Where the Earth is Most Torn: On Staying with Discomfort

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 - 5:52am
Photo by Andrew Hunt

Where the Earth is Most Torn: On Staying with Discomfort

How shall one know a generation, a new generation?
Not by the dew on them! Where the earth is most torn
And the wounds untended and the voices confused
There is the head of the moving column…

—George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous”

When I was a child growing up in Minneapolis in the mid ‘80s I used to frequent an abandoned parking lot one block south of my home. The cracked pavement was bordered by a smashed guardrail on one side, like a car had run head long into it, and thick lengths of cable on the other three sides.

Inside this small urban perimeter, shards of broken glass and random articles of garbage lay derelict amidst stinging nettles and other weeds that poked through the concrete from the rich earth below. I’d run to the parking lot when I had fights with my older brother or when I was mad at my parents for being unjust in their boundary-setting parental way. I seemed to go there when I experienced some discomfort in my life — to think, feel, and cry.

I had a favorite place to sit, upon an old metal paint barrel next to a small maple tree that had shot up awkwardly through a heap of smashed concrete. From there, I could view the cityscape and the University of Minnesota campus in the distance. I looked out and imagined whom I would become, the places I would travel. Over seven or eight years, I watched as the small maple sapling grew into a sturdy young tree with presence and determination, visibly more substantial in size each year.

And then all at once, the summer arrived that I could sit completely canopied by tree’s speckled shade. By then my makeshift barrel seat had disappeared. Operation Desert Shield began in the Middle East. The photos of the conflict arrived at our doorstep on the front pages of the local newspaper in the still-humid mornings of late summer.

I entered seventh grade. I started hanging out on the other side of town. I had my first real argument with my dad. Around the same time, the deserted parking lot was demolished and my sweet sugar maple companion, once so sure and steady, went with it.

A year passed. My body changed into that young womanly thing. I finished eighth grade. I got my first boyfriend. Not long afterwards brand-new townhomes sprang up where my parking lot maple had been. I had wept many tears there and studied the buildings of downtown in all kinds of light. I talked out, as if to God, from that rubbled lot. I met myself there, and grew.

Today, almost 25 years later, I live in New Mexico, and the discomfort of living and being comes and goes diurnally like cycles of mini seasons that I know intimately. In the morning I dress and run down to the outdoor track near my home through gusts of wind and flickers of cool rain. I stretch on winter-brown grass and look up at the clouds, infrequent in this climate. I lie still, touched by the feeling inside of the lusciousness of the Earth, how she knows herself so well, how magnificent and compassionate and ruthless the Earth is, how numerous her mixtures and combinations of appearances. I lie on the ground noticing the lavish and uncomfortable willfulness that the exertion of running evokes in me — similar to the feeling of facing courageously into life’s challenges. I notice, as I often do, myself feeling closer to myself, more visible, more open, more compassionate, having put energy into moving my body outside in nature. More “known” somehow.

How do we come to “know” ourselves truly? The poet George Oppen states that we will know ourselves, our generation “where the earth is most torn/And the wounds untended and the voices confused.” It seems our world is an arena full of the untended, the confused. But how can we become accountable to the whole of it? How can we participate? And then persist in seeing the health of our world through all the rubble?

I think we can call the untended and confused states-of-being “discomfort.” But what is it, exactly, and how might it help us to grow? How might we be supported and held, and even “comforted” by discomfort? How might we use discomfort to quiet the worried, agitated, corrupted, limited mind that resists growth and change? From a somatic perspective — through staying with felt-experience, feeling presence from the inside-out — what experiences take us most notoriously toward the edges of our inner selves, toward growth and transformation, toward touching the fullness of ourselves as living beings of this natural earth?

Discomfort comes with sensation, and these sensations can guide us. The soma of the body has messages that dangle on the nerve fibers. A vibration happens in discomfort, and on a winter’s day in northern New Mexico it’s good to get down and be with it, lying on the earth and looking up at the low flowing clouds.

