Seasons of the Soul
The Spiritual Practice of Being Uncomfortable
Last December I flew to Vienna for some time of retreat. It is an ancestral place of the heart for me. Soon after I landed I developed symptoms of a blood clot and went to the emergency room. I was examined by the doctor who told me there were several tests they would run and I needed to stay in a wheelchair and not move about at all because the clot could move to my heart or brain and cause instant death.
I was there in a foreign hospital alone and for eight hours my wheelchair became my monastic cell, the place where I practiced full presence to my inner life as best as I could. I witnessed my mind move between different states: feeling terrified that I could die at any moment, feeling curious about how I experienced the possibility of dying sooner than I expected, noticing my internal responses to getting test results, having moments of deep peace, and of course, times when my mind would move to distractions as a way of avoiding the whole process.
It ended up being a profound experience for me and I was so grateful for monastic wisdom and contemplative practice to carry me through those dark moments. I am also profoundly grateful to be alive. In the months that have followed much of my sense of security and certainty about life and the ways I try to control things have been stripped away, which has been profoundly freeing. I was thrust to the edges of my threshold and by staying present have discovered a wide open landscape within me.
We don't need to travel long journeys to grow in the spiritual life. Wherever we are, we are called to stay in the monk's cell, which means to stay present to our experience. As a culture we rarely acknowledge the value of being uncomfortable. We strongly discourage people who are grieving to stay with their sadness, but instead tell them to "cheer up" or "move on" rather than explore what grief has to teach them. We are forever seeking the next thing to make us feel good.
So much of what passes for spirituality these days is about making us happy, about affirmations and having positive experiences. We engage in what Hafiz calls "teacup talk of God" where God is genteel and delicate. Sometimes we really need this; we need to remember that we are good and beautiful and whole just as we are.
But sometimes, I would argue, we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wildness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience. We may cultivate a freedom we have never known before because our fears become something to move toward rather than away from. Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.
In my own life I practice this daily through yin yoga and meditation, and by staying present to experiences life inevitably thrusts upon me, and seeking to dance at my own edges, to move toward the risky places. By staying present to the discomfort of life we grow in our resilience and our ability to recover from the deep wounds that life will offer us again and again. We grow in our compassion for ourselves, as we learn to embrace all of the vulnerable places within. And as we embrace these in ourselves, we grow in our compassion for one another. We grow in our ability to experience hesychia—that deep presence and peace—in the midst of life's messiness and uncertainty.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes in contemplative practice and creative expression and pilgrimages to Ireland, Germany, and Austria. She is the author of eight books on monasticism and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press) and her forthcoming book The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Inner Journey (Spring 2015, Ave Maria Press). Christine lives as a monk in the world in Galway, Ireland with her husband of twenty years.