When training in discomfort, how long should you hold the emotion? The easy but very challenging answer is to hold the emotion as long as it remains an act of kindness. If it turns into torture or you become possessed by it, then you held it too long.
My practice in discomfort:
Holding discomfort as kindness or torture is an essential distinction to discover if you are a cubicleMonk. If you have survived a cubicle or earned a challenging degree, then you most likely have bulging determination muscles. We can spend all weekend in a lab in college to finish an assignment. We know how to grind endless hours to finish a project at work.
This skill of pushing oneself hard in a tortuous way does not help in practicing emotional discomfort. This blocked me for years. I tortured and abused myself during meditation, yoga, and other reflective practices. This brought negative results, harm, and prevented growth.
It took me a long time to drop the stubbornness and find the awareness to detect when the discomfort turns from an act of love to an act of cruelty. This is not easy but it brings growth.
I practice physical discomfort because this is how I learn to hold emotional discomfort.
For example, cold showers. Some mornings, my body needs a cold shower as it brings excitement and health benefits. This shock is kind. But some mornings the shock is too much. Turning on the cold water would be torture. I have learned to know when I need to step into cold or warm water.
Another example is running. Most runners don’t find enjoyment in each actual step. But they know it’s good for their health and they enjoy the sense of accomplishment and growth. With the proper amount of pushing, they can increase their running capacity. But push too hard and they will become injured.
These are both healthy physical activities and I also use them to observe and train my mind to observe my feelings. This discovery of kindness versus torture is a way I practice holding emotional discomfort. Through these physical practices, I have learned to observe my mind and feelings to know when I need to step out of the discomfort.
Real personal growth happens when I can sit with emotion. When I can recognize it, accept it, learn from it, and then take action or even better take no action, then the magic happens.
First salt and alcohol, then chocolate:
This was our evening routine after our son died.
We did many unwise things after Finn’s death. But this wasn’t one of them. The salty chips with beer or tequila followed by chocolate were acts of kindness. Our bodies were craving salt, sweetness, and comfort.
I bring this up as a positive example of when to stop holding the emotion. The trauma and grief were deep and painful. But we were doing the work. This is when I started to learn meditation. This is when I started writing. We were going to grief counseling, grief groups, and opening ourselves to this pain. I was going to work. We were raising our older son. We were even taking evening walks on most days. But by the end of the day, we had to let go. I can still taste the IPA, chips, and chocolate while watching Veronica Mars, one of our favorite tv shows.
Looking back, I have regrets about many of my actions during these times of deep grief. But when I unravel the regrets, most are because I was holding too tight. Holding the pain so tight that I would fall apart leaving a path of destruction.
I am still a kindergarten meditator. But I was stuck for a very long time in meditation pre-school because of the determination and grit I applied to myself when my mind wandered. It wasn’t until I shifted to a “hey there, welcome back to the party” attitude when I recognized my wandering mind that I was able to free myself into deeper meditation.
Find a healthy physical activity that allows you to feel discomfort. Practice staying only long enough that you don’t torture yourself. Now apply this to a feeling like anger. Feel and observe this anger until before you become possessed by it. Then let it go by a healthy action. This is challenging stuff but it will lead to tremendous growth.