I see who I am because of discomfort. I am recently divorced. I have changed my career path significantly. My children are adjusting and thriving. And best of all, I have met the love of my life, and in this meeting I experience the discomfort of learning to keep my heart open. I press on past old habits of unhealthy loving. I take off the door of my heart. I am open to myself. I see the sun and I soak up its light into my being.

I give myself this advice as a resource: become intimate with discomfort. Pull it closer. Mend nothing first. Don’t say, “I will allow discomfort to teach me when I have finally done XYZ.” Take to discomfort now and feel the sensations in the body that correspond and feel how alive you are.

The love of my life says:

“I can measure the speed at which I will grow by my ability to meet and stay with the discomfort that comes from showing up for myself.”

More and more discomfort looks like a friend. Today, and tomorrow, and the next day, I will stand reverently at the edge of that rubbled parking lot in memory, knowing that I can rise through concrete with the intense, inherent instructions to grow, just like the sugar maple. Just like we do, generation after generation, people in a moving column, the head of which is love.


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Meridian Johnson

is a writer and somatic-based health practitioner specializing in biodynamic craniosacral therapy. Her recent writing and community efforts have been focused on creating a safe space for groups and individuals to live more vital, inspired, and spiritually-centered lives. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and is currently researching a nonficition book about the role and side effects of “obligation” in our modern culture.

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The beauty of this piece allows the 'discomfort' it evokes in me to take root. Thank you.

Marge, one reader on Facebook commented that it's radical to face discomfort. I like this word in relationship to your comment here, as "radical" means, essentially, "at the root." Thank you for your kind response. Blessings, MJ

The idea of being with, feeling into discomfort and through that flow healing self, knowing self really resonates with me and I've done a similar type of self exploration.

But I really love this as a prayer / "hands on" or 'heartful' knowing and healing of the world. And thus, through my acts of healing self, giving all the world a nudge toward doing the same. To notice their/the world's discomfort, feel into the source of the discomfort (but more like curious about the commitments, beliefs, stories, attachments I have rather than who is to blame for this 'discomfort'), embrace the discomfort with compassion, thus knowing and healing self in the same embrace.

One pit fall can be getting stuck in some discomforts, blaming others, unable to let an attachment go, or unable to have compassion … . For me the best thing to do when I see myself distracted or stuck in this way is to look for the commitment that is thwarted and thus causing the discomfort … it is there where I find hope. It is then that I can see these discomforts as treasures to unwrap, with self knowing as a wonderful by product of all that unwrapping - no matter what is revealed. I continue to hope that this can be another spark igniting global awareness as well.

Hi Sandra, You use a few key words for me: "prayer" and "curious." A wonderful teacher of mine once said "never underestimate the power of your prayer" (we could spend a good deal of time discussing what "prayer" actually is). When I am confronted with someone where there seems to be an impasse in communicating or relating, I often turns toward my prayer, and I allow my "thoughts" to travel to that person. And more often than not, this act of sending a prayer through the subtle realm of life's energies begins to shift things. Just a subtle shift at first. A small opening. A fissure where love can get in. Oh, and how love get's in. And sometimes the progress is slow, but worth appreciating even if it's the smallest shift.

Also, the word "curious." Instead of blaming my emotions (and discomfort) on someone else who has triggered me, I can get curious, and return to my inner child: "Hmmm, what's going on here?" Drop the shame of my own feelings and reactions and EXPLORE what's going on for me. I believe this is what you're speaking of. Getting curious helps us to see way below those attachments, beliefs, stories etc. just as you say. How good to hear about your process and your sense of interconnectedness--feeling that the whole world benefits from this inner work of yours! Appreciations from me to you!

I too must in that moment when I feel myself discomforted, touch the very center of that bruise and love it deeply. From here I find a movement toward comfort because I have allowed it.

So well said, Rebecca: "touch the very center of that bruise and love it deeply." When we touch that "center" of the bruise we also touch a "center" of ourself, where strength and wholeness are found.

