“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” ~ Dostoyevsky
Last weekend, I drove myself to Mount San Antonio, a 10,000-foot peak west of Los Angeles. I parked at a campground situated at about 6,000 feet, laced up my trail shoes and began a slow, methodical run to the summit. I started early, passing several groups of hikers as the first few miles disappeared behind me. One group stopped to cheer as I passed, “I can’t believe you’re running this!” one man said. I smiled broadly and said, “I can't believe you're hiking this!”
After about 3 miles, the gently sloping trail took a steep turn and I began power hiking, my legs burning fiercely and my breath shortening from exertion and the thinning mountain air. As I trudged my way up the mountain, I saw fewer people. The air was cold and I was undoubtedly tired, but I felt more alive than I’ve felt in months. It is a ethereal experience to endure extreme physical activity, especially on the side of a lonely mountain far from the noise and perplexities of the world below.
Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl wrote, “Tears bear witness that a man had the greatest courage, the courage to suffer.” Running is a very tangible, obtainable vessel to discomfort and situational suffering; something I was blessed to discover very young. I began running at age 12, and quickly learned a few things:
- the pain of pushing myself very hard would wear off quickly, but the pain of giving up would bruise my ego indefinitely;
- the harder I worked and the more often I was able to accommodate discomfort, the faster I was able to run; and
- overcoming temporary discomfort and pain made me feel more confident, more resilient, and more capable to tackle other challenges.
If I could run very hard for an hour, why could I not also read a dull history book for an hour? Both activities held very obvious immediate rewards (running faster, acing my history test), although both were not exceptionally fun in the moment. All of this is really a roundabout way of saying that comfort does not lead to great accomplishment.
Karen Salmansohn said, "The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone." Running up a mountain is decidedly outside my comfort zone. However, the act in and of itself is rewarding beyond measure. Humans have long recognized that overcoming difficult circumstances helps us grow and evolve into stronger, better versions of ourselves. Seth Godin writes, “Discomfort means you’re doing something others are unlikely to do, because they’re hiding out in the comfort zone.” Hiding in comfort is easy to do. We’re surrounded by things that distract us from not only physical but emotional pain; from mental challenges and the deep, attentive practice that is a prerequisite for accomplishment. We find distraction everywhere: the internet, social media, drugs, alcohol, video games, movies, music, other people, et cetera.
Learning to manage physical pain makes handling emotional pain easier because we have a built-in point of reference. The pain of running up a mountain makes the pain of running along a bike path seem paltry. The coping mechanisms gained through physical discomfort help us mentally prepare for emotional distress. Breakups, deaths, difficult conversations, giving a presentation, or performing in front of a group of people are all easier to do if you've overcome challenges in the past. Continually placing yourself in uncomfortable situations will make your skin thick, which is not the same as becoming callous or unsympathetic. Rather, becoming well-versed in discomfort and pain may make us more empathetic because we’re able to recognize pain in others and understand it on deeper level.
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Psychologist and author of Better than Perfect found that people who challenge themselves and seek new experiences are not only more resilient than those stuck in a routine, but more creative as well. Great creatives have long recognized that maintaining a routine is only productive for a while. After we've exhausted our creative reservoirs, we need new stimuli and seek new, often uncomfortable, experiences.
When I was extremely sick with my eating disorder, I maintained a rigid routine. I did this to build a sense of control and safety, but the control and safety I felt weren’t real. I was simply isolated and stuck with habits that didn’t serve me physically, mentally, or spiritually. Breaking routines can be extremely frightening, but unilaterally refreshing. And breaking a routine to conquer a fear, or to climb a mountain for no other reason than you can climb a mountain, is rewarding in and of itself.
I started this post with a Dostoyevsky quote, "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness." It's worth noting that suffering and discomfort are not synonymous. Few people can withstand enormous suffering; Viktor E. Frankl was one of them. Many people will never need to attempt to endure intense suffering. However, we can all withstand discomfort, especially when it is not constant.
Author Daniel H. Pink writes about finding a place of "productive discomfort," in which we're not lulled by too much comfortability or frightened by excessive uncomfortability. Growth or progress in any endeavor can garner a huge amount of confidence in every other area of your life. The trick to stepping outside your comfort zone is to do it in small increments so that you build confidence slowly and progress accordingly.
If you've never walked up a mountain, you probably shouldn't try to run. If you've never performed in front of ten people, you probably shouldn't attempt to perform before ten thousand. But if you consistently push yourself into slightly uncomfortable situations, you will stretch your physical, mental, and spiritual resiliency. That is the secret to growth and steady, sustainable, revitalizing change.