Embracing the Suck
I was lifting weights recently when my left shoulder suddenly shouted at me with a sharp, shooting pain. For the next few weeks, I skipped that particular exercise, but the problem didn’t go away. My physical therapist told me it was likely a rotator cuff injury.
To address my persistent pain, he prescribed a few minutes of additional exercises. They were simple, but uncomfortable and inconvenient, and I didn’t want to do them. And yet, I knew that they would work precisely by making me uncomfortable.
Just like mindfulness practice.
1. The present isn’t always comfortable
First, “living in the present moment” will go a lot better when you accept how often the present moment sucks. While sometimes the present is delightful, sometimes we’re worrying throughout the day or we’re spending too much time awake in the middle of the night. We feel anxious, spread too thin, or depleted.
Naturally, when we bring our attention to the present under these circumstances, it’s uncomfortable… just like my PT exercises. In fact, expecting mindfulness to instantly relieve distress sets us up to assume we’re doing something wrong when we’re actually doing something right: acknowledging things just as they are.
When I work out, I don’t feel strong. I mostly feel weak and fatigued. Stretching makes me feel inflexible. When I hop onto the treadmill, my body pleads with me to head home to check in on my friends from The Good Place.
The present doesn’t have to be comfortable for your efforts to count. If you pay attention to the experience of running late, you might notice embarrassment. If you pay attention to the experience of small talk, you might notice that it feels awkward. That is all fine.
2. The discomfort is the good part
Not only does the present not have to be comfortable -- the value of mindfulness practice is easier to spot when it isn’t.
Relaxing moments can be rejuvenating, but embracing both the pleasant and unpleasant moments is liberating. After all, we can’t rid the world of everything that triggers us -- but we can expand the scope of what we’re capable of feeling without making difficult matters worse. We can gradually erode our dependence on ideal circumstances and feel more at home in the messiness of real life.
That means the uncomfortable moments are the most productive ones, because they’re where the real work on internal transformation happens. Once again, my PT experience was similar. The physical therapy exercises were designed to empower me, not to torture me. The pain of briefly and consistently yielding to them was evidence that my range of motion gradually being restored.
As a bonus, I found that giving these painful exercises my best shot boosted my empathy toward everyone who struggles to adhere to sound medical—or contemplative—advice.
3. You will see results
Finally, to measure my improved range of motion, my physical therapist used a instrument called a goniometer. Too bad there’s no fancy tool we can use to track our mindfulness progress.
There are times, though, when I’ve known with certainty that my meditation practice has made significant improvements in how I relate to my life in real-time. To be honest, most of those times have really sucked. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone and yet I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Just as the Greek poet Archilochus predicted, I didn’t rise to the level of my expectations. I fell to the level of my training. I embraced the suck as best as I was able, and I felt unimaginably uncomfortable, alive, comforted, and free.
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