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Mindful of Discomfort

Last night, some folks in my MBSR class shared their experiences of paying close attention to an ordinary experience; one described the joy of tracking a single tadpole, among hundreds, for several minutes; another shared her delight at the refreshing gulp of water after brushing her teeth; another described a new level of discernment around eating and food as she observed hunger in her body. Clearly, there is a more expansive sense of life available when we are willing to bring our full attention to the simple pleasures and ordinary events of everyday life.

Suffering and Compassion

Mindfulness practice has something to offer when it comes to discomfort and pain as well. These are uncomfortable times. A frightening pandemic offers up concern for our mortality and the mortality of those we love to ponder. It presents us with an opportunity to get close to the experience of isolation, disappointment and loss. In pretty much the same moment, a global eruption of the long simmering wounds of colonialism and racism invite us to examine our own deeply entrenched biases, individual and collective losses as well as our position and commitment to change. None of this is easy and all of it involves discomfort and pain.

While there is more often than not a strong impulse to turn away from the very real and profound pain and discomfort we find all around us, there's a suggestion here that leaning into these opportunities is at least as valuable as leaning into the pleasurable and ordinary aspects of life.

Discomfort, as it lives in the human body is, at once, both universal and exceedingly personal. Mindfulness practices that invite us to kindly and patiently bring our full attention to our embodied experience help us to feel more fully connected to our own experience of discomfort, and simultaneously to the discomfort around us. This connection is a prerequisite for meeting our own suffering with care and compassion. This connection also give us access to compassion for the suffering of others, even as the source of that discomfort may be radically different from the source of our own.

Notice, Name and Pause

Simply noticing discomfort and tracking the sensations that come with it is a start. Asking a couple of questions allows us to name the discomfort.

  • "What triggered the discomfort?

  • "Where, in my body is the discomfort?"

  • "What's the voice over to this discomfort; what is my mind telling me?"

  • "Is there an emotion that goes along with the discomfort?"

This helps us begin to separate out the felt sense of discomfort from the thinking and story line that go along with it which opens some space for us to pause. This pause invites the opportunity to become less compelled by what simply makes us feel better (a candy bar, righteous rant or 6 hours of Netflix, for example), or to attack, run away, or give up on what makes us feel bad. Noticing, naming and pausing with discomfort leads to clarity.

From Clarity to Choice

Our automatic reactions aren't so much "bad" as they are simply not as helpful as we might wish. Free'd from automatic reactions, we can see and experience a situation or moment — even moments and situations that involve anxiety, fear, anger, or sadness — with more clarity. More clarity allows for a more constructive set of choices to emerge:

  • Can I reframe this situation?

  • Is there someone I can reach out to for support?

  • Is there a request I need to make here?

  • What is the right thing to do here that preserves my overall integrity, vision, or values, even if it’s the harder choice to make?

This clarity and corresponding access to choice is the fruit of having a regular mindfulness practice. Whether we are deep breathing, sitting in meditation, or just moving mindfully through our day, we are in effect building our capacity to witness our body sensations, voice-tracks, and emotions without reacting. There’s a range of practices — from the informal to the formal — that can help us strengthen this ability.


  • Take one deep breath in between activities

  • Use everyday activities like brushing your teeth or driving home as cues to remind you to check in with your body

  • Commit to doing one activity per day more mindfully

  • Follow your breath for two minutes when you notice discomfort or pain

  • Body-scan meditation (bringing your attention and awareness to different regions of your body, where you experience the sensations in the body without trying to change or react to anything)

  • Sitting meditation

  • Walking meditation

Mindfulness practices ultimately allow us to connect to and participate more fully in the whole of our lives. Mindfulness invites us to get close to it all and perhaps be just a little less tossed around by running away from or crushing what feels bad. And somewhere in that fuller human experience, we connect and tap into a deeper source of motivation and choice that is more aligned with our integrity, our values and ethics, and our authentic essence.

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