us either.

We create the depths of who we are, and grow past the perceived limits of our potential, through struggle. And when we adopt the mindset, our persistence through struggle is building our character, capability and capacity in a positive way; we can change how we feel about it in the moment, and toward the future challenges we will face.

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