Author Martha Beck discusses, in many of her nonfiction books, the idea of finding the edge of discomfort. This is the place where your body or mind does not (yet) naturally go. It is not the place of outright pain, but simply a new place, a place you must bring your mind or body gently. As she covers this topic in one of her books, using a wildly flexible yoga instructor as an example, she offers the idea that discomfort, not pain, is the path to progress.
And how different is this from the culture we are trained in? Whether it’s the results we seek (usually rightnow) or the idea that suffering is virtue, we don’t seek discomfort as our guide for moving forward. What we seek is pain. And we react to our search exactly the way we’d react to any acquaintance we had who kept trying to hurt us: in scientific terms, we nope the hell out, leaving the pious, pain-seeking portion of our brains wondering why the rest of us just can’t get in line with a steady diet of untrained marathons and nothing-but-kale smoothies.
But that place of gentle discomfort, the very edge of the sensation that begins pain…that is where we find what pain brings to our life. One of the most fascinating topics I ever studied in school was pain. I had the benefit of studying under an incredible teacher, who let us discover for ourselves just how integral pain is in our lives – to good purpose. You, without realizing it, will make hundreds of adjustments to your posture today, without which your body would begin to crush itself to death (this seems like hyperbole, but I swear to you I’m not joking).
Pain shows us what isn’t working. When we push ourselves to the point of pain, pure pain, we see that our body is crying out to be let free. I’m not talking about delightfully sore muscles or realizing after an impromptu frisbee game that your lungs hurt a little. I’m talking curl-up-in-the-corner, wince-when-you-do-everything pain. You may feel virtuous, forcing yourself to run eight miles or go to a family gathering, but the truth is that you’re in pain, and your pain is telling you something. Your pain is infinitely wiser than you. It will make you recoil. It will do everything in its power to steer you away.
Discomfort, on the other hand…discomfort will make you curious. If you are willing to pause in that place, it will guide you, gently, to incredible things. I highly recommend morning stretches as a way to learn this skill, but if you don’t want to do that, I’m sure you can find another place in your life to use gentle discomfort today. Maybe you want to take up painting but are scared – just go into the art supply store. You don’t have to buy anything. Hell, just look up where the art supply stores are. Maybe you want to start working out but you’re afraid of the pain and the inevitable falling off the wagon and…just go walk a few minutes on the treadmill. Just a few. So easy!
Bringing yourself to the place of gentle discomfort and then backing off is just like training a puppy or a child to deal with new things. You’re facing something frightening, and then assuring yourself that you’re quite safe.
Discomfort can make you unstoppable.