“Are you sitting uncomfortably…?” – The perils of being comfortable

A failure to empty the dishwasher correctly amounts to a War Crime

There’s a great Milan Kundera quote: “The longing for order is at the same time a longing for death, because life is an incessant disruption of order.” This is something that I have – in a slightly more buoyant fashion – been contemplating since I started cohabiting with my lovely husband-to-be. 

I lived alone in a very ‘comfortable’ way for many years. Between leaving London and coming to Newhaven, I was probably a singleton for about six years. Since the happy day when D. moved in to my house by seaside, I have been shocked to notice how mirthlessly territorial I had become in my single existence. A failure to empty the dishwasher in the right order, putting relishes back on the wrong shelf, getting in the way of my daily meditation schedule: all of these amounted to War Crimes in the first few days of living together. 

Luckily my other half is very patient and forgiving and was able to reflect back the intransigence of my way of existing, riddled as it was with stiffness, sclerotic thinking and the illusion of comfort. 

These patterns of self-comforting actually make us miserable

The truth is that all this supposedly easeful order was the very opposite of ease. It was the comfort of the neurotic, constantly seeking escape from the inner stress by outer order. It is what Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT therapy,  calls “dirty (dis)comforts”. The things we do – over and over- in the mistaken belief that they’re making us comfortable. Yet barely aware of the personal misery these patterns of self-comforting create.

We might chose alcohol, or compulsive sex hunting, or constant busy-ness  or being constantly nice or tidy. In each instance, something pleasant – a nice Bordeaux, a romantic romp, a cool project, kindly word  or clean kitchen – gets co-opted by a compulsive tendency in us which somehow dirties it and makes it stressful. 

Washing up the following morning? Crazy heresy!

I don’t have a very addictive personality and have never considered myself particularly compulsive  but I  realise now (after 3 months living together) that my bachelor habits of doing things a certain way have been deathly in a sneaky compulsive way. 

D. suggested we swapped the bedrooms round. My initial reaction was outraged horror. The actual result was delightful, airy and freeing. 

D. mooted that we might turn the table in the garden lengthwise instead of parallel to the flowerbed. Again: outrage and flat denial that it would work or even fit. The end result: a table that we use every day because it’s so much easier to get to. 

D. floated the idea that maybe we could leave the washing up till later rather than obsessively cleaning up directly the meal is finished. Heresy! Craziness! The net result – a much more relaxed household. 

Weirdly, our ideas about being comfortable lead us to dry up and calcify in uncomfortable postures. 

“This teacher’s a jerk, he’s making me feel terrible”

The same mechanism of dirty discomfort gets exploded in meditation.  Reggie pointed this out over and over in our Somerset retreat this year. Resist the temptation to be comfortable. 

As I mentioned in my last post, most of us come to meditation with a naïve belief that it’s going to make us more comfortable not less. And then we sit still for about 5 minutes and all the aches and pains of our seated body come roaring up and we immediately ping off into thoughts. “I must be doing it wrong. I’m a bad meditator, I should try something else.” “This teacher’s a jerk, he’s making me feel terrible.” “Look at everyone else, they’re sitting like statues. I must have something wrong with me…””I hurt and the World is full of suffering. It’s all hopeless”. 

Real discomfort is, at least, alive

The discipline of sitting practice is there to make us stay with the discomfort of being alive and realise that it’s not an aberration. It’s true. Our bodies do hurt. But the sooner we can tune in to that reality the sooner we can learn to soothe what can be soothed but accept what has to be accepted. We don’t need that hailstorm of agitating thoughts – which is actually the real bane of our lives. 

Real discomfort is at least alive. All the million chains of thought we wrap ourselves in  to escape a few moments of bodily tension, these are the real torture. 

But should we be actually cultivating discomfort?

Well, we never need to cultivate discomfort, there’s plenty of it that we’ve been ignoring in our cloud of thinking for years.  But really sitting with that bodily discomfort  can – weirdly –  free us up. If we watch the  neatness of our usual solutions and patterns being tested and stretched, we might see how they themselves are actually creating the discomfort in the first place. There’s suddenly a sense  of possibility that familiar, “comfortable” path will never offer. 

