Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Discomfort is the blockage and the gateway.

Oh, to be courageous, eh?

I cower on the shore while the brave take risks, put their noses into the wind, cast themselves onto the waves. How lucky they are not to feel fear, or to face a weaker version of it than looms over me.

I would look for another job, but I’m afraid of being rejected, frightened my employer will catch me and cast me out before I develop an alternative. I would write that book (start that group, take that class, sing on open mic night, ask her out, wear shorts), but my fear is holding me back. I wish I were courageous instead of fearful.

We tell ourselves this. We wish for courage. I have. I do. But what I’m increasingly seeing is that my wish to develop courage is actually a disguised longing to have fear magically disappear. I have too often equated the arrival of courage with the eradication of fear. Well, that would be very neat indeed. But perhaps it’s too good to be true.

What if courage has no impact at all on the presence or strength of fear? What if those courageous souls I’ve envied have been fearful all along, terrified even? What, then, has set them apart from me? What has distinguished me in my braver moments from myself in my more cowardly ones?

Here’s how I’m thinking about it these days. Fear is one member in a family of feelings that are uncomfortable and that I therefore seek to avoid. Following this line of reasoning, the objects of my fear are (some of) the things I seek to avoid because they or the idea of them bring me discomfort. I also have aversion to activities that bring other uncomfortable feelings — boredom, fatigue, tension, loneliness.

What if courage is just one manifestation of the willingness to bear discomfort? What if it is not fear that holds us back, but our refusal to bear the discomfort of fearful feelings? Then maybe focusing our developmental efforts on strengthening that broader capacity might bring the benefits of courage along with many others. We might access not only the rewards that lie on the far side of fear but also those beyond any seeming gulf of discomfort.

Now, here’s the part where it gets powerful for me. When I think about how to develop courage, I immediately hit a wall. I mean, where can I spirit this capacity from? How do I tap into it? But when I think about developing a healthier relationship with discomfort, I have a world’s worth of material at my fingertips and a laboratory in my own skin!

If I feel fearful, angry, sad, confused, anxious, hurt or lonely, there is always a physical, bodily component to my experience. Running into any of these negative feelings sends me a somatic signal. If I’m tuned to it, then I can notice the physical sensation(s) my emotions include and test to see whether they are a big problem or not. Maybe, just maybe, I can bear them more skillfully or for a bit longer than I thought I could. The test: can I be with them?

With repeated, real-world practice like this, I can discern whether the strong (sometimes overwhelming) aversion to these uncomfortable sensations is really tied to an existential threat, as often seems the case. I can empirically test whether I need to flee from them.

Perhaps I work out, not based on what someone tells me but on my own direct experience, that this discomfort is not really a problem. This is just as well, because these negative sensations, anytime I experience them, have already been allowed through reality’s filter! What a great capacity to develop — to be able to bear, maybe accept, perhaps even love, that which is inescapable anyway, since it is already here! What a gift this ability is.

Things are usually easier to write or read than they are to put into practice. Let’s admit that. I do not type this from a throne of needles in a meat locker, wearing a hair shirt. I have by no means perfected my ability to meet and befriend discomfort. But I meet it more openly than three months ago, and I get many chances every day to build my capacity, one challenge at a time. And I am lucky that the only tools I need are always with me — my attention and a heart open to whatever arises.

Still, I fail. I refuse to face discomfort; I run from it. And that failure brings its own discomfort. Perhaps I can meet that, and in so doing, take one more incremental step in expanding my capacity, in accepting what is, in meeting life — including fear, failure and all their uncomfortable cousins — face to face. I carve out at least one instance in which discomfort does not hold me back!

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