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In Praise of Comfort

Comfort is the antidote to suffering. Why don't we embrace it more?

When I was little, I had a stuffed Tigger. Not the Disney Tigger, but the one based on the original drawings in the Winnie the Pooh books. I got him right after I was born and I took him everywhere. I slept with him well into adolescence. He was Comfort. But we're expected to outgrow such things. This is sad and strange. All humans need and deserve comfort.

Contrary to cultural expectations, I never outgrew the need for comfort. But unlike when I was a toddler, now people would probably look at me funny if I asked for it (or if I carried a beat-up old Tigger around). And I don’t habitually think to offer it to myself either. That’s a shame. I'm committed to changing this - to making comfort my default reaction when life gets challenging.

Comfort is the antidote to pain and suffering of all kinds. It's like magic. So I’ve been thinking of ways to cultivate comfort. This is radical in our culture. When was the last time you sat down with yourself and offered yourself comfort? Or recognized that you needed comfort? Or asked someone to comfort you? But don’t we know that’s what suffering calls for? Comfort? Just holding the word in my mind feels warm and sweet. My body relaxes.

That’s not how we’re programmed though.

When life gets difficult (i.e. when life is Life) my default is NOT to offer comfort. It is to ask myself “what’s wrong?” What’s wrong around me or what’s wrong with me. What am I doing wrong? What are “they” doing wrong?

Or, I might tell myself, “you shouldn’t feel bad about this.” Or “this is a stupid thing to feel bad about.” My inner critic can start having a field day, carrying on about all the ways I am not coping well with my life. It starts listing all the things about me that need to be fixed. This always makes everything worse.

Sometimes I suppress the bad feelings altogether so that I am not even aware they are here. “How are you?” someone asks? “Doing well,” I respond with a smile. “Fine.” Ugh! I think the word “fine” should be struck from our vernacular. Are you EVER fine when you say “I’m fine?” (For the record, fine literally means “of high quality,” as in “a fine wine.” Just saying). But this is what we do with our own suffering. We minimize it, hide it, repress, and deny it.

To sum up, when I am suffering, my default reactions include pathologizing (”what’s wrong?”) self-criticism (”why am I such a mess?”), and minimizing (”really, I’m fine”).

I would never react that way to someone else’s suffering. Would you? I mean, imagine it. Your best friend comes to you and says they're sad or angry or frustrated or embarrassed or disappointed. You look at them and say, “what’s wrong with you?” “You’re such a mess.” Or, “don’t be silly. You’re fine.”

You'd never say that. (Or if you did, I doubt you’d have a lot of friends).

You’d say “I’m so sorry” or “that sounds really hard.” You’d empathize - because empathy is a powerful source of comfort. Try this exercise: bring to mind a time when you experienced real empathy from another person. What do you notice in your body? Is it comfort, ease, relaxation?

Now remember a time when you were met with pathologizing, criticism, or minimizing. What do you notice in your body now? Is it tension, contraction, discomfort? There is all the proof we need, right here in our own physical response.

We can feel the truth -- that comfort always helps. Comfort is the antidote to suffering, whether it is our own or others. Compassion and empathy provide comfort. Ideally I prefer to get these things from other people, from connection, but that is not always possible. So I’ve found it important to learn how to offer them to myself.

One of my favorite ways is simply to put a hand on my own heart and say to myself “awww this is a painful situation. This hurts. This really sucks. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” And I just allow the feelings, welcome them -- sadness, anger, fear. It's like sending an internal signal to all those vulnerable parts that it's ok to be seen and heard. That it's safe to come out. That they will be held, acknowledged, comforted. It's powerful.

There are times -- especially when my inner critic is loud -- that it's especially hard to be tender with myself. At those times, it helps to imagine that there’s a small child sitting next to me and she is experience the distress I am experiencing. I love this exercise, because everyone I’ve ever offered it to knows, immediately and without hesitation, how they would respond. When we witness the suffering of another being, compassion arises automatically. We don’t have to “work on it.” Sure, there are times when other ideas and feelings can block that automatic compassion. This too is part of the human experience. But in general, and when you are your best self, compassion simply comes and you know how to respond.

Try it. Imagine there’s a small child sitting next to you who is having the experience or the feelings that you’re having. What would they look like? See their face and body-language in your mind’s eye. What might they be saying? Hear their words in your head. Then imagine how you'd respond. What would you do? What would you say? What would you wish for that child? I think you will find that the answers come easily.

Sometimes we need external comfort. We can all develop a toolbox of comforts, a list of things that we can reach for when we need comfort. It’s going to be different for everyone. What comforts me? Talking to someone I trust. Hugs. Snuggling under a quilt on the sofa. My favorite TV shows or a good movie. Music. Journaling. Taking a nap. Comfy clothes. Giving myself permission to do nothing. A compelling novel. Guided meditations and dharma talks. A hot bath. Being near water or, better yet, being in water. The sun on my face. Things that smell good. Bringing to mind people who love me. Doing needlepoint and adult coloring books. iPhone games. Looking at pictures of my kids, or even just thinking of them. Dancing…. What I might choose will vary depending on what’s going on, which is why it helps to have a long list, a menu of options. Have a deep bench, a full tool box, a long list of comforts. Have a comfort extravaganza.

We are deeply conditioned to pathologize, criticize, or minimize our own suffering. It's hard to remember that we have other options, that we can make a choice when things get hard. Rather than compound our suffering, we can reach for comfort. But this is new, so it requires practice, support, and lots of repetition. We’re rewiring ancient survival patterns. But it’s worth it. It shifts the body from stress to ease, from fight/flight/freeze to tend and befriend (or rest and digest). Comfort interrupts the stress response, which has huge implications for our physical, mental, and emotional health. Comfort allows for ease, joy, play, fun - all the things we long for. Comfort eases physical pain (think of the placebo effect) and encourages healing (think of chicken soup).

It is never NOT a good time to reach for comfort. We cannot have too much. It always makes things better. Let’s embrace it, encourage it, disseminate it, practice it. Let’s put it first. Let’s create a culture of comfort so that it’s the reaction of first resort, internally and externally. We deserve no less after all.

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Apr 07
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Hear! Hear! Thank you for talking/writing about this my wise friend. I needed the reminder. ❤️ (Tracie)

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