Starting a New Year: Why I Embrace Discomfort

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In preparation for writing this piece, I read one that I wrote five years ago called “Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions.” I wanted to remember what I wrote to see what I might want to add. I discovered that it was all there… I still don’t make resolutions, for the same reasons. First, because I still cannot and don’t want to make predictions about the future, as I see the very attempt to control the future as one of the core failures of western civilization. Also, because I still worry about resolutions turning into weapons of self-destruction.

Discomfort, watercolor monoprint

What do I do instead? For me, it’s about coming back, again and more deeply, to my choice to embrace discomfort as a path to freedom and integrity. That is what I write about below in greater detail.
Starting a new year is also a time when I think about my plans for the coming year. In just over a week, I am starting what I intend to be my last year of leading Leveraging Your Influence retreats (in Costa Rica, Chicago, and Poland this year) and the yearlong program in Oakland. These are settings specifically designed to support all present, both leaders and participants, in opening up to the task of facing what life at this time in human history means. There is definitely discomfort, and there is learning and joy and opening to life. If you are interested in inner freedom, and if you long to live with greater integrity, I hope you will join me this year.

Discomfort and Freedom

Reflecting about myself, I am still the person who knows that my freedom depends on my willingness to step outside my comfort zone – the habits and beliefs that have been ingrained in me through socialization and trauma. Any time I can do that, I have more trust that I am actually choosing rather than being run by my past and my fears. Put differently, I would say that the most reliable forms of freedom are internal: It is my choices in how I respond to life, much more than what life brings to me, that I experience as freedom.
For several years now I’ve been aiming to understand how to support this way of living when the combination of habit, fear, and shame makes this kind of freedom most elusive to people.
My sister Arnina has developed a whole approach called “The Compass” about how it is that we internalize so much from our childhood, and why it is so difficult to break away from those fetters into living the way we want, becoming more of what we know to be our true self, inside, and who we want to be, serving life in our fullest way.
The oversimplified version of her frame is that most of us have adopted an implicit view that says that the needs nexus of safety, belonging, and acceptance is mutually exclusive with the needs cluster of freedom, presence, and truth. Tragically, most of us are driven by the first grouping and unconsciously give up on freedom, truth, and presence even while actively longing for them. Arnina works with people, individually and in her courses, to help them identify and release the “vow” they made early on in life, and choose, freshly, what they want to prioritize and integrate in their current lives. (Arnina works mostly in Hebrew, in Israel where she lives, and sometimes in English, in Europe, in the Bay Area, or at the NVC Academy. You can contact her through her Facebook page.)
Over here, on my end, learning about her framing just recently has helped me understand my own path from a new angle. It turns out, as we discovered in a recent conversation, that I am one of the far fewer people who, facing the same belief about freedom vs. safety, unconsciously choose freedom as the main driver. When I am unable to speak truth, when I feel unable to choose, or when I don’t know how to be authentic, I literally feel dead. These are the needs that are at a survival level for me. As to safety, belonging, and acceptance – I recognize the longing, and I am able to feel alive and go on without them. I see, now, that I haven’t yet integrated fully the two groups of needs into my being and choices. What helps, slowly, is that I recognize and see more and more instances where love arrives at my doorstep, where people actively support me, where some form of belonging is now available to me, for the first time in my life.
Her frame is also helping me understand what I have been doing in working with people: my own way of supporting integration and movement. I see that stepping into the discomfort that allows for more freedom requires a community of support; active engagement with mentors who challenge while fully accepting; and care in managing the level of discomfort so as not to overwhelm the system beyond some baseline of felt safety. Oversimplified again, I see that without knowing Arnina’s new approach, I have created ways for belonging, acceptance, and safety to be met sufficiently to where people often can make a leap into the previously-given-up-on freedom.
With every experiment, with every passing year, I am creating conditions that are more and more conducive to the radical transformation that’s longed for by so many of us. For the past several years, I have been experimenting with short- and longer-term communities of learning and support that spring up in the Leveraging Your Influence programs and retreats I’ve been leading. These are places where dramatic shifts take place precisely because we focus on supporting people to take uncomfortable steps into the unknown and the breathtaking new freedoms that arise from embracing it. It’s no accident that I named an earlier set of workshops I did “Dancing in the Gap of Uncertainty”. (And I was told it’s “too much” for most people to be attracted to it, so I let it go.)

Integrity and Discomfort

It is not only freedom that discomfort is necessary for. Living in integrity in a world that isn’t set up to attend to needs involves an inherent tension. Addressing it requires of us a willingness to be uncomfortable. I wrote about this particular kind of tension, which is one meaning of moral dissonance, a couple of years ago. Since writing it, I have become even more aware of the danger lurking in the combination of comfort and lack of knowledge. At one and the same time, we have more and more avenues for being comfortable through consumption and isolation, and less and less knowledge about the cost to others, both human and not, that our comfort inherently entails. We don’t have to be bad people to create harm, because most of us don’t know the harm.
I embrace discomfort, then, because I want to know and understand what we have collectively created on this planet as part of my incessant quest to bring into reality a vision of a world that operates collaboratively, for everyone’s benefit, all of life. Such a life requires us to know how to stretch, and I want to learn how. Making things work for everyone means learning to accept finitude, our inability to know and control the future, the relationship between what happens here and what happens there, and so much more.
Doing this as a solitary individual is almost impossible. The level of pain and grief that I keep uncovering in the world knocks me out, repeatedly. Our history, in the last 10,000 years or so, is the story of going against nature, against our nature, against the limitations that life entails, against collaboration. The purpose: mastery, control, accumulation. We are coming to the end of that story as the resources of the planet and of people are being depleted at a growing and alarming rate.
It would come as no surprise, then, that the call to full awareness and integrity in our choices – living each moment more and more in line with the vision and values that animate us – is another core aspect of the programs I have created. I don’t know what will bring about such massive global transformation. The practice I wrote about in my earlier post about New Year’s resolutions – not using the future tense – is now almost entirely integrated and mostly effortless. It has served me amazingly well to get grounded in knowing that I don’t know, neither my own future nor that of the entire species or the planet. With utter humility, I still have faith that the more of us happily join with each other in creating a community of uncompromising commitment to living with freedom and integrity and taking a stand of loving care for all that is alive, wherever we are, the more likely it is that we will make it into the glorious possibility I see in our future.
Image credits: Top: New Years Resolutions, by One Way Stock. Middle: Discomfort, by littletinyshoe, watercolor monoprint. Both at Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0. Bottom: Bintan trip, by Kin Mun Lee, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.