Yes! And what is that center that we touch? The source of strength? The movement that is always making us. Attending to discomfort can open possibilities of healing and growth because discomfort *is* an impulse to move differently, in a way that will not reproduce the pain. There is a wisdom in it. Or as Rebecca notes, "A movement towards comfort." And so often, we best open ourselves to that wisdom when, as Meridian describes, we allow ourselves to move and be moved by nature. It is what our bodies know... and why we dance.

Simply brilliant, to move differently in a way that will not reproduce the pain. Yes, yes, yes. The discomfort "is" inviting us to do something differently. Thanks for this subtle distinction!


This is very useful in my stage of life. Divorced, not yet found the love of my life, having had serious illness, my last child just moved out of the house, having trouble sitting with discomfort, trying to make it go away, realizing that I need to sit with discomfort.

Ronni, have you by chance seen the Disney/Pixlar movie Inside Out yet? It poignantly tells the story of the role of emotions, like sadness, in our internal world. There's a lovely scene in the film where one of the characters (an imaginary friend) has a chance to sit with sadness (and discomfort). The result is heart-touching and real. All about the positive result of being courageous enough to feel deeply.

What you wrote is so beautiful and true. Part of my upbringing was that I was not allowed to be sad or unhappy. Yes, it was actually forbidden. I was sent to my room if I had these feelings, but then two minutes later, a knock at the door, and my mother telling me that that was long enough, that I should get out of my room and put a smile on my face. If there was an option to refuse, I didn't know about it. That is why 60 years later, I am still learning HOW TO stay with discomfort, to allow its existence, and to learn from it. Finally. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Gayle -- I so identify with your post. In our house my mom seemed to respond with personal hurt if I was sad or angry and so I learned to put on a happy face, to not express my darkest feelings. And even now it's difficult for me to sit with ordinary discomfort without wanting to fix it or run from it.

Hi Gayle, thank you for the sincerity in your words. Yes, this seems to be the experience of so many in our culture (and not just culture here in America)--for us to have been cut short from experiencing the fullness of what it means to be Human in suggesting that our emotions are bad (especially sadness, grief, anger and these more "uncomfortable" emotions) and that we shouldn't feel them. How do we come to a place where we can author our own story in living (and set cultural rules aside)? I believe we need discomfort to gain understanding of how to be our own best "self-author" of our lives. To keep learning, after many years, is such a powerful stance! The discomfort helps us to "edit" our life story, to come into deeper alignment with who we want to be!

Beautiful. Thank you.

You're welcome, Susan. Thank you for reading. Many blessings, M

She closed her eyes, and bravely sipped her wounds. They tasted like survival, and a great masterpiece that is yet to be formed.

Bshayer F.R. (via ehosk)

This quote here reminds me that words can be used to create a personal myth, and can be a container for some of our deepest healing to happen. After all, our stories, and the gifts below them--the tragedies, sorrows, questions etc.--are malleable, to some degree. We can bend and shape our story into the Gift, and then seek to tell the truth about ourselves, which from my perspective is that we are whole and complete in every way. Despite. Despite all that happens. Blessings on your courageous journeying, Mitch.

I awoke dizzy and nauseous with fear. I used my tool box of soothing techniques, meditation, walking, distracting myself with household chores, and then I read this piece, and I cried, and I sat with with my fear, which is not what I thought it was about. The fear is of embracing the very real sadness I feel.

Debra, I am touched by your words. They stayed with me all day. Almost like I could hear the tears rolling down the skin of your face. Thank you for the beauty of your deep feeling, and making space for the real fear to show itself. I feel the gift of you being real! Blessings, M

Dear Meridian Johnson,
Thank you for sharing your wisdom,your experiences,your living it all.
Going back to your roots,your family of origin,your childhood ,your stories:
You have mastered the Art of Living!
Blessings for times ahaed,and thank you!

Jutta, the Art of Living! A mastery worth committing one's life to! Thank you for your kind words, and blessings to you, M

Such a wonderful article, it reminds me that discomfort is a gift and a signal. It can be a tool and a guide to appreciating everything.

