We were sitting at a big table in total silence trying our best not to look each other in the eyes. Well, not total silence. The clinking of forks, shifting of chairs, throat clearing and conversations from passer-by’s echoed through the room. Though I tried my best to focus internally, these usually unnoticed noises dominated my awareness.
It had been a while since I’d practiced Nobel Silence in a group setting, and I was surprised at how the experience of intentionally not speaking with or looking at the people around me revealed just how much I think about and focus on them, thus losing connection to my inner experience.
I struggled to bring my attention back to the tastes, smells and feelings in my mouth and body as I ate, but the urges to comment, look or react to the others kept rising like waves that I’d have to beat down. I could feel the group around me going through the same struggle.
Needless to say, it was uncomfortable.
I was attending a friend’s event for mindfulness meditation, and the exercise of Nobel Silence lasted only 20 minutes. During my training in India we ate every meal for 6 weeks in Nobel Silence and I spent 10 whole days in Nobel Silence for Vipassana, so this was nothing new to me. But, something about being out of an ashram and doing it just for a short part of the evening created a contrast between “normal” life and my consciousness practices that was both uncomfortable and amazingly insightful.
I realised that while I can easily drop into my inner experience on a mediation cushion, yoga mat, surf board or alone in nature, I needed to work on cultivating and maintaining this connection amongst the pulsing chaos of crowds and “normal” life.
What made the experience even more meaningful for me was later in the evening when the host of the event publicly shared how uncomfortable he felt during the Nobel Silence. He wondered if everyone would think he was crazy and doubted himself for making this exercise part of the event, but ultimately realised he needed to trust in sharing the processes that have taught him so much.
He then told us that one of the greatest things he’s learned from meditation is that “discomfort” is not synonymous with “bad,” and how he hoped to teach his two young daughters to distinguish between the two.
The host and I were uncomfortable for very different reasons, as I’m sure each person in the room had a slightly different trigger that made them uneasy. But, it was the same experience of sitting with our discomfort that brought us to our growth edge and made the experience the opposite of bad.
I teach this all the time in my yoga classes — learning how to differentiate between discomfort and pain — and that working with rather than avoiding physical discomfort ultimately leads us to breakthroughs, liberation and healing.
Sadly, most of us are socialised to run away from discomfort. I’m reading an amazing book right now by Brene Brown called ’Daring Greatly,’ and she points out that discomfort is an essential part of learning and growth. When we’re unwilling to experience discomfort we limit our growth potential, our creativity and our ability to engage.
One of the big things I’m getting out of Brown’s book on the importance of vulnerability is that at the heart of all problems and all suffering, social or personal, is disengagement as a response to fear of discomfort.
When we are brave enough to be engaged and be vulnerable, yes it might be uncomfortable and scary, but it is this vulnerability that Brown calls the birthplace of learning, creativity, connection and innovation.
I think it’s easy for us to believe something is “wrong” with us when we feel discomfort rather than see it as a universal experience. When we feel like we’re the only ones uncomfortable or struggling the process gets even more scary, we want to run away, and if we do we miss our opportunity for growth.
Brown says, “At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going got be uncomfortable and unpredictable. Now, as I begin my fifteenth year of teaching at the University of Houston, I always tell my students, ‘If you’re comfortable, I’m not teaching and you’re not learning. It’s going to get uncomfortable in here and that’s okay. It’s normal and it’s part of the process.’”
She encourages normalising discomfort as a way to shift our culture into more engagement, vulnerability, connectivity and growth. This particular Noble Silence experience epitomised both how discomfort breeds growth and normalisation of discomfort breeds courage.
I’m starting to shift my associations with discomfort and see it as an opportunity for expanding and learning. The more I share my experiences and have the privilege to hear those of others in my retreats, workshops, classes and life, the less scary discomfort gets.