In “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” Pirsig argues that “physical discomfort only matters when the mood is wrong”. He goes on, “Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much”. It made me think.
Putting together IKEA furniture in the cramped space of my daughters bedroom, the temperature is rising along with my temper. Assembling things from scant pictures isn’t easy at the best of times, but in the heat and without enough room to wield a screwdriver it’s intense. I hit my elbow on the bed and curse.
Working in the garden to dig over a bed left for too long, raking the grass into the composter, bending over weeding and tying the tomatoes is no less physically exhausting, but it feels different.
The difference is the mindset, the mood. The difference is in the focus, either on the challenge of the task or the pleasure at the end of it.
Running for a bus when you are late is unlikely to feel as comfortable as running in the park for your fitness. There is no difference in the exercise, only in the mood.
So, if this is true for our physical discomfort it is the same for emotional discomfort too. Not just logically, but physically. The same area of the brain responds to both emotional and physical pain.
When you’re doing something you didn’t really want to do, like putting together IKEA furniture, it’s easy to feel the negative emotion connected with it but it’s pointless to focus on the discomfort and much better to think about the joy of completion. Not to mention the delight of your daughter at having a new bed. When you’re doing something you chose to do, like working in the garden, you naturally focus on the process rather than gritting your teeth and waiting for the end. Essentially the exertion in both cases is the same, and only your attitude is different.
Physically or mentally, your enjoyment and tolerance is controlled much more by what you think about a situation than it is about the situation itself. If you consciously decide you’re OK with it, you suddenly feel much better.