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Over the weekend I had the opportunity to be a part of the Melbourne leg of the 2015 Global Sustainability Jam. The “jam” is a 48 hour intensive workshop model that guides participants through a design thinking process, to develop real life solutions to a “wicked problem“, in this case around the theme of “sustainability”. My role was as a group facilitator for one of the 5 groups involved in the jam.
During the early stages of the jam, on Saturday morning, our group was deep in discussion around a problem: how might we connect the disadvantaged with the disconnected for mutual benefit? The discussion moved from homelessness, to domestic violence and the loneliness of “empty-nesters”. At this stage it seemed like there were more questions than answers and I sensed a cloud of discomfort and tension descend on our group. Having experienced this “problem” phase of the design thinking process many times before, I had an idea of what was going on and I sought to reassure my group.
I stopped the group for a moment and asked everyone to take a deep breath and just feel the tension and awkwardness that we were experiencing in that moment!
I then reassured the group that this was a completely normal part of the process. I asked them to not resist this discomfort and suggested that in embracing this discomfort completely, we were creating a space for an equal and opposite sensation to take place.
Earlier in the year I attended a 10 day Vipassana silent meditation retreat. One of the most memorable stories that stuck with me from that experience was a lesson shared by the instructor Goenka. He explained that while there is an inevitable amount of discomfort that we must all experience from time to time, we often unnecessarily amplify the duration and intensity of the emotion by reacting to this discomfort.
Just think. How many times has something small but uncomfortable triggered a reaction in us that has lasted for days, weeks, months or even years? And how often has this emotion grown in intensity over time to become so much bigger than it originally felt?
In design thinking, we talk about “sitting in the problem” and “becoming comfortable with discomfort”. In Vipassina meditation and other forms of meditation and mindfulness practice, this concept is referred to in terms of being the “observor” or “witness” of our thoughts and emotions.
In his highly successful Headspace meditation app, Andy Puddicombe explains this concept by using the analogy of standing on the side of the road, watching traffic pass by.
We don’t tend to chase after every car that we see going past or invest emotion by jumping out in front of the cars to try and stop them! We merely stand by and “observe” the cars passing by.
Similarly, as hard as it might sound, it is so valuable to cultivate the habit of simply observing our discomfort as it arises and passes. If we can adopt a mindset in times of discomfort that allows us to stop, take a deep breath and gently say “Hmm..this is uncomfortable”, we will notice that discomfort always has an ebb and a flow. If we have the courage to become comfortable with discomfort, we will find that like all things in nature, it will arise and then pass.
In doing so, we can also reassure ourselves in these moments that by sitting in the discomfort, we are creating a space for an equal and opposite sense of comfort to arise later on.
Uncertainty becomes certainty.
Frustration becomes acceptance.
Confusion becomes clarity.
Stress becomes ease.
Later on during the jam, on Sunday afternoon, when my group had developed their idea, recorded a 2 minute pitch video and documented the concept using a Business Model Canvas, I reminded them of our moment of discomfort on Saturday and how we were all now feeling. Sure enough, we were experiencing an equal and opposite sensation; the discomfort had become comfort, the stress had become ease.
Learning to become comfortable with discomfort can be a difficult practice if we are accustomed to reacting to our emotions. However, like all things of value, it is a quality that can be acquired through work and practice. Here are several suggestions for how me might begin to cultivate this practice:
- I highly recommend some form of daily meditation practice. Headspace is a great place to begin
- Any sort of physical practice like yoga, running, crossfit or weight training where we can experience short bursts of pain and recovery in a controlled environment
- And just in our day to day life, becoming mindful and catching ourselves when we’re in these sticky moments by reminding ourselves of two important mantras:
It will arise and pass.
I am creating a space for an equal and opposite emotion to take place.
And finally, once we are feeling good again, after a period of discomfort, remembering that all we needed was just a little patience!
Christian is the founder of Be Awesome and is trying not to beat himself up for being impatient, when things eventually work out for the best. He is passionate about sharing the best of what he has learnt to allow others to experience more freedom and greater quality of choice in their life.
Since taking the “red pill” in 2010 and departing from a traditional career as an architect, Christian has explored a weird and wonderful career path involving teaching, community engagement and cultural management. He uses design thinking to help individuals and organisations act more creatively and gets excited about the opportunities that arise through travel, collaboration, chance encounters and new relationships formed across a range of creative fields. To work or play with Christian contact him here.