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Learning to Dance in the Fire of Discomfort

Mindful living isn’t about avoiding pain, but understanding how to proceed in moments of stress with grace and clarity.

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It’s been said if you watch a basketball game on television and play classical music instead of sports commentary, players begin to look like dancers. Their halting movements and quick passes take on the fluidity of ballet, as they move around each other trying to score. What was, for me, almost barbaric becomes beautiful. What seems competitive becomes collaborative.

I suspect this is true of our own lives.

Stand on any sweltering street corner of New York City in July and something becomes abundantly clear: People are uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the steam that rises from subway grates, or maybe the smell of garbage baking in the oppressive sun, but if you study the faces of the average passerby, with their perpetual frowns and foreheads illuminated by cell phone screens, no one appears to be dancing. What if we stood on a rooftop and played classical music as we watched people walk by? Would we find that those people look like dancers? Would we discover that they’ve been dancing all along?

Recently I’ve been finding that mindful living is not about transcending pain; rather, it’s a practice of learning to dance in the fires of our own discomfort. We need not smile all the time, or live devoid of suffering. We must learn to move in tandem with the fiery landscape of our own discomfort. We must make peace with the things we fear because, with the right distance and some good music, everything that arises is actually dancing. We must simply learn to acknowledge our own movement among the flames. If we can stoke each ember with purpose and dance around with skill, we can help clear a path for something better. We can let the flames transform the barriers we have.

It’s no accident that I am writing this in the height of my own discomfort. Over the past three months, I decided to sublet my apartment and take a trip around the world. I’m currently spending 10 days with a host family I met on the Internet. We don’t all speak the same language and basic things, like indoor plumbing, aren’t exactly guaranteed. I’m tired, and dreading my next shower. I am grateful for the hospitality, yet I’m counting the moments until I depart. I am deep in the fire of my own discomfort. I’m trying to dance instead of cringe.

Not every proverbial fire involves trips to a developing nation. Discomfort doesn’t have to be dramatic. Discomfort doesn’t have to involve a radical change of life. It can be quiet and subtle. It can involve you and you alone. Your discomfort could be an attempt to deal with your own jealousy. You might be learning to decipher your needs from the needs of those you love. Your personal furnace might involve spending more time at your in-law’s house, or working overtime to finish a project at work. Your fire could be an illness that you’re learning how to manage, or the energy it takes to move on after you lose a loved one. Your furnace is yours and yours alone. Only you can decide when you’re ready to dance in the flames.

The circumstances are innumerable, but the truth is always the same: Your fire is a spark that leads to greater wisdom. It could be a problem that you can’t seem to solve, or the way your Camel Pose opens your heart and makes you cry. So many of us run from our own fires. So many of us create chaos to avoid fanning our own flames. We are in the fire, and it sucks, but if we’re breathing we are dancing. We must only learn to see the grace of our own actions. We must learn to have more mercy on ourselves.

How do we move forward when we’re smacked with discomfort? When pressure overwhelms us, how can we remember that we’re dancing? Though there are many answers to this question, the short answer is this: we must try to interrupt our learned responses. Throughout our lives we learn a host of coping mechanisms for difficult situations. Whether we become angry and aggressive or non-confrontational and avoidant, many of our survival mechanisms aren’t helpful. In a recent lecture on raising consciousness in difficult situations, Deepak Chopra outlines a method called STOP. When dealing with a difficult situation he encourages us to first stop to adequately evaluate our circumstances, take a deep breath in an effort to transform our mood, observe the sensations in our bodies and our minds, and finally, proceed with loving-kindness and compassion. In lieu of reacting to our fires with outdated habits we’ve picked up, we can STOP and find a better way of dancing with the discomfort that may surround us. When we interrupt our default reactions, we can see the wisdom in our situations.

In my own life (between moments that require me to STOP) I work to cultivate mercy for myself and others. I remind myself of my own strengths and assets. Whether through journaling about my victories, loving-kindness meditation, or simply treating myself to an afternoon in Central Park, I make an effort to remind myself that I am worthy of simple pleasures. The rationale is simple: The more kindness I show myself, the greater my capacity to work through challenges with abiding kindness.

The dance of life isn’t easy. It can often be frustrating and exhausting, but when we have not practiced self-compassion, we tend to lose sight of the dance. We begin to think we are our challenges and fires, but we’re not. They are simply opportunities for us to dance. Sometimes the richest circumstances are pressure-cooker situations. Sometimes, the situations that make us feel off balance, are exactly what we needed to excel. When the flames are at our neck and the smoke stings our eyes, the fire is, almost always, transforming us for greatness and illuminating the path ahead. May we all learn to approach our fires with light-feet and open-hearts. May we deepen our capacity to dance.

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