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Newsletter - March 2024

Growth Starts Where Comfort Ends

There’s no comfort if everything keeps changing all the time. Why not? Because we get no chance to get used to anything. We may not even get a chance to figure out if we like things or not before they change on us again—and there’s no comfort in that. What’s more, if things stop changing for a bit, and we don’t like it, then there’s no comfort in that either.


Growth means change. And change means anything but more of the same. So clearly, we have a potential problem. Can we grow and feel comfortable at the same time? That’s what this newsletter explores. (You may also wonder if this has anything to do with the Tao Te Ching. Stay tuned, the answer is yes.)


It seems that comfort has two requirements. First, things being the way we like them. Second, their staying that way—or at least not changing too much. As we’ve noted, that doesn’t bode too well for growth. But first: Why do we have to grow at all? Can’t we avoid the whole business of change and just hunker down where we are and stay the same?


While I’m tempted to explore this idea, I don’t think it's actually an option. It may be interesting in theory but, practically speaking, change happens whether we like it or not. If nothing else, our bodies age, we accumulate experience, we make decisions (or avoid them) and our life unfolds over time. I think it makes little sense to pretend all this is simply not happening. (Think of the weight of the rock you’d have to hide under for this to feel true!)


So, since change is a given, the question is how do we manage it? And, assuming we grow, can growth be comfortable?


I think we tend to do one of four things with change: embrace it, tolerate it, resist it, or try to ignore it. And I think we’ll find that none of them brings a guarantee of comfort. Let’s look at each in turn.


We’ve all heard the phrase “comfort zone.” I think growth is what happens right at the edge of it. Not too far away from the edge, because that would be way “outside our comfort zone,” as we like to say. Rather growth comes from somewhere just far enough beyond the edge that the mix of curiosity and fear is such that we at least tolerate the risk of change. If we go further and decide to enjoy the adventure, we might even say we embrace change. So that’s the first two options.


However, not all experience of change is up to us. Sometimes change is thrust upon us whether we invite it or not. In these cases, our response may be to resist change or try to ignore it. So that’s options three and four.


I think what matters most about all these options is to be aware that they are responses. Regardless of whether change comes from inside us or from outside, as it were, what we do about it is always ours to control. I think the problem starts when we try to hold on to keeping things the same and comfortable. Resisting change, or ignoring it, amount to holding on. Embracing change, or at least tolerating it, amount to letting go. Hmm, maybe we’re getting somewhere.


Here’s Lao Tzu on the subject. “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to” (chapter 74). Well, there’s a relevant observation. And what’s the downside of holding on? The short answer is that you’ll never succeed—because life is change. (In other words, hiding under that heavy rock just isn’t going to work.)


Here’s Lao Tzu again. “Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry” (chapter 76). So life is about the soft, supple, tender, and pliant; and death is about the stiff, hard, brittle, and dry. And what does that mean to us? Here are his next lines. “Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail” (chapter 76). Well, that doesn’t leave much to the imagination!


If holding on to what’s comfortable and familiar amounts to becoming “stiff and inflexible” then our approach doesn’t look too promising, does it? So much for options three and four (resisting change, and trying to ignore it). Select one of those and we will be “broken.” That certainly doesn’t sound too comfortable.


Options one and two were embracing, or at least tolerating, change. These are the “soft and supple” options and we’re told they will “prevail,” so that’s good. But the question remains as to whether we will find them comfortable. And I think the answer is: not necessarily.


Let’s look at this another way. Is it comfortable for a caterpillar to transform into a butterfly? If you’re the caterpillar, I’d think the answer is no. As the saying goes “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly.” I think the point is that change is going to happen regardless of what we call it. It’s simply not an option for the caterpillar to “hold on” to being a caterpillar. I guess it could resist the change, or try to ignore it, but neither of those will make any difference in the long run. And in the short run, the caterpillar will simply create confusion and stress for itself.


So whatever we do, let’s not call it “the end of the world.” Let’s not even call it comfortable or uncomfortable. In fact, let’s not hold onto any ideas of what it should be. Instead, what if we were to let go and simply be soft, supple, yielding? Now there’s an interesting idea. I think that’s what embracing, or at least tolerating, change looks like.


Is the Master’s life problem-free? Not necessarily. Does the Master have to sometimes tolerate change whether she likes it or not? Yes. “When she runs into a difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it. She doesn’t cling to her own comfort; thus problems are no problem for her” (chapter 63). So that’s what it looks like in practice. Note how Lao Tzu is even specific about her declining the option to cling to her own comfort.


So back to the title of this newsletter “Growth starts where comfort ends.” Is that true? I think the answer is yes. For me, the least uncomfortable option is when I am the one inviting change. In other words, when the change comes from within. It is more uncomfortable when I feel change is thrust upon me from the outside. But in both cases I think there are two keys. The first is to be aware that my response is a choice. The second key is to let go of clinging to my own comfort. Best, of course, is to let go and become open to the adventure. After all, who knows what is about to unfold?


At the end of the day, a butterfly is not an uncomfortable caterpillar—it is a butterfly.


How about you? Can you think of some recent examples where change came from inside or outside. And were your responses to hold on or let go? In other words, did you respond by resisting or ignoring versus embracing or at least tolerating? And what happened? Enough questions from me. Over to you.


If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:


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