We've all heard the saying (often attributed to Albert Einstein) that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.” Might we apply this "insanity" to the expectations we continue to have when operating within our comfort zones?
If we're honest, we'll admit that we all like being comfortable. Our comfort zone is where we get to do things pretty much as we want—while often harboring secret hopes that magical life improvements will still come our way. Is it insane to nestle into our comfort zones, never to emerge?
If we're honest, we'll admit that we all like being comfortable.
I would say that while it’s certainly unrealistic to expect dramatic change to derive from being firmly lodged in a happy place of comfort, it often makes good sense to avoid discomfort. We’ve all experienced what diving into the unknown can feel like. Working up the guts to ask that long-time crush out on a date (instead of doodling their name next to yours on a bed of hearts), or even trying a new food can sometimes feel like sheer terror.
It’s no wonder most of us are attached to our comfort zones—their precise function is to keep us comfortable! Within their confines we can rest easy, well within the realm of manageable actions and emotions.
Is there anything so wrong with that?
The truth is, staying within your comfort zone can lead to a somewhat resistance-free, washed-out existence—much like the early, monochromatic scenes in The Wizard of Oz, which chronicle Dorothy’s life before it's literally turned upside down on her journey to Oz—only to resettle in a world of brilliant technicolor! But experiencing the full range of our potential may involve something of an ordeal. It may not feel worth the effort at first, and our comfort zones are always there to coax us into staying exactly where we are.
As long as we are committed to self-growth, however, we’ll continue to occasionally find ourselves in the scary place where our comfort zones end and the unknown begins. In my case, the process often starts with a developing restlessness. I begin to feel that something’s either about to unravel, or is just not working anymore. While the details may be elusive, an inner voice whispers that it’s time for a change. The voice might be a little muffled as we continue to live our everyday lives. But I believe that voice is connected to the higher consciousness of which we are all a part. I also believe we can all tap into this rich reservoir of wisdom by calming the mind through deep breathing, asana practice, and meditation.
At other times, our intuition speaks to us loud and clear, perhaps to the point where ignoring the propulsion toward change becomes impossible. Depending on the individual, the deep uncertainty that arises when intuition propels us toward transition can be terrifying or exciting.
Why is all of this so challenging? In crossing the bridge of transition, the blockages and habit patterns we previously developed to protect our fragile psyches from perceived harm are uncovered and laid bare. We cannot bypass this process, however; we need to come face to face with our protective gear—the way we become defensive when criticized, withdraw in fear (of either failure or success) when offered a great career opportunity, or dissolve in a puddle of guilt each time we think about disappointing someone. In order to move beyond our habitual reactions, we need instead to feel and confront our feelings, allowing them to teach us (rather than raising walls around ourselves or running away).
Directly observing habits, patterns, and coping mechanisms, we move toward freeing ourselves from inhibitions and recognizing opportunities for growth. Meditating or journaling offer a safe space for exploring questions such as: What am I resisting when I become defensive, or when I feel guilty? What situations seem to trigger these reactions? What may lie behind these feelings—what am I afraid of? What does this fear feel like physically, as sensations in my body? What might life look like on the other side of fear?
Directly observing habits, patterns, and coping mechanisms, we move toward freeing ourselves from inhibitions and recognizing opportunities for growth.
Answering some of these questions for yourself can also lead to a deeper understanding of the inner boundaries that create your comfort zone, and help provide perspective on how these boundaries manifest in your daily life. Much like yoga, this self-exploration can aid the process of finding balance between the comfort zones that serve you (for example, that has you calling a cab to get home late at night), and those that hold you back. Balance is always a primary aim of spiritual practice and fundamental to our well-being. From a place of balance, we can begin to explore how far we can go without falling.
Yoga assists us, time and again, to approach the outer edges of our comfort zones. If we go more deeply into a pose than we should, we risk injury. Injury is quite possibly the clearest sign that we’ve pushed inappropriately beyond our yoga comfort zones. However, there are valuable lessons to be learned even in recovering from injury (e.g., patience, presence, and self-acceptance). As we recover, we learn that if we are attentive and respect the principle of moderation, we can set out on a new path to the other side of the predictable and comfortable. And isn’t this why we practice in the first place?
