“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
We are alive and so we change.
Change that moves us forward and upward is growth. Sometimes we grow gradually and unfold into an extension of what we already were. At other times, we burst in a sudden moment of radical transformation. In the hatching of eggs, the blooming of flowers, the eruption of caterpillars into butterflies, living beings outgrow one stage of their lives instantaneously to thrust forward into the next one.
Humans have the option to integrate mindfulness into this process. We can choose to notice our radical transformation and reflect upon it, appreciate it, and act upon it. We can pause in such times to take stock of our growth and access deeper levels of appreciation for what it means to be alive.
When we realize how far we have come, we can marvel at where we are.
To be able to savor these delicate moments, we must first learn to recognize their arrival.
Radical transformation begins with discomfort.
Discomfort is an alert. It is an unpleasant sensation by design, a catalyst to frustrate and ignite us. Intolerable discomfort is the force that propels babies out into the world, chicks to break free from eggs, butterflies to rip through their cocoons. Once we have exhausted the reserves of nourishment in a given space, it is urgent that we move on.
I have often felt the profound discomfort of an outgrown space. I felt it during my senior year of college as a maddening impatience to graduate and enter the “real world.” I felt it during my tenth summer at sleepaway camp as a deep sadness that it was time to move on and spend my summers elsewhere. Most recently, I felt it as a hunger for quiet greenery which propelled me to relocate from my populous urban home. In each of these moments, my discomfort led me forward to new spaces for my expansion.
Discomfort hurts. That’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy. Discomfort means we are alive and growing. There are all sorts of remedies, strategies, and substances available to eradicate discomfort. But like any other bodily alert, suppressing a symptom does not address the source. The only way to find true freedom from discomfort is to listen to it.
When we listen to our discomfort, we gather clues about who we are becoming.
Listening to discomfort is frightening because it could mean an ending. A leaving behind, a goodbye, a death of sorts. If our fear is strong enough, we may choose to retreat from our growth so that we may find refuge in familiar old skin. Or perhaps our fear is paralyzing and we freeze, lingering too long in an outgrown space. We lose our newly amassed reserves of nourishment and wither back into a wilted version of ourselves.
Or we could choose bravery and hope. We could accept the invitation and move forward into the unknown.
We could integrate the feeling of death with the feeling of new life. We could feel the sadness of shedding old skin alongside the exhilaration of the mystery yet to come. We could own the potential and strength in our newfound bigness.
Acknowledging our arrival at an ending illuminates the opportunity to craft a beginning.
Moving forward is a vote of confidence in ourselves.
When we listen to our discomfort and follow it forward, we restore trust in our inner wisdom. A caterpillar is innately scripted to become a butterfly, and so we are are innately scripted with directions to our fullest selves.
Sometimes the only way to grow into is to grow out of. Outgrowing is uncomfortable. Rather than push away discomfort, we can invite it inside and listen to what it has to say. We can celebrate its arrival and thank it for coming. Then we can pack up our old shells, cocoons, and skins, thank them for their service, and along with discomfort, send them on their way as we move into the future.