Exploring Discomforts in Nature
Can we become more comfortable with what is uncomfortable?
Time: 10-20 minutes
Safety: Although this activity is meant to stretch your resilience, it is not meant to cause you harm. Take good care of yourself and understand your limits. Do not endanger yourself in extreme conditions.
Spending time in nature can be uncomfortable. When the weather turns, it can leave us chilled, dirty, or wet. We've all seen movies detailing epic survival in storms or extreme conditions. Recalling the deaths of famous adventurers, climbing mountains or sailing seas, we wince at the tragedies. But adversity in nature also takes on less extreme forms. Mosquitoes alone can drive some mad in the height of the season. Humans are certainly resilient but at the same time extremely vulnerable. Our basic needs for food, water, and warmth require us to be vigilant, resourceful, and self-protective. Modern society has pampered us to such an extent that even the slightest inconvenience or discomfort can become the ultimate distraction. I know first hand that mosquitoes can shorten a camping trip. I've seen how moods change and attention-spans shorten when there is a slight chill in the air. Is there a way for us to strengthen the muscle of "allowing?"
For most of us, daily life is quite separate from the rhythms of nature, even though all of our basic needs are satisfied by power of nature and resources found therein. The utilities we enjoy are acquired and managed by others and delivered to us. We keep our homes temperature-controlled and the refrigerator or pantry stocked. Most Americans have access to clean and readily available drinking water. We don't often have to fend for ourselves in these ways- certainly not by accessing the sources themselves. Our level of disconnect from nature is apparent, especially when we consider large-scale destruction, impacting the very resources we rely on.
Those who go camping understand the importance of a fire, keeping oneself dry, and access to reliable water resources. The vulnerabilities that become apparent to us when we are in nature tend to expose, even on a subconscious level, our lack of control over life and comfort, in particular and generally. It can become quite emotional for people when they feel small and dependent on conditions, a little human in this big scary world. People can hold tightly to their comforts out of fear for well-being.
While on retreat or otherwise outdoors with people, I've seen individuals put on and take off layers by the minute, in an attempt to keep themselves at the optimum physical comfort level at all times, impacted by the strength of the wind or the movement of clouds in front of the sun. People can do this to the point of distraction and disconnection with all else. At times, this level of fidgeting seems to be in the vain of perfection-seeking, the endless pursuit of feeling "great" at every moment.
Often, we grow the most when we are challenged in some way; adversity inspires expansion. We learn in nature that we can overcome challenges, we are strong and resilient. Using our intellect, intuition, map, and compass, we can figure out how to get back to the trail head if we are lost. On a backpacking trip, one might push through difficult terrain and intense physical challenge to reach an ultimate and empowering goal. Weather can make things difficult but instead of turning back because of it, we might continue on, carefully. Memories of these times are rich and people love telling stories of how they persevered. The ultimate lack of control over conditions, weather or otherwise, allows us to consider that the way things are, even though imperfect, is good enough. We can stay on track nonetheless.
It's fall time, a great time of year to strengthen ourselves in this way. We might start to notice the thoughts, reactions, and sensations that arise when we're in a slightly uncomfortable physical situation. For example, while sitting outside drinking tea or coffee, you might notice a chill in the air. The typical response is the desire to get your sweater or jacket. Before responding, just sit still for another few moments and notice what is happening in your mind. Is there an automatic label that the tingly feeling on your skin and the goosebumps are "bad?" Attempt to notice the sensations without labeling them as “bad" and requiring immediate action to resolve it. Sit with the physical sensations, exploring whether you might even be able to enjoy them. The observation might shift to, "My skin feels so alive and sensitive in this air! The tingling feels nice, invigorating!"
It's not necessary to enjoy the feeling, but by sitting it out for a few moments, we strengthen the muscle of "allowing." This muscle benefits us in so many areas of our lives. When it is strong, there is an expanded space between stimuli and our reaction. In that space is where true choice exists. We can choose patience, grace, peace, stillness. Allowing takes us to a place of trust, where we know everything will be alright even if it is not perfect. Even more importantly, we do not have to control each and every detail in order to feel ok. There is beauty in putting down defensive armor of self protection and opening to slight discomfort as acceptable. It goes beyond the physical realm and applies to emotional and social areas as well. Strengthening this muscle helps us in the checkout line, at the gym, during tax season, and while on the phone with the mother-in-law. You can be still and allow. You do not need to rush toward self-soothing. This applies to our use or abuse of substances and foods, our consumerism, our multitasking. Sit. Wait. Allow. You are just fine.
Physical vulnerability and sitting with slight discomfort can bring up emotions. If it does for you, journal what emerges. How would you name the feelings or emotions- frustration, boredom, fright, annoyance, resistance, disappointment, rage, sadness, loneliness, aversion, insecurity, irritation, avoidance, fury? What's behind or under these feelings? Experiences, memories, or fears? What are they really connected to? Then reflect on how it feels to strengthen the muscle of allowing; examine areas in your life that might benefit from this practice.
I can tell you that sitting still, resisting the need to grab a sweater, if only for 5 minutes at a time, has expanded me.
Enjoy the fall weather!