Comfort, Discomfort, & The Aperture of Awareness

This is my dog, Sadie

Sadie in the woods.

Sadie and me, we walk in the woods almost every day.

Where we live is often a bit wet and mucky—sometimes, though, after particularly strong rain, it gets very wet and very mucky.

The other day we came across a massive, trail-wide puddle.

Sadie was off in the distance, crashing around the woods, so I began picking my way around this massive puddle, trying to find high ground to avoid getting my feet wet.

When I was at the crux—using two trees to hold myself upright and balancing on my tip toes to get around the edge of the puddle—Sadie came sprinting past me at full-speed, splashing chest-deep right through the puddle with a massive smile on her face.

I had to laugh at myself.

Who told me it wasn’t okay to get my feet wet?
When I think about being dry I feel this warm, gentle glow.

As I concentrate on these feelings it makes me want to curl up on the couch with a hot tea and cuddle my loved ones. It’s like there’s a little character down there, all cute and cuddly.

Ah-ha! This is my pal, Comfort.

Comfort and I close friends. We’re never far from each other.

Comfort even comes with me and Sadie on our forest walks, making sure I only get wet when I want to.

Comfort helps make my life predictable and safe.

It helps make all of our lives predictable and safe.

To our distant hominid ancestors comfort brought respite from the ceaseless chaos of nature. Comfort meant a warm fire at night, a belly full of meat, and long night’s rest. We evolved to pursue comfort for our own protection.

From this perspective it makes sense why I’d have an impulse to avoid getting my feet wet. To a distant ancestor, wet feet might’ve been the precursor to hypothermia or an infection that could threaten my life.

But me? I’m literally a 15-minute walk from my house where there’s a hot shower and heated floors waiting for me. Wet feet don’t pose a real risk to my life, but my animal brain doesn’t know that.

Comfort was yelling at me from two different directions, in one ear screaming,“Keep your feet dry at all costs!” And in the other shouting, “Whoa, man, take it easy—no need to work so hard.”

This second message is a particularly interesting one.

For those same distant ancestors who sought comfort as a component of their survival, “working hard” was the norm.

Our ancient ancestors were constantly on the move, walking or running great distances to find food and make shelter. Energy was the scarcest resource so we had balance conserving energy with seeking it out.

But in the past several hundred years we’ve been able to work less and pursue leisure more.

Think of all the many inventions that make our lives incredibly comfortable: lightbulbs, electricity, plumbing, industrial agriculture... the list goes on.

These are all good things. They allow us to live longer, healthier lives. The so-called “creature comforts” of modern living have had significant impacts on our ability to create meaningful lives.

Yet I can’t help but notice how sometimes Comfort leads me astray. The same primal urge to find calorie-dense food pressures me to eat my third piece of cake. The same primal urge to conserve the energy I just consumed pressures me to stay there sat on the couch watching the newest season of Better Call Saul for hours and hours.

The very Comfort that once protected and serves us now threatens us. Diabetes, heart disease, and obesity continue to rank among the top mechanisms of death for people  in North America

Might Comfort be leading us astray?
A kaleidoscope is a simple devise that affords abundant beauty.

If you’ve never used one, they’re usually cardboard tubes with a little jar of small objects or an image on one end and a viewing hole on the other. As you look through the hole, a set of mirrors inside the tube reflects some portion of the small objects at the end creating a beautiful, constantly-changing array of beautiful colours and shapes (there’s a decent virtual kaleidoscope here).

The physics of the common kaleidoscope provide an apt metaphor for thinking about how comfort and discomfort work in our lives.

I call it The Kaleidoscope of Human Possibility. On one end, the end where the small objects or image would be, is The Wide Tapestry of Life. It contains the infinite possibilities accessible to all of us before we’re born. This is the absolute widest view of human life, containing every possibility beyond our imagination—every physical ability, every trait, even every possible timeline and locale.

On the near end, the one from which we view The Wide Tapestry of Life, is the Aperture of Lived Experience, but more on that in a moment.

From the second you emerge from the womb your access to some portions of The Wide Tapestry of Life are cut off. You’re born to a time and a place, a specific family or set of circumstances. That’s what you get, and that’s that. These are The Mirrors of Lived Experience. They immediately and without our say select specific slices of The Wide Tapestry of Life for us. The Mirrors of Lived Experience defines a ceiling, a limit to what we can experience directly in our lives—I’ll never to get to meet Leonardo Da Vinci nor become a surveyor working on the Great Pyramids of Egypt because those aren’t the threads of The Wide Tapestry of Life that I’ll get to experience.

Back to The Aperture of Awareness: it defines what we see in  The Mirrors of Lived of Experience.

The Aperture of Awareness is the only aspect of the entire Kaleidoscope of Human Possibility that we can influence.

Operating The Aperture of Awareness isn’t some straight-forward mechanical process. It’s a complicated and often confusing process. Some mechanisms you might’ve used to operate The Aperture of Awareness include learning, counselling, engaging in relationships, and so on.

Overtime, our Aperture of Awareness tends towards smallness. As we age, we see shapes and colours in The Mirrors of Lived Experience that we like so we focus in on those and avoid new patterns.

Comfort is one of the primary mechanisms we use to focus and tighten our Apertures of Awareness. We make many small choices to only look at what we’ve seen and like before.

I like crime novels so I only read Michael Crichton.

I drink my coffee black and won’t have it another way.

These are minor examples of how Comfort closes us off to the nuance and sparkle we’re shown in The Mirrors of Lived Experience; of how we choose to limit how much we let ourselves see.

Discomfort pulls on our Apertures of Awareness in a different way. Discomfort, as a survival mechanism, rapidly and sharply tightens our Aperture of Awareness.  It does to protect us.

Let’s look at an example.

The other day—not long after the day I worked so hard to avoid getting my feet wet—Sadie and I were out for another walk in the woods. It was a glorious, sunny spring afternoon when, all of a sudden, the temperature dropped. The sky darkened. Slowly it came: clunk, clunk, clunk—lima-bean-sized hail pellets come zinging down upon us.

I hated it. I tensed my shoulders, gritted my teeth, and tried to shut the Aperture of my Awareness against the bitter cold and the stinging hail pellets. For a brief moment I wondered if I’d make it home. This was the protective force of discomfort at work.

But then I looked over at Sadie to find her going about her usual business of smelling the plants, interrupted only periodically by an urge of curiosity towards the hail pellets landing beside her.

I took a breath, relaxed, and felt that Aperture open up again.

Wow, that was an amazing weather transformation. Wonder and awe came back. I was cold, but I knew I wasn’t facing any real threat. I’m 15-minutes from my house, where Comfort and safety await me.

When I sought comfort in a moment of discomfort I was able to open my Aperture of Awareness to see new colours in The Mirrors of Lived Experience.

We can’t choose when the The Mirrors of Lived Experience will show us a new reflection of The Tapestry of Life. We can’t choose when the hail will rain down.

We can’t change The Wide Tapestry of Life; we can’t choose which threads of The Wide Tapestry we’ll get to see; all we can choose is how much light to let in, how much of the image we’re served to look at and accept.

When we’re presented with truly life-threatening situations it’s very clear how to react: our Aperture of Awareness closes down on the single priority of survival.  

But, more often than not, the things that make me uncomfortable aren’t life or death., which makes it a lot more difficult to know how to respond. Are you actually at risk?

The second we’re uncomfortable our instincts tighten down our Apertures of Awareness, yelling at us to run to safety, but there’s no clear path to take because there isn’t a threat.

When we practice finding our friend Comfort in the hail storms of discomfort that crop up in our life we get better and better at modulating our Apertures of Awareness.

We need Comfort to survive; we need discomfort to experience as much of The Wide Tapestry of Life as possible.

Here are some safe ways to seek discomfort to tune your Aperture of Awareness:

Join The Sunday Experiment
Form submitted successfully. 👏🏻
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. 🤷🏻