The Stoic Art of Intentional Discomfort

August 12, 2017
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The Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome proposed a great many practices that were meant to be folded into one’s life to help them reach the ideal states of equanimity, fortitude and wisdom that was the goal of the Stoic Sage.

One of those practices involves deliberately seeking out some form of hardship, physical or mental, to encourage strengthening of your resilience in the face of adversity and to enhance your general sense of gratitude for what you already have in your life. I like to call it, Intentional Discomfort. Intentional on two levels. One, you are choosing to bring some discomfort into your life on purpose. Two, you are doing it with intent – with presence and awareness to bring about some result or understanding.

Now, when I say intentional discomfort I obviously do not mean hurting yourself in any way, on purpose. This is not sadomasochism. This is a mindful and healthy willingness to approach some of the edges of your physical and mental comfort zones through controlled application of some sort of reasonable, but difficult, physical or mental struggle. And you do it all to create a deeper sense of confidence in facing the troubles that may come in your life and to grow a deeper appreciation for all the great richness and comfort that life has already provided many of us.

This sort of self-imposed discomfort is not intended to simulate the very real and serious struggles that people are forced to endure every day. I would never trivialize such things by suggesting that a day or two of going without something comes close to the adversity that is forced upon some people regarding the mere fact of survival.

I am suggesting that we can come to a deep appreciation for the bounty that most of us have by occasionally going without or pushing our boundaries. I know when you look around your life it doesn’t often look so bountiful and the boundaries look unmovable but the practice of intentional hardship that was presented by the Stoics is a means to exposing you to all those aspects of your life you take for granted and showing you that most of your boundaries are illusions.

I want to take a look at some of the intentional discomforts I engage in, but this is by no means the only ones you can do. I am sure you can find some more and I encourage you to do so. As I have always stated, philosophy is a personal thing and only you can discover the truth of things for you. Some of these are daily, some are weekly, and some are more sporadic than that.

It is good to find a balance and sprinkle them liberally throughout your life. They will test your resolve and your limits. They will bring you confidence and they will bring you humility. A great combination to have in life. They will begin to shape your sense of gratitude – your courage, strength and grit. And best of all, these practices will help you to appreciate the things you have in your life in a way that only someone who understandings losing can appreciate a thing.

So let’s look at the practices I do and the reasons I do them:

I want to add a general disclaimer here; please use your best judgement and consult a physician if you have any conditions that would be aggravated by undertaking any of these discomforts. We are trying to gain value from these things, not harm ourselves. 

Camping

A re-connection with the wilds, and shrugging off the mind and body numbing trappings of modern-day convenience in favor of the manual labors required to take a tent out into the woods and build a fire and live a bit closer to your body and your mind, is an intentional hardship beneficial only because of the way that most of us live. We are dramatically cut off from that inherent closeness that we seem to have with the beauty and majesty of nature. It is good to remind ourselves that we are all just a part of a really big thing.

There is something so primal and visceral and reaffirming of the wild, chaotic nature of life when you plunge into the woods. Everything seems to slow down a bit and every task is undertaken with a focused deliberation. As though it were all more important and more difficult.

That is the heart of camping as a discomfort. When we put down all the technology and convenience of our lives and focus on the everyday, essential aspects of being warm, having shelter, cooking food over fires and avoiding insects and animals, we realize how wildly convenient the world is for most of us and what’s more, we begin to appreciate the small things in our day-to-day living. The things that we often miss because we are not paying attention.

Now, I should state some personal bias here. Camping in a cabin or a trailers, or even a car, doesn’t count for this discomfort. Sorry. You can camp that way if you want but don’t think you are gaining the valuable lessons and benefits that come from the more rustic methods of camping. There is still too much convenience and ease in that sort of camping for it to register as a discomfort.

If you really want to gain the value of this as a practice, you have to try to approach it as simple as possible. When I camp I still have countless luxuries. An air mattress, a sleeping bag, store-bought food, a flashlight, etc. And it’s ok to have those things and still get something out of this discomfort. The point is not to see if I can survive in the wilds with nothing, it is to grow my appreciation for the everyday luxuries I take for granted. Warm showers, strong reliable shelter, convenient access to running water and bathrooms and so much more.

And I always come home from camping grateful for my bed and my shower and reliable sleep and the amazing convenience of my everyday life. The many days and weeks I spend camping help to grow an appreciation for those easily missed blessings of my life.

Cold showers

Oh my cold showers… I love them and I hate them. A daily blast of icy water after my workouts in the morning has become an occasionally torturous but welcomed discomfort that has provided me with more than just the significant and well documented health benefits that cold showers are known for.

