Regardless of their intentions, telling someone to “step out of your comfort zone” often comes across as bullying instead of as helpful; too often, then, it goes over like a lead balloon (to use another overused cliché).
When my dear friend Kelli told me two days ago to step out of my comfort zone, she had something totally different and a lot more compassionate in mind. She presented a great way of recasting the idea of “comfort zone” as the inner zone of negative emotions and thoughts that many of us get stuck in because of its familiarity.
Those of us who have struggled with low self-confidence, lack of trust, and low life-condition in general, work hard to make personal changes that gradually improve our lives and develop our capacity to enjoy them more. However, we tend to periodically sabotage our progress by returning to those old emotional and energetic haunts.
This tendency arises when we try to have a different experience in emotional territory that has historically been full of disappointment for us, such as seeking a romantic relationship, asking for a promotion at work, or reconciling with a person we’ve had a long feud with. Rather than seeing what is really happening, we subconsciously look for validation that this will turn out like all the other times. Then we seek to be comforted by our friends with predictable responses to our predictable outcome.
We do this as a defense mechanism against the unknown, and against having to do a lot of self-work to take on commitment we’re unfamiliar with if the other person actually says yes.
I caught myself doing this while talking with Kelli over coffee after the New Year Kosen-Rufu Gongyo meeting at our SGI Center. At that gathering, a fellow Buddhist pointed out the falsehood of fear. Most of what we fear in our personal challenges is exaggerated, or simply not based on the reality of our current experience (and sometimes not even on our own experience at all). Apropos of this, Kelli said that someone somewhere even made an acronym out of the word fear: False evidence appearing real.
We get stuck in this fear when we make our challenges, rather than our highest self, our central focus. Another member told us in her personal-growth talk that she was advised to put the Gohonzon, not her problems, at the center of her prayers. It is praying with the intention to bring out our Buddha nature (highest self) that expands the capacity of our lives to see all the possibilities—not just one possibility we are praying to manifest to solve a particular problem (while at the same time still fearing that our prayer may not work).
Holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon refers to such negative thinking defaults as grooves—Like well-worn tracks on a path, that are so deep that even if we’re trying to fill them in and re-surface the path with new tracks, it’s hard not to keep getting stuck in the old ones. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to re-surface our path, of course; it does mean we need to be mindful and recognize when we find ourselves drifting into our old ruts, and step up our efforts to redirect ourselves.
At the same time, we shouldn’t try to rationalize ourselves into feeling differently. One of the most important personal lessons I’ve learned from Cindy is that, instead of trying to talk ourselves out of our feelings, we need to accept and respect our feelings in order to move through them and come out the other side.
Not only are these great ideas to help us re-focus and re-prioritize our prayers about making positive personal changes we need to make; they can also help us create a more empowering and hopeful mindset to start the new year with. Thank you, Kelli, Cindy, and Sensei.
Image: “Flower Petal Fancy-Shawl Dancer” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker