When my wife and I bought our first car together back in 2014 we were astounded by the amenities. Our rear-facing camera transmitted a live feed to our dashboard so we no longer had to crane our necks while reversing! Our seats were heated! We could listen to podcasts using the awesome power of Bluetooth! What more could anyone want in a vehicle?
Fast forward a few years and a few rides in the newer cars of friends, and we amassed a new laundry list of cravings. Heated steering wheels! Air-conditioned seats! A dashboard display that could read your texts aloud! When our family expanded and we bought a new car, it was hard to fathom that we’d spent the previous six years driving around such an outdated machine.
What we were experiencing is a phenomenon known as “problem creep,” a phrase coined by Harvard psychologist David Levari. In his recent book The Comfort Crisis, journalist Michael Easter relates how Levari’s lab designed an experiment in which people had to identify threatening faces out of a range of computer-generated facial expressions. Over time the threatening faces were weeded out of the presented images, but instead of scanning past all the non-threatening faces, people simply broadened their definition of what a threatening face looked like. Levari and his team have replicated this finding using other examples. Humans are wary scanners of their environment. As Easter summarizes: “As we experience fewer problems we don’t become more satisfied, we just lower our threshold for what we consider a problem. We end up with the same number of troubles. Except our new problems are progressively more hollow.”
Indeed, as Easter goes on to argue in his book, the same big brains that have produced an abundance of food and comfort in our daily lives have also produced a corresponding abundance of diseases of despair. “The data shows that the majority of us are living a greater proportion of our years in ill health, propped up by medications and machines,” Easter writes. “Lifespan might be up. But healthspan is down.” The more our perceived stresses box us into ever tinier comfort zones, the less capable and content we become.
As we experience fewer problems we don’t become more satisfied, we just lower our threshold for what we consider a problem. We end up with the same number of troubles.
The way to interrupt problem creep is not to lessen stress, then, but to build more resilience. One way to do so is to engage with discomfort—to practice. Our bodies are actually hardwired to do so thanks to a process called the hormetic response: the ability of an organism to utilize low doses of stress to generate a favorable response. The hormetic response typically refers to biological responses, such as the way we react to vaccines—receiving a small sample of a toxin, mounting a defense, and thereby building up an immunity. Or the way our muscles respond to the stress of lifting weights by growing stronger. Or even the way our brains dealt with the stresses of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that characterized 99 percent of human history by growing larger and figuring out how to hack the food chain. In today’s terms, the stress of craning our necks while reversing has led us to engineer rear-facing cams. The need for easy calories in order to survive and propagate? Twinkies.
Twinkies aside, mindfulness practice is one way to bring about this kind of positive stress and the resilience that can help us long term. After all, despite the images of tranquil meditators with serene quarter-smiles that seem to grace the cover of every other magazine these days, meditation is not bliss. It is the activity of sitting up straight in the midst of whatever comes up. Sure that can be joy from time to time, but it can also be anxiety, discomfort, and pain. Shockingly (quite literally), most people find sitting alone with their thoughts so discomfiting that they’d rather receive an electric shock. (Seriously. In a 2014 study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, 65 percent of male participants and 25 percent of female participants chose to receive an electric shock rather than sit alone with no stimuli for 15 minutes.) Yet this is precisely what mindfulness practice entails.
Pete Kirchmer, the Executive Director of mPEAK, a mindfulness and performance training program founded by Team USA Olympic coaches and neuroscientists from UC San Diego, routinely puts high performers in the uncomfortable situation of having to look into the mirror that is mindfulness. He has worked with everyone from elite athletes to CEOs and Navy SEALS, and has seen how even the most gung-ho achiever can crumble under the pressure cooker of personal practice.