Hi Adam, A Guide to Appreciating Everything. Sounds like a set of paintings perhaps?! Thank you for reading here. Gratitude! M

I think the main thing we can learn from discomfort is how to rise above it. First Noble Truth says Samsara is discomforting.

And then of course when we stop hiding from ourselves we begin to sense the full insanity of our culture. And then if we cultivate our Bodhicitta we might come up with things to do about it.

It makes me angry that institutional Vajrayana does not address this reality. There are two contradictions that proceed from this. If Dharma students refuse to face reality they will not get far. If Bodhicitta will not accept reality it is false.

Vajrayana as it exists today is the product of another time and another culture and it needs to be fixed.

Paul, these are fresh and real words you've written here: "And then of course when we stop hiding from ourselves we begin to sense the full insanity of our culture. And then if we cultivate our Bodhicitta we might come up with things to do about it."

Our culture (and the complex nature of what "culture" actually means for each individual) provides us with a sense-of-self that can be quite limiting. What are we to "do" about it? I think you're quite right about us needing to update our religious paradigms (I'm extending your words beyond institutional Vajrayana, which I am not an expert in). I love that the Dalai Lama says "I believe deeply that we must find, all of us together, a new spirituality. This new concept must be elaborated along side the religions in such a way that all people of good will could adhere to it."

How are we to interpret this? How are we to live into this, experientially?

In so many religious contexts there exists today "the product of another time and another culture," as you say. How will we update these religious modes? I think we have to keep asking questions and keep peeling back our layers, so as to not hide from ourselves. How will the institutions change? How will we update them?

How will we update them if we live in separation? How do we get "all of us together"? This is a HUGE question that I am constantly chewing on. Seems like maybe you, too, are chewing on big questions! If we keep sharing in this way I am sure that something new and subtle, almost imperceptible, will start happening.

Such an old mantra for the athlete in us all, "No pain. No gain." Yet, your point seems more to the joy of feeling what is waiting beyond the limits as we push '...to go where no [one] has gone before." at least in our personal universes. Our histories combine with our "projections", our futures as we "are"! White's ending of "The Once and Future King" about "drops in the sunlit sea" and how some drops "do sparkle" and Rich's line that "Women are most threatening when they occupy the space they occupy." all seem to point to "showing up for [one]self and that is the state of being. It is that miracle of being your own wizard, your own super hero, facing down the wicked witches, the kryptonite, and finding your own "way home"! It was a enjoyable, thoughtful journey reading this. Thanks.

Hi Dennis, It is quite a magical reality that we live, isn't it!? Sometimes I reflect upon the wicked witches of my life, the kryptonite and ghosts, the "roles" that people play (and whose parts I've caste for them) and I remember how I'm writing the script of my own Heroine's Journey. How essential it is to find ourselves alone in the forest for a time, to discover or remember who we are, through discomfort. I think this encompasses "no pain, no gain" and the "staying with" is definitely "feeling what is waiting beyond the limits as we push." Off the top of my head I think of this passage in Aeschylus' Oresteia where Zeus is said to give Man this law:

The truth
has to be melted out of our stubborn lives
by suffering.
Nothing speaks the truth,
nothing tells us how things really are,
nothing forces us to know
except pain.
And this is how the gods declare their love.
Truth comes with pain.

I am glad to be alive now instead of the times of Greek Antiquity. I prefer the subtle and precise etiquette of my own guidance, the opportunity to interpret my own reality according to my own code, to abide by the laws of my own internal kingdom ("do no harm" is one of the big ones there). Dennis, fellow Traveler; Thanks for reading and connection here! -M

One of the best articles I've read in 'On Being'. True, the discomfort referred to here, is the necessary pedigree for us to feel 'being alive'. I remember this quote from an article that I read long ago, 'sorrow possesses the kind of depth that happiness lacks'. How so true. Thank you, for writing & sharing this beautiful article.