This has become a ritual for me. There is a slow build up to me turning on the water. No matter the temperature outside or inside I turn that faucet as far to cold as it will go and say a sweet little string of cuss words before I plunge in head first, an instant tightness of muscles ready to embrace the blast of icy water.

And it hits and I gasp and I feel the fingers of icy water sliding down my back and my mind gets really clear about what I am feeling and what I can handle and how far apart those two things seem to be. But after a short time the difference between the two begins to close and it finally merges and I settle my breath and I calm my mind and I am able to push out the sharpness of the cold, getting to the short, efficient business of washing.

It makes for quick showers. It makes for focused showers. It makes for showers that allow for no time to let the mind wander towards the past or the future. You are just there in that ice-cold water, scrubbing and cleaning and realizing how god damn wonderful it is that you have the luxury of hot showers should you so choose.

Running far and lifting heavy

For anyone who has committed to an exercise routine that included a serious amount of weight lifting or long distances of running you understand that undertaking a routine like that is a constant lesson in voluntarily enduring discomfort for the sake of future growth and accomplishment.

The whole concept of lifting weights is that you chose to rip and tear and stress your muscles so that they can consistently take on more and more strain and stress in the future. That is the perfect metaphor for the practice of intentional discomfort.

I wish I had taken on weight lifting earlier in my life but once I did I found the philosophical parallels of its practice to the demands of life and it fueled my desire to continue to do it. To break myself down consistently so that I could come back harder and stronger in the future. I wanted that skill in life so I worked to develop it through my weight lifting as one method.

Ultra distance running, which is another intentional hardship I push myself through, is much the same metaphor though with less of the future state poetics. You run far – too far for the body to naturally be willing to accept – and you begin to hurt and ache in a way that seems impossible and maybe is. But still you push on, mile after mile, because the mind can push the body and knowing that has gotten me through plenty of shit in my life.

And that is what this intentional discomfort is all about. It is about understanding the limits of what is possible in our bodies and how they can be improved and stretched through hard work on them. By getting comfortable with some level of pain it’s not so scary when it get’s thrust upon you without your consent. But even more than that, it creates a fortress in that mind of yours. You know what’s it’s like to talk yourself through pain and doubt and fear.

When we get comfortable with those dream killers we are not as affected by the occasional physical sufferings that are going to enter our life. We are ready to weather them with the quiet dignity and steadfast resolve of a person that has faced it’s like before and is ready to face it’s like again.

Go without sleep

I know the story. There are early birds and there are night owls. I had started by calling this section “Get Up Early”, but I didn’t want to propose a specific way of doing this intentional discomfort just because I do it that way. The real meat of this intentional discomfort is to just have you willing go without sleep in the pursuit of some bigger goal.

Now that last part is important so I want to stress that it. You go without sleep in pursuit of some bigger goal. I am not talking about staying up late to pound whiskey and play cards with friends. And I am not talking about waking up early to hop in front of the PlayStation for 3 hours before work. Both of which I have done. I never said I had all this shit figured out all the time.

With this practice I am talking about waking up early and staying up late with your mind and body focused towards some larger ambition. A book. A business. A relationship. An education. A dream. Whatever. This is a practice of choosing the discomfort of a few sleepless nights so that you can make some serious progress on a hard target of future success.

If you can manage that, and still take care of everything else in your life, it is eventually going to open up some new areas of your life. Pursuing your goals has a way of doing that. You start seeing the same sort of people missing the same sort of sleep as you and you connect with them and you start to support each other to do the hard, vigilant work of pursuing your dreams.

What’s more, choosing less sleep to pursue some passion is going to be the perfect kind of difficult because it continues to be so rewarding as it goes. Yes it’s hard, but you get a constant pay out in happiness, confidence, pride and fulfillment as you see your goals and dreams come into focus and materialize.

Intentional hardships like this are the sporadic sort of hardships we can undertake. Going without considerable sleep should not be a regular occurrence. It will be counterproductive very quickly. But we can occasionally choose to do it to move further on our paths of accomplishment, while strengthening the mental and physical foundations we have for accomplishing even more in the future.

Abstaining from a vice

Sometimes, the most difficult discomfort to undertake is to give up something that we know isn’t good for us. Most of the above practices are things you have to start and have an instant value-added side to them. Now. you might think that the discomforts you have to start are going to be the hardest but I guarantee the intentional discomfort of abstaining from a vice is going to the hardest by far.

Why?

Because our vices – those things that we retreat to when we are wounded or scared or nervous or bored – those things hold back a lot of demons that we are reluctant to admit or face. Forcing ourselves to ignore the pull of our particular addiction for an extended period is to create time and space to get intimate with the reasons we have for those addictions and by knowing them come to soften their strength in driving us towards escaping.

