softening into discomfort

Picturea day’s work behind my house

Last weekend bulldozers leveled the wooded lot that backs up to our house, destroying our cozy, shaded private backyard. And I hated every branch-breaking, trunk-splitting second of it. 

The crash of each tree falling was like nails on a chalkboard. My body tensed up in anger and anxiety – why are they doing this? Then I tossed in some guilt for my first-world problem.

In a word, I felt hard. My chest was tight, my stomach was churning. I couldn’t relax and wanted to get out of the house so I wouldn’t have to hear the excavation anymore.

When confronted with emotional or physical pain, we naturally tighten up, push and fight against the discomfort. We may try to escape or numb out so we don’t have to really feel the pain.

Mindfulness is teaching me the value of softening into hard places. Whether it’s physical pain or emotional distress,hardening against it doesn’t work. And often we add secondary pain in the form of escapist behaviors or destructive self-talk that actually make us feel worse.

Although it feels paradoxical, we grow by walking through the pain instead of fighting against it. When we soften into pain and allow ourselves to simply feel what we feel, we make space for other experiences as well.

PictureEmily Lapish photography (ahh those trees)

On the second day of the bulldozing torture, my two littlest ones were jumping on the trampoline in our backyard and begged me to join them. I resisted, because, frankly, it was loud and depressing to watch the hard-working machines slowly demolish our peaceful wooded view. But as I sat on my porch, their cackling giggles and screams got under my skin.

And so I got on the trampoline. We jumped and laughed and played the games we always play. My two-year-old was fascinated by the equipment, and we talked to one of the guys operating the bulldozers.

The trees are completely gone now, and I still hate it. Yet, after jumping with my kids, the tightness in my chest became a little looser. I could look at the barren wasteland behind my house and not feel sick to my stomach. I stopped closing the blinds so I wouldn’t have to see it out of the corner of my eye.

In the act of playing with my kids in the backyard with the bulldozers roaring, I had unintentionally stopped running away from my discomfort and softened into it. 

When my kids invited me into the present moment of their world by jumping on the trampoline with the trees crashing around us, I caught their joy.

It didn’t create false happiness about the trees, but it allowed my heart to open up to feel joy with them – regardless of the unpleasant circumstances going on around us. By softening into hard feelings, I am learning to open to the world as it is and accept with open hands the experiences that unfold in front of me. 

Lesson #1: holding pleasure + pain together with open hands is a key ingredient to a centered life

Sometimes those moments are precious, like the glee of a five-year old flying through the air on a trampoline. Others are painful, like feeling overwhelmed with sadness or anger. By softening to the one, the other is made that much more accessible.

Do you have any trees being bulldozed in your backyard? Something outside your control that is gnawing at your sense of peace and contentment? If you don’t have preschooler mindfulness gurus to do a trampoline intervention for you, then try this. When you notice yourself getting stuck in stomach-churning thoughts or painful discomfort, take a few minutes for a mindful pause.

Get in a comfortable position, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Notice how you feel in your body right now. Observe any physical sensations, thoughts or feelings without fighting them or judging yourself. Then gently soften into those places where you feel hard, angry, depressed, anxious, or in pain. Hold in your awareness the painful feeling AND a sense of softening, warmth and gentleness.

For more in-depth mindfulness meditations that can help with pain and discomfort, check out Dr. Elisha Goldstin’s S.A.F.E. meditation practice for coping with difficult emotions or the work of Vidyamala Burch on chronic physical pain, founder of Breathworks and mindfulness-based pain reduction.

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