Don’t Just Do Something—Sit There!

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dontjustI just read an excerpt by the American Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron about the futility of seeking pleasure by running from discomfort. In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema writes:

We continually try to get away from pain by seeking pleasure, and in doing so, we just keep going around and around. I’m so hot I open all the windows, and then I’m so cold I put on a sweater. Then it itches, so I put cream on my arms, and then that’s sticky, so I go take a bath, and on and on.

This reminded me of waking up the other morning with an itch on my face. Normally I would just scratch my cheek and be done with it, but something told me to see what would happen if I resisted the temptation to make the itch go away, so I did nothing. Interestingly, the itchiness passed. Great.

But then it came back. I still didn’t scratch. This on-again off-again pattern continued until I started wondering why I was allowing this (very mild) form of suffering to continue when I could make it go away in two seconds. Still I resisted taking action. I was curious.

Next came pictures of being stuck in a playpen as a child, unable to exercise my Godgiven freedom. Interesting. I didn’t remember being in a playpen as a child, but come to think of it, my mother did encourage me to buy one when my own children were born. Hmmm…

Then I had an “aha” moment. I remembered a form of Indian meditation called Vipassana where you just observe and don’t make any adjustments for comfort. Something scary surfaces: allow it. You’re cold or get a leg cramp: just notice it. I tried this form of meditation once many years ago and learned more about myself in five minutes than I usually learn in a year.

For us Westerners, choosing to not run away from discomfort when we could is virtually unheard of, but Eastern thought has a lot to teach us about slowing down, finding some inner discipline and strength, and not creating newer and bigger problems through escapism.

This week, I invite you to notice what happens when you start feeling uncomfortable. Do you seek instant relief? If so, is the form of relief healthy and appropriate, such as resting when you’re tired? Or is it escapism, such as eating a king-sized candy bar or drinking alcohol when you’re stressed out?

Bottom line: it’s important to take good care of our bodies, and honor ourselves as valuable human beings, but there’s a fine line between self-care and premature rescuing of ourselves. A little discomfort is inevitable, to be expected, and actually helpful in making us better, stronger, and more compassionate people.

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