When I asked Kirchmer why meditation can be so uncomfortable, he identified two factors. First, said Kirchmer, “There’s the difficulty of doing something counter to what we’ve been programmed to do. Meditation is so radically different from the expectations we’ve created for being productive.” In other words, the same wiring that compels us to achieve tends to short circuit when we’re just left to sit alone with our thoughts. As secular mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in his book Full Catastrophe Living, “Meditation is different from all other human activities. Although it takes a lot of work and energy of a certain kind, ultimately meditation is a non-doing.” This can be disconcerting for a species hellbent on doing.
The other factor Kirchmer mentioned is the fear of slowing down and confronting one’s true self. “There’s some intuition that there is something unhealed, something unseen, something unsavory that one may encounter,” explained Kirchmer. It is much more preferable to sleep, scroll, or stream rather than simply sit still, because those activities distract us from the exposure of bare awareness.
As a longtime mindfulness practitioner I frequently hear others invoke these discomforts regarding their own experiences with meditation. Many have tried to cultivate a consistent practice, but few have stuck with it, citing a lack of time, an inability to empty their minds, or a general aversion to the experience. As is often the case with things that are good for us, like exercise or nutritious food, this might be all the more reason to lean in; to make the choice to do the difficult thing.
Part of the reason practice can be a gateway to frustration or guilt is because of the bliss bombardment. Anyone who is promised ice cream but then given broccoli sprouts might feel bummed about the sprouts. Yet broccoli sprouts contain a molecule called sulforaphane that deters insects from eating them by breaking down cells upon ingestion—essentially poisoning the insect. This happens when humans eat broccoli sprouts as well, triggering an immune response that is beneficial and part of why broccoli sprouts are considered a superfood. “We create a protective response to that chemical that ends up increasing robustness,” explained Kirchmer. “I think of meditation or stillness as being this kind of stress response that brings in a little bit of discomfort, that then allows us to adapt and get comfortable in that discomfort.”
Pulling an ice cream to broccoli sprouts bait-and-switch with practice is one way to turn people off. Daily meditation is not easy, and getting people to embrace it may require offering an accurate portrayal of the process. The Peloton Bike doesn’t shy away from the sweat equity required to achieve results, with ads featuring super fit people furiously pedaling at the crack of dawn (albeit with serene quarter-smiles), and despite my aversion to marketing mindfulness in the same manner as an exercise bike, perhaps leading with the grit and not the bliss would speak more authentically to the experience.
In addition to accurate marketing, accurate instructions would go a long way toward dispelling faulty notions of practice. For one, as Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki explained in a lecture I attended, “The goal of mindfulness is not to empty your mind but to fill it with present moment sensation.” It is high time we nixed the idea that contentment is a mind totally void of thought and reinforced the concept that mindfulness is an activity that engages mind and body. You don’t passively sit to attain bliss, you actively practice to attune to how your experience is unfolding.
Despite my aversion to marketing mindfulness in the same manner as an exercise bike, perhaps leading with the grit and not the bliss would speak more authentically to the experience.
Yes, the mind races, the to-do list somehow grows, and the regrets may multiply while sitting on the cushion. Yet when we allow our habitual mind to run the show, we keep fueling angsty thoughts and the waves of hope and fear they engender. During mindfulness practice we can introduce these states to the reliable repetition of the breath and the straightness of the posture. When this happens the discomfort slowly mitigates and a spaciousness can arise. The key words there are “slowly” and “can.” Mindfulness is no magic bullet but it can be a pretty profound interruption of our usual tendencies, and one that we can reinforce over time.
In order to reinforce that skill, one must put in the time, and that means following through on the commitment to sit every day. If we sit only when we feel like it, we end up staying pretty firmly in our comfort zones, and though our practice may feel more blissful it will also be far less practical. Sitting every day requires sitting even when one does not feel like it, because that is when discomfort arises, and one can begin to become at ease with unease.
This is easier said than done, but in the end that is precisely the point. Mindfulness must be done, and this requires accountability on the part of the practitioner. Making the time to sit and actually doing it is half the battle. The other half might be weathering the storm. When we do, we find that it was self-generated all along, and maybe we get to bask in clear skies. Then again, maybe not. And in that variability lies the growth.