Shriram, thank you for your kind words and for sharing this quote: "Sorrow possesses the kind of depth that happiness lacks." Indeed, this is true by my experience. I think of the loss of a loved one, through their death; how they leave a gift behind in the grief we must experience afterward. How, if they had lived forever, we never would have touched the depth of--being alive--that we do in losing them. David Whyte famously says "Apprentice yourself to loss"; I say, similarly, to apprentice ourselves to discomfort. After all, in bones growing as children, in tissues changing and hormones running new instructions, there is a physical discomfort: a sign that we are living, dynamic, changing beings. A reminder that we are meant to grow. Our learning is the ultimate currency in being alive, and the depth gained in this growing process is... well, this is the meaning of life itself, I believe. The meaning of life--what it means to be human. What it means to be universally connected. Interconnected. To be in it together. The depth of our discomfort gives happiness an essential boost. We come to know of a deep capacity in touching the sorrow. Then we know what our happiness is meant for. It's meant for intimacy. You seeing in to me, me seeing into you. Our connection. Our irrevocable connection. Peace & gratitude to you, brother

I have been a backpacker since the late Seventies and have taken to trails across the world, and in those hundreds of hours of walking, discomfort has always been a presence. I tell people that when I am traveling the mountains on foot, every step is a prayer. And in every step exists progress, pleasure, and pain. These sensations, ideas, and movements, are part of being alive. They are often the gauge I use to see how alive I really am. How deep in the moment I am living. How alive I feel in the rain. My being vibrates with the cold, the wind's pressure, the scent of wet, piney air, the sting and the pattering of of sleet or rain. At times, I have whooped in uncontainable joy at the sensation of utter aliveness that some would call "miserable." "Life is Suffering," says the Buddha. Suffering is life. Discomfort is life. Pleasure is Life. Peace is life. Love and death are life. All are life, even if not all are welcomed the same—our judgments of them are inconsequential since they come, good or bad, without volition or reason. We have only to live them in the best manner we can.

Hi Roy, your message here brings sweet summer tears to my eyes. Deep gratitude for your eloquent sharing. "I tell people that when I am traveling the mountains on foot, every step is a prayer." I hear how you return to your Source--to your roots, in the spiritual sense of being a human being--and how you whoop from the "uncontainable joy at the sensation of utter aliveness that some would call 'miserable.'" We need each other's aliveness. We need to share our vitality in being alive with others, through our stories, through "being" authentic (and authentically uncomfortable). As this authenticity is shared in and by nature without resistance or restraint, so is your "traveling in the mountains on foot"; your dedication to the practice walking in nature seems to be a way of accessing this authenticity. Part of that authenticity, part of your prayer, is the discomfort itself. To let it bring our lives into vivid focus. To "feel" the aliveness that we are. How good to read your words today. Many blessings, Meridian

What a deep and beautiful person you are. Sometimes,I stumbled on the words,their juxtaposition. I had to read them again, slowly, savoring their, meaning in relation to each other. This is good. There is depth, reaching, description eludes.

I know the love of the earth. The connection that gives wholeness, stability. Like you, there were special places in my youth where I went to find myself. It's a lovely gift to read these words, these thoughts; to know my friend in this way. So much beauty! Thank you Meridian.

Dear Robert, thank you for reading here. I feel the depth of your response clearly in taking in your words. You say "I know the love of the earth." Oh, how beautiful to communicate this by any means, through a painting, through the touch of a hand, through words shared. Through a smile or a hug! We are the artists of this earth, after all, communicating that love to the people we meet. Communicating this love to ourselves. Reflecting it back, to the natural world (I love to sing to beautiful flowers when their color or shape strikes me deeply at my core, a way to say "thank you for waking me up to beauty").

Do you suppose that our human creativity is the healing we offer to Life? How lucky we are to share this vocation. To share our knowing of the love of the earth. Blessings to you, Meridian

Might I add a Leonard Cohen line? "There's a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in." I think sitting with discomfort is one of the hardest non-work a human can do. Thanks for this beautiful piece.