I think many of us  discovered that  this year on Holy Island. When we sit consciously in our bodies, alive to the pain and discomfort but also the pleasure and joy,  we are magnificently alive. It might only last a few moments. But when it’s there it  feels like we’re on drugs or having a flashback to our childhood, it’s so unfamiliar. But as soon as we ‘exit’ that state of sentience and ping off into the endless corridors of our dusty minds, then we straight back in our oh-too-familiar sense of stressed, static selfhood. It’s a bore. But it’s familiar. And it’s comfortable. 

The teaching of the ‘floor-drobe” 

So we have a choice.  As Kundera suggests, we can let the disorderliness of life in. It might be a new partner or a broken foot or a sudden job offer in Santa Fe, but the disruption pierces the grey membrane of our habitual life and lets the multicoloured energy of life flood in in all its chaotic aliveness. Discomfort is the herald of new life, so we should embrace it as a very refreshing friend. 

It’s a tough ask, though. Everyday I find a new boundary to the amount of discomfort my little heart can bear. For example, I’ve yet to relax into the newness of the “floor-drobe” that D. is so partial to hanging his clothes on. (Thanks to Kirsty for that concept). But who knows, one day I might be comfortable with that too… 

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8 Comments

  • Alistair, this is a wonderfully amusing and heart-warming blog. As a singleton, for some years now, after a horrendous marriage, I have a daughter, living with me, who has a few mental health probs. This is why I haunt your Twitter pages hoping I may find a way to help her where her GP has failed. Meditation may possibly be the answer. I wish you and Daniel all the happiness in the world, you truly deserve it. Keep tweeting, I need to continue learning from you. Peace and love as always.??

  • Alistair you have a very personable way with you that warms my heart. I’m always avidly awaiting your next post.

  • Lois Tonkin says:

    What a great post Alistair, thank you! And I read it early on a morning when I woke again with the reality of my daughter’s aggressive breast cancer diagnosis and an awareness of the unknown depths and horrors—Discomfort with a capital D—that repeatedly rouses in me, and a grappling with a way to live with that with equanimity. My own husband reminded me of not separating myself in some ‘safe’ ‘comfortable’ space away from what you have wonderfully described here as “the multicoloured energy of life”. It’s so hard to abandon myself to that at times (who am I kidding; just about *all* the time!) Thank you so much for this teaching, and for your work.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Dear Lois,
      Lovely as ever to hear from you. And so sorry to hear about your daughter’s illness. These “discomforts” are truly disruptive- but as I’m sure you’re finding when we look below the thoughts there is still the unfolding reality of your and your daughters life. And perhaps the reality is in sharper focus than before.
      Sending you love.

  • Gaya says:

    Lovely piece about the constant struggle of dharma work. Fantastic and really courageous. Glad you and your husband to be are together. I sense a dawning of a very happy cycle.

  • Janey says:

    The Milan Kundera quote really got to me… for years I have held a deep longing for ‘getting to the end of my to do list’. Would it be when I stopped procrastinating? Would it be in a few years time when I retire? Would it be when my children / grandchildren / dog stop needing my attention?

    I see now that my ‘to do’ list and my life might just be the same thing!

    Next task on the list is to embrace that concept….. Thank you.

  • Scott Mikesh says:

    Dear Alistair,

    I’m so happy to have found your work and website, as I’m developing programs to connect mind and body as well—approaching as “mental fitness.”

    I liken the discomfort you describe to stretching and strengthening a muscle—often uncomfortable, and maybe even painful at first, but allows us to grow stronger, more flexible, and adaptable—to prevent further pain and injury, and promote growth and healing—without which we can grow stiff, weak, and rigid.

    (And as a newlywed going through similar changes with my husband, I appreciate your sharing your life journey and discomforts as well—stay flexible!)

    Best,
    Scott

  • Fergus Chance says:

    Dear Alistair

    I thoroughly enjoyed resonating with your article and being reminded of a workshop I once did, where right at the beginning, the teacher likened discomforts likely to be experienced in the course of the next few days of the workshop to a hot brick which is suddenly deposited in ones lap. For most the immediate reaction is to pick it up and throw it back or away, but he encouraged us to hold on to it instead and sit in the discomfort in order to see things differently, and find meaning in it.

    Thank you.

    Regards

    Fergus

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