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4° of Comfort: Growing your tolerance for discomfort

my favorite cardigan

It began with two separate visits from friends within a period of four months.  One friend was from the East Coast, the other from the Midwest, and they both were challenged by the lack of air-conditioning in my car and in my home.  What’s the big deal? I wondered.  So it’s a little warm.  So you perspire.

Then I remembered that growing up and living in the Midwest for many years, we had only 4° of comfort:  When the temperature rose above 72°, the air-conditioning came on to cool us off and when the temperature fell below 68°, the heat came on to warm us up.  That was it—just 4° of comfort.  And if we were outdoors or at an indoor place without such tight temperature control, we would moan, “I’m freezing” or “I’m boiling to death!”

Back then, decades earlier, I was not aware of the limitations of 4° of comfort.  In fact, that phrase didn’t pop into my head and out of my mouth until these two visits from my friends; yet soon after, I found myself using those words as a metaphor for any situation in which my narrow comfort range limited my happiness and freedom. For instance, when after an hour or so at a party my usual inner nagging to leave kicked in, “Ah,” I thought, “I have reached the end of my 4° of social comfort.”  If I observed my grandchildren fidgeting or surreptitiously thumbing their mini tablets beneath the dining room table, I’d think “Guess they’ve maxed out their 4° of ‘polite conversation.’”  And when my reaction to the whimpering of my neighbor’s baby changed from “That’s so cute” to “Can’t they do something about that noise?”—I knew that my 4° of patience had come and gone.

Once I saw how limited my comfort/happiness was in many different circumstances, I began trying to “stretch” my comfort zone.  I realized that if I wanted to live as fully awake as possible, I would need to do a lot of stretching.  But how does one turn discomfort into comfort?

I do not have a process for extending my comfort zone, or increasing my tolerance for discomfort, rather I have an awareness of how my attachment to comfort limits my life experience.  One might say that my needing to be comfortable limited my comfort.  What if comfort didn’t matter so much to me?  What if I were so engaged in the moment that my discomfort was merely an iota of my total experience? Don’t you sometimes get so engrossed with what you’re doing that you are not aware of being cold until you absent-mindedly run your hands up your arms and feel the goosebumps? Then you put on a sweater—it’s no big deal. I guess for me, engagement with life trumps mild discomfort. My dream is to someday be so fully engaged with whatever life brings me each day, both the unusual and the mundane, that minor discomfort hardly registers on my radar. 

In the meantime . . . I can remind myself when I’ve reached the limit of my 4° of comfort to re-engage with what’s happening in that moment, confident that unlike laboratory frogs I will neither freeze nor boil to death.

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