Whatever your addiction is – food, social media, TV, technology, alcohol, cigarettes, sex – intentionally choosing to abstain from it for an extended period is going to benefit you. I guarantee it.  And if you don’t think you have any of these addictions, or any addictions, then I applaud you and will kindly tell you straight to your face that you are full of shit. We are all a little cracked and some of your crazy spills out into the world, just like the rest of us.

So pick one or two of your particularly undesirable addictions or vices that you know you don’t like and go without it. Start small at first. Don’t say never right away. Just go a few days. Then a week. Then, if you are serious about enduring the ultimate intentional discomfort, give it up completely. It probably isn’t doing much to improve your life anyway, at least the way you are using it, and it can’t be a bad thing to let it go.

Fasting

Choosing to go without food for an extended period is perhaps the hardest intentional discomfort to endure for the 1st world citizen. Food is cheap and convenient and we have this strange connection to it. Not a familial or societal connection to it, like you see in some 2nd or 3rd world countries that use food as celebration. We have a personal, consumptive connection with it. As though we must eat  it all. It doesn’t help that we have been very consistently fed a lot of contradictory and confusing guidelines regarding our diets.

I am not going to suggest which is the right way to eat for anyone out there. Not in this post anyway. I believe we all have unique dietary needs, which you should discuss that with your doctor. With that being said, there are very few average modern, 1st world citizens that would not benefit from introducing the intentional discomfort of fasting into their life to some degree.

Fasting has many proven cognitive and health benefits, such as clarity of mind, immune boosting effects and metabolic improvements, to name but a few. But beyond that, fasting is a strong mental and spiritual practice of understanding.

We should all understand the gnawing of long developed hunger. We should understand the struggle of delaying the satisfaction of food. And also come to understand that we get to choose this discomfort for a reason and a benefit while so many people are forced into by circumstance and to their detriment. It is good to remind ourselves of that, if only to improve our empathy and gratitude.

Fasting is a weekly practice for me. Every Monday is a day where I will fast for 24 hours. I will eat at 6 pm Sunday night and I will not eat again until at least 6 pm Monday night. I still workout. I work. I drink water, I drink tea.  I do my everyday, everything, but I consume no calories. It’s difficult sometimes, but it is always tolerable and it starts my week of in an incredibly present, focused and clear direction.

Occasionally I will add a longer fast. A few days. Those are very difficult and require me to back off the training and conserve my energy, but I can get through them. Some people take it much further. I do not recommend that without medical supervision or consultation.

The truth is, we don’t have to go without food for long to realize how much we take for granted the ability to instantly gratify our hunger. We are a culture of satisfaction and food is one of the primary driving pleasures of 1st world citizens. Fasting helps me appreciate the fact that I can nearly always have food whenever and wherever I want it. I am incredibly grateful and god damn lucky to be born in the situation and location to which I have been born. I won the lottery in that regard.

There are so many who are not nearly as fortunate and to be reminded of the pain and struggle of that is important to me and should be to you. You need to remember that, if you are on a technological device somewhere reading this, with a moderately full belly, and a shelter over your head, in a moderately safe place – you won the lottery and should smile for that mere fact alone because you are better off than a large part of the world.

A lot of this living is just random chance and luck and when you look at someone else you should recognize that in their situation. Develop your capacity for empathy with this practice because that could be you one day with nothing to eat and no way to satisfy that gnawing in your stomach. No matter how much you feel like you are in control of your life right now, we are all just a few bad breaks away from not having anything to eat. 

Summary

I understand that some of these intentional discomforts are not framed in the most Stoic of lights. There is some modern artistic licence, applied liberally. I understand that I focus a great deal on using these practices towards a more personal and goal-driven purpose instead of the pure pursuit of the Stoic Sage. I do not think that is so far out of alignment with the original Stoic reasoning for putting these practices into action in the first place, though. The Stoics appreciated application above all things and I think they would agree with my modern application of this practice.

As long as we do not tie too much attachment into the outcomes of the practices – as long as we are not deceiving ourselves as to the true efficacy we have in our hands regarding the potential of benefit from these practices, – then employing them to further achievement will, at the very least, produce the pleasant side effects of endurance, wisdom, equanimity and strength of your character and the Stoic would appreciate those virtues. 

Anytime you can push yourself out of your comfort zone it is going to be a learning, growing and changing experience. We should all seek to bring more learning, growing and changing experiences into our life. The Stoic practice of intentional discomfort is a perfect activity for inviting those kinds of experiences into our life to reap the myriad rewards of them. 

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