MB, yes! A perfect quote for the courageous "non-work" that we do in being alive. We are made to let light in. We are made to be cracked (Lol!). We are made to fill with light. And the subtle trickle of light feels a little uncomfortable at times, doesn't it? Thanks for Cohen's reminder! -M

I can certainly see the benefits to sitting with discomfort, but that's as long as it's temporary. What about those with chronic illnesses, who have to sit with their discomfort or pain everyday forever? Yes there might be some spiritual benefits, but eventually one just gets worn down.

Hi Cathy, you bring up a good question here. What about people with chronic pain? This is a long conversation to be had, and something I'm thinking a lot about as it relates to so many clients that I see.

In my biodynamic craniosacral practice, I am often thinking on behalf of my clients about the following question: "Who is on your team? Who are the players who stand along side of you to make your life the best that it can be?" I have clients that come to me feeling isolated by their pain. The work I offer helps. But they often feel, in this intense experience of pain, a general lack of vitality. I encourage them to seek vitality by diversified means. By shamelessly asking for help for others. By building a team of health-practioners, loved ones, cheerleaders, supporters, dreamers, guides, assistants, mentors, magic makers--in making their life more richly connected. I believe the enrichment of our connections offers a kind of medicine to us. There is a lot that can be done for pain-- that comes through diversified support. I dream of a culture where this support is extended readily from one person to another, where pain isn't just waved away as a pharmaceutical issue--where we deeply support one another spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Cathy. I will continue to contemplate your question. I will continue to offer myself as a team player for people who have the courage to reach out for support. Many blessings to you on this journey, Meridian

Meridian, thank you for your beautiful essay. I would add that acceptance of discomfort is increasingly unpopular in the U.S. where "Have a good day" seems like a command that cannot always be obeyed. We expect our lives to be fields of flowers, not parking lots like yours. At my age, 62, physical discomforts and sorrows multiply, and you must learn to hold them and carry them and absorb them into who you are.

Hi Christine,
I think you are right about our culture, where it is unpopular to be uncomfortable. We have learned to have a "domesticated" reaction to our discomfort, a prescribed pretense where we act as though "everything is great" and this is good for business, good for the economy. If I feel uncomfortable about something deep beneath the surface of my being, but it's culturally taboo to confront it openly, then I might instead go out and buy more stuff. Maybe I'll buy a new phone, or computer, or new camping gear, or a lot of clothing. Maybe I'll buy an expensive purse I don't need. Retail therapy, my mom used to call it (a therapy I used desperately in small ways after I got divorced). All of this purchasing is expected to "make me happy," but it never does. Your words are so beautiful, Christine: "... you must learn to hold them and carry them and absorb them into who you are." I think you have a hold of a brilliant truth here. "Who we are" is one if the most potent resources we can extend to ourselves and our community. And our "being" cannot be bought or sold; it is an extension of the powerful, mysterious realm of Life around us. Hopefully, we can come together, by whatever means, to hold these discomforts together. Because our shared "being" is greater when we come together, with our hearts open. I think this is what we are doing here, sharing our experiences, truths, questions. Thank you for connecting in this way today. All the love to you, Meridian

thank you for your wise words. I am in the midst of an uncomfortable 'meeting and staying with' and in my 'showing up for myself' I am beginning to feel the loosening of the tensions I have continually created by turning 'away' from myself. Clearly I love this quote above from the 'love of your life'. I would like to share it and am wondering if you will share the author's name or shall I attribute it to 'unknown'?

Hi Tiny, Andrew Hunt is the "love of my life." He is the photographer who contributed his portriture to this blog post. He's spent over a decade working with the Mankind Project, an international men's circle/forum. It's interesting that we live in a culture where men, especially, are not suppose to show emotion. And because emotion is an elemental force in Humans, how can we grow without coming to experience it authentically--that is, experiencing the highs and lows of it? I am grateful to all the efforts in humanity these days (like the Mankind Project) that bring a more humanizing energy to our day to day lives. Best blessings, Tiny, in turning toward all that you are. -Meridian