In my last post, I talked about the Stoic technique of negative thinking. This is a mental practice where you imagine losing what matters most – people, security, status, whatever. The thing is, you don’t just imagine it then push it away; you allow yourself to feel the pain the loss would cause, as completely as you can. The ancient Stoics recommended this practice on the grounds that it would prepare you for catastrophe, if and when catastrophe happened, while also increasing your appreciation for the things you ought to value most.
Inviting discomfort can be thought of as the physical counterpart to negative thinking. Seneca the Younger recommended that his followers welcome situations where they would experience minor discomforts; a parallel to the mental and emotional pain invited by negative thinking. The reasoning behind this was also similar: by spending time hungry and cold when you could be fed and warm, Seneca argued, you will learn to better appreciate what food and shelter you have available – and, should disaster strike and inflict real suffering, you will be better prepared to weather the storm. If negative thinking is emotional exercise, inviting discomfort can be thought of as a vaccine against pain.
Inviting Discomfort is not Self-Harm
It’s important to note the difference between inviting discomfort and deliberate self-harm. Inviting discomfort is not about the infliction of pain, but about periodically welcoming situations where discomfort will be experienced. Even more significantly, the purpose of inviting discomfort is to strengthen the self against future suffering: this distinguishes it from self-harm, which is focused on causing damage, whether deliberately or as a result of a delusion.
Fasting is an illustrative example. Many people fast, for reasons ranging from the religious to the dietary, and when practised appropriately fasting can be a productive and healthy way of periodically inviting discomfort into your life. It will not, however, be appropriate for everyone; and that includes people with eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia, who may already be driven to practice unhealthy and harmful forms of fasting. As with any mental exercise, inviting discomfort is not ‘one size fits all’ – the example of fasting shows this, while still being a potentially helpful practice for some individuals.
One possible modern parallel to inviting discomfort could be called “inviting boredom”. We’re so often surrounded by distractions – smartphones and the internet have changed our daily lives in many ways, some good and some bad – that it can be painful to remove ourselves from them, even for a relatively short period. If you’re never far from an online device, you’re lucky to have an easy way to invite discomfort in your own home. Remove yourself from your smartphone and invite boredom: it’ll help you appreciate the positive things technology does for us, downplay its negative effects, and help cultivate mindfulness into the bargain.
Being cold, being hungry and being bored are three ways you can invite discomfort into your life, to help you appreciate what you have while building emotional resilience to real hardship. They’re just the tip of the iceberg, though – how could you invite discomfort? Let me know in the comments, and tune in next time for more Stoic techniques.
I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks so won’t be updating during that time. It’s been a fun start on my personal blog here and I’m grateful for the followers I’ve picked up so far. I’ll be back by mid-August, but in the meantime feel free to drop me a line and subscribe if you want to know when I’m back in action. Cheers.