Comfort Zone

Each chapter that I read of Welcoming the Unwelcome feels as if it were written for me in this time, now. I know that cannot be so, for it was published in 2019, a collection of writings going back to the 1990’s.

Yet the topics reflect where we are today: a chapter on polarization; on putting the everyday slings and arrows into context; and – today – on increasing your comfort zone.

In this chapter, Pema Chodron talks about the idea of comfort zone as refuge. Earlier this year, we began taking refuge, for example, in our homes. That wasn’t a bad thing – we needed to do it – and it was truly a refuge. Although many of us would not call it “comfort”, the streets were a scary place to be. Going to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, felt risky.

And, after a while, it felt comfortable staying home all the time.

It felt comfortable working by teleconference. Getting up every day, professional on top, leggings on the bottom, sinking into the chair at desk. Moving at 5 or 6 from desk to television, and disappearing into a slog of bad movies, a rhythm broken up by the occasional awkward zoom call with relatives where you couldn’t talk about anything but the virus and how you were surviving.

Some people experimented with small novelties during this time – baking bread from scratch, getting inventive with lasagna noodles, the only pasta they could buy. As the weather improved, some people gravitated back toward the refuges they had before the virus: dining out, coming together with friends, with family, traveling. Others remain isolated.

Neither answer is wrong but they do clash when they meet each other: someone who is “out” wants to come together with family who is “in.” The “in” family is already pushing their comfort zone to allow her “in” even for a weekend; but now she wants to bring her boyfriend – to dinner – she wants them to meet him. That’s too far “out” for comfort; she feels sad, maybe a little rejected, defensive – the boyfriend is “careful,” what’s the big deal?

The big deal is the shrinking of the comfort zone.

The solution, Chodron says, is to continually do little things, things that only make you slightly uncomfortable, and expand your comfort zone. You’re only comfortable listening in meetings, not speaking up? Try writing down what you would say, put it in the sidebar chat. Start with one time in one meeting, that’s enough to start. You’re only comfortable in meetings when your face is hidden so you leave your camera off? Ok, play with turning it on when you speak, then turn it off again, just once, that’s enough to start.

Your home is your refuge and you don’t feel comfortable going out? Start small: a walk around the block. That’s enough.

You may surprise yourself and find that, eventually, your comfort zone expands to include that block. That block becomes your place of refuge. Then you can expand it again, to include another block and another.

One of my Toastmasters associates talks about this in the context of public speaking. When you start participating in Toastmasters, you have a comfort zone: you feel comfortable in your chair. (Actually, I would put it back further than this – the courage that it takes some of us to even show up at a Toastmasters meeting for the first time is already pushing the boundaries of refuge. It’s a long step from looking at the posting online to actually showing up and sitting in the chair.) Eventually, you have to get up and participate in Table Topics, where someone asks you a random question and you have to stand in front of the room and answer it for 2-3 minutes. At first, your comfort zone is only 30 seconds: you just answer the question and sit down. Eventually, you learn to stretch your answer. Eventually you get comfortable enough you think maybe you’ll try your first speech, that would be pushing the edge of the comfort zone for you. You get up and stand in the middle of the stage, that’s your comfort zone. Eventually, as you answer more Table Topics questions, work on more speeches, you get used to moving around the stage. The more you move around, the more your comfort zone expands, until all the world is a stage and you feel comfortable speaking anywhere.

I thought about this again when I went for a walk yesterday. I am comfortable now, walking for up to an hour in the neighborhood, when there aren’t many people in the streets. My comfort zone does not include threading the needle between Cyrilla and Charybdis – the three feet of sidewalk between the tables pushed up against the front of the restaurant and the tables in the street, the three feet often crowded with waiters and diners waiting to be seated. I cross the street to avoid those blocks because that is too far outside my comfort zone, for now. And it does not yet extend as far as my “backyard” Central Park, an hour there and back again, or to the Highline, 30 minutes away and always crowded.

But I am out of my apartment and walking.

Change starts with a single step.

Just one.

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