We can’t predict how we’ll grow or how it will feel, and it wouldn’t be a learning process if we could. But once we learn how to be gentle with ourselves as we move toward exceeding our prior limitations, infinite discoveries await. Our inner wisdom moves into consciousness and propels us where, in our newly opened state of being, we need to go. Or we may find that we're not going as deeply into a pose as we could, and thus not inviting true expansion of body, mind, or spirit. We might even feel guilty about it, which could itself trigger the realization that we’re not as happy in our place of comfort as we thought we were.
Learning to Grow My Comfort Zone
At one point, after a period of restlessness in which my comfortable, more intellectual spiritual orientation was not cutting it anymore, I felt a great pull to begin a yoga practice. I had also begun asking myself about my defense mechanisms, discovering that I had a far deeper and more pervasive fear than I'd ever realized. Something had to give. I was lucky to find beautiful teachers who seamlessly melded the practice of asana with the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual aspects of yoga. As my consciousness began to shift, I became aware of a mind in overdrive, and a body and psyche I had neglected for far too long. Through yoga, I discovered I could gently grow my comfort zone in a way that satisfied my need for philosophical and psychological engagement, and nourished my need for a full-hearted, embodied practice.
Asana, which asked me to root and ground, did not come naturally to me. My mind could travel complex pathways with sure footing, while there were days I couldn’t tell you if my feet had even touched the ground (let alone if I'd walked or moved with any degree of awareness). Leaving my comfort zone was looking a lot like discovering I had a body, a beautiful if flawed vessel to house my mind and psyche; it looked a lot like taking my very first conscious steps.
I learned about “the edge”—that place where I am most definitely uncomfortable, but not to the point of excessive pain or undue threat. This was an enormous life lesson. I had spent my mental and emotional life either exceeding the edge (i.e., blinding myself with pain) or creating an ocean of distance between myself and the edge. It was a revelation to discover the concept of "edge," and how I might become more equanimous in the face of challenges through asana and meditation practice.
I learned about “the edge”—that place where I am most definitely uncomfortable, but not to the point of excessive pain or undue threat.
Slowly, I started to approach my practice with kindness. I wanted to rest in and explore the space just beyond the point of comfort until I could go further, rather than rest on my laurels (avoidance) or push too hard (seeking perfectionism). I realized that trying to be somewhere and someone I’m not is not going to serve me—but that not trying to further myself at all would be a long road to nowhere.
I even started to feel that this “edge” was a happy place—where my exertion was met by a small quivering voice in me saying, “You can do it. I will help you get through this.” At some point in our lives, we are all going to face our demons of self-doubt, even self-hatred, and above all, fear. But we can also develop the strength and stability to hold and observe these demons until they lose their grip on us.
“The edge” is a great teacher, telling us that to go just as far as we can is not only good enough, but ideal. It’s amazing how a simple, shaky-legged warrior II can induce self-love, as we learn to really feel our bodies in the present moment and let go of the need for mastery. We learn, too, that bearable amounts of discomfort and fear can even motivate us to work in creative ways to expand the sphere of our comfort. The journey out of our comfort zone is bound to evolve as we consider the myriad choices we face in life. After all, we can’t leave our comfort zones behind without having a clear road map of how we want to expand our own unique universe.
In my spiritual studies, I found that some of the philosophical tenets and spiritual practices just "fit" for me, while others merely piqued my curiosity. Still others caused negative reactions in me. I wondered: Should I dive headlong into exploring what I resist the most to find out where the resistance is coming from (the perfectionist in me says yes!)? Or will I learn most by going deeper into the paths that instinctively speak to me?
These are ongoing questions I confront each day, but I suspect the answer to some degree lies in exploring the “edge." We start from our own personal here and now, as Pema Chödrön so brilliantly expresses in her book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living:
We can listen to our intuition, attentively and lovingly, as our inner wisdom tells us what we need. We can do our very best to walk in that direction without compromising the core of the beautiful, unique beings we are.
Near the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy famously repeats the phrase, “There’s no place like home." "Home" is where we begin, and the home we remember will never be the same once we’ve voyaged to previously unimagined places. Maybe we don’t need home to be the same. Maybe we can take it with us, even creating it as we move through life. Maybe home has always been ready and able to grow.
"We shall not cease from exploration.
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
—T.S. Eliot ("Little Gidding," from Four Quartets)