Ben Franklin was quoted as saying “There are no gains without pains” but in my lifetime, it was Jane Fonda, circa 1982, who popularized the saying “no pain, no gain” in her exercise videos. It spread quickly from step aerobics and athletics to just about every endeavor, and became the silent credo of a generation. In short: if you want to get somewhere, do something, or be someone, discomfort is part of the deal. Plan for it. Expect it. Your progress is directly proportional to your suffering.
As with so many other things- from trends in fashion to politics- we eventually swing from one extreme to the other. Here we are in 2023. We live in a time where discomfort is seen as the enemy. We’ve built our entire lives around comfort and convenience. Warnings are everywhere to prevent us from ever being triggered. Our ability to withstand even small inconveniences is severely diminished. We live sanitized lives, in which anything we could ever need or want can be delivered to our doorsteps in a couple of days— or even hours. It’s not just about no pain, it’s about ease and comfort, at all costs.
We Americans spend about 90% of our lives inside perfectly climate controlled environments. We are never hungry. We have multiple digital devices on hand at all times to keep us perpetually entertained and never bored. We are- perhaps more than ever- extremely attached to what we like and what we want (rāga). And we do not want discomfort. We are very happy in the center of our comfort zones.
Earlier this year, I shared some takeaways from a silent meditation retreat I’d been on, and one of the biggest ones was discomfort is not the enemy. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since then. I’ve written about it, talked about it, and made some personal changes with this in mind. Maybe you’re already on board, or maybe you’re wondering what’s the problem with our cush and comfy lives?
The truth is, nothing all that great arises from within our personal comfort bubbles. In his book, The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter goes on quite a bit about what we’ve lost and continue to lose in our quest to have all the things, all the time, just the way we like them. The longer we reside within our little worlds of entertainment and ease, the duller, smaller, less vibrant and adaptable we become. I’d contend that most of the good stuff is only accessible when we step out of the known, the preferred, the comfortable, and press beyond the edges of our preferences.
A few questions to consider:
What are some things that could be really good for you if you’d get right with a little discomfort? (hello, extended meditation practice, consistent functional fitness program, healthy eating plan)
What are little ways you could mix up your daily routines to create even the smallest bit of friction (tāpas) to push into the edges of your comfort? (cold showers/cold plunging, intermittent fasting, regular, extended times with no screens in sight)
For you, where is the middle ground between “no pain, no gain” and never being uncomfortable, bored, or going without? What betterment- or even greatness- might be waiting for us all if we could better tolerate a little discomfort and expand into the technicolor world just beyond our greyscale comfort zones?
Try it out. See what happens.