I am lying sideways in a crawlway barely large enough for my body, taking a breath before moving on. Beneath me, a cold, viscous mud is soaking into my right arm, which is becoming stiff under my weight. My neck is sore from tilting my head to see ahead of me. My kneepads, once protectors, have hung up enough times on protruding knobs of rock that they are probably around my ankles—I cannot look back to know for sure, but I can feel the gravel biting into my knees. A drop of cold water falls in my ear and I cringe, awkwardly pulling off my left glove and wiping the wetness away with moderately clean fingers. I take another breath, replace my glove, and continue on.
I have come to consider comfort a state of mind more than of body. There are myriad discomforts, to be sure. Cold, hunger, an injury. And, too, the rejection of others, the misery of boredom, the unsettledness of being lost. These are sensible discomforts within the frame of our needs. They are, in a sense, an awareness of a need not met.
But in today’s civilized culture, these basic discomforts are compounded. For many who have become used to their culturally enforced isolation from nature, the presence of nature is discomfort in and of itself. For those of us who wish to believe ourselves separate from the animal kingdom, the functions of animals are distasteful or taboo. Our needs for warmth, food, water, shelter, pain relief, psychological relief, avoidance of effort, and so on, are quickly met by fast food and plumbing and ibuprofen and Xanex and couches and escalators and cars. The range of comfort in which we live in has become stunningly narrow. Needs have become rights. Desires have become needs. Preferences are becoming laws.
In part this is because with a narrow range of comfort, a small scale, we cannot measure the things that fall outside it. Near-death of cold feels the same for us as having to wait an extra five minutes at the drive-through—not because they are equivalent but because we have no framework for experiencing them differently. We have lost a consciousness of our desires and the ability to set them aside.
This is why I believe comfort is a state of mind. I have learned with great difficulty that it is not so much the cold or the tiredness or the physical pain that makes me uncomfortable so much as it is my desire for it to be different. Discomfort is magnified immensely by our unwillingness to accept it and our inability to manage it. Accepting these things for what they are, and making choices to deal with them, makes them easier. I can distinguish now between the many slight discomforts—most of which are just my preferences—and the few significant discomforts that are my body’s way of warning me of true needs. What’s more, I can experience the comforts I do have as a richer tapestry of experience. As my scale of comfort expands, I can distinguish subtleties that would otherwise pass unnoticed. Lastly and, I think, most importantly, I can be content with less.
This has not come easily for me. My first expeditions in the White Mountains were marked by cold, frustration, and a constant fight to keep up with the environment. Only with time and deliberate effort was I able to reach beyond that. Caves were emphatically uncomfortable for me on my first encounter with them. Dark, damp, cold, and above all, claustrophobically small. Now, having spent long hours climbing, crawling, and laying on cold rock, in small spaces, those points are no longer the focus. The discomfort is familiar and ignorable. Lying in viscous mud the consistency and color of chocolate pudding no longer fills me with revulsion—in fact, I almost look on it with fondness. It is, after all, the trade-off for seeing things few human beings ever shall, the cost for traveling inside the alien bones of our planet. Chambers, pits, and brilliant and untouched places of stone and earth are open to me in ways they could never otherwise be.
Once I pushed past those discomforts, I discovered a deep and compelling passion, a connection with the Earth and the natural world that holds, for me, more power than any other. This is the value of expanding my sphere of comfort—that I can move past what might seem to be unconquerable discomfort to see and understand things that, until that moment, were eclipsed by my own distress. Every step outside my comfort zone is a step into understanding of the broader world, and a step into unselfish citizenship in a community of nature.
Despite my lofty ideal, and partly because of it, being comfortable now requires work. I have a habit of being comfortable in places where I once did not. It is still a choice, and I sometimes forget. When I am tired, hungry, thirsty, and sore, being comfortable is a chore. My, and our, instinct in such times is to blame others, to complain, or to be sullen. When I am at my best, I notice my hunger and eat; notice my thirst and drink; stretch tired muscles and rest as needed; and all smoothly, without interfering with my tasks at the time. When I am at my worst, I do none of these things and only wish that I had after the fact.
My only choice, then, is to make the expansion of my comfort zone a practice. I can habituate myself to discomforts, thus lessening them. I can negate the things that slow me, or interfere with my clarity of purpose. But the strongest and most effective thing I can do is to choose, mindfully, to be comfortable when I am not, and to be still when my mind is agitated. This choice, repeatedly made, is the habit that truly carries through. This is the choice that makes discomfort something to pursue rather than something to flee.