Mindfulness, Habit and Your Comfort Zone

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I prefer mindfulness over our usual experience. Others disagree: they advocate risk, ‘getting out of your comfort zone’, and so on.

Is mindfulness better? Well I think so. But this leads to the question why?, and that gets more interesting.

But first, what do I mean by ‘mindfulness’? What I mean by ‘mindfulness’ are those times when we are attentive to what we are experiencing. This can be paying attention to something ‘out there’ in the world (a flower or cup or piece or cardboard, a dilemma to be resolved, a problem fixed, an innovation to be devised) or ‘in here’ in my experience (thoughts, feelings, or sensations).

A common expression is ‘watchfulness’, or talking about ourselves as the ‘watcher’ or the ‘perceiver’. It is common in some meditation practices to say that we are not our thoughts but the watcher of our thoughts. At these times we are not scatty and distracted but focused on one thing with relatively stable attention.

This experience of watchfulness is often preferred to our usual experience; it feels more relaxed and less fretful. This is certainly my preference. Others disagree: they advocate risk, ‘getting out of your comfort zone’, and so on.

I find it hard to be fair to the ‘get out of your comfort zone’ folks because it seems so mistaken to me. I think these people are often basing their worth on achievements (which means that only one person in any field can be most worthy — a losing game for everyone else). I think this is usually based on childhood experiences. They are often letting an eight-year-old run their life — i.e., they way they felt at around eight years old. There are times of graceful performance that feel ‘effortless’, even though great energy is expended (often called experiences of ‘flow’), that seem excluded from this way of seeing the world. Stress often interferes with learning. (You need to manage the stress as well as pay attention to what you’re learning — it is better to be able to pay attention without distractions.) Finally, it just doesn’t fit for me: my preference is for a quiet joy bubbling away beneath a life that flows for me.

The ‘get out of your comfort zone’ folks are not just trying to dupe us all into living a miserable life. They are concerned for us to have a better, bigger life. Their advocacy of ‘get out of your comfort zone’ is grounded in and confirmed by their experience.

What kind of experience is this? In my experience and observation it is concerned with laziness and achievement, habit and freshness. A habit is an easy way to do something, even if it is something that may be bad for us in the longer term — eating unhealthy food, moving in unhealthy ways, having that same destructive argument… It can take energy for us to get out of our rut, to break the habit. This is usually experienced as stressful and uncomfortable. So it seems clear that to break a habit means ‘getting out of our comfort zone’. Achieving what we find worthwhile can mean years of practice (the figure often quoted is 10,000 hours). I have no desire to insult or diminish excellence: I prefer to hear the guitar played well rather than badly, and I hope I am getting better at writing, even if it does mean that I cringe when I read my first attempts. This commitment to achievement is usually seen to be opposed to laziness. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing what we need to in order to improve our performance. An athlete may prefer to stay in bed and have a day off training, a philosopher may prefer not to deal with a problem in the argument he is making; laziness threatens achievement and excellence. It is easier to stay in our comfort zone — in bed, following the old arguments or whatever — rather than trying for something more. So it seems clear that we need to ‘get out of our comfort zone’ if we are to achieve something worthwhile or excellent.

If we do break a habit or strive to achieve, then the rewards can be great: the freshness and pleasure we derive from food that is good for us, movements we enjoy and nourishing relationships are all great. Even if we don’t achieve our goal we may develop skills and have experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. The rewards for ‘getting out of our comfort zone’ cannot be denied.

While these rewards cannot be denied, I do think we can ask if they can be achieved in an easier way. If achieving a goal requires learning (rather than just effort), then stress will interfere. A mindfulness approach will usually make learning easier. While it takes energy to break a habit, it may be more fruitful to direct this energy to what is desired — and understanding what our desire is. If we find that the cigarette is the only time we take a break then this may lead to other ways of dealing with our smoking habit. I think that the rewards of the ‘get out of your comfort zone’ approach can be had more simply and efficiently through the mindfulness approach.

Are there times when the mindfulness approach is inappropriate? I believe so. This was brought home vividly to me when I was cooking and spilt some hot fat on my shoe (I was wearing joggers). I wondered if the hot fat would penetrate the shoe or be cooled if it did. It did, and it wasn’t — as the painful blisters that I had for the next week demonstrated. Our instincts are a valuable part of us as well!

I would like to hear from you if you have some kind of mindfulness practice (such as meditation). Have you found this beneficial, and if so, in what ways? Have you found it harmful in any way? Do you think there are times when mindfulness is unhelpful? I look forward to hearing your experience in the comments.

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