The Comfort Zone and Why We Should Try to Escape from It
A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.
Why does enthusiasm for spiritual work tail off?
I have friend who is a wonderful guide and teacher for people seeking to wake up and develop mindfulness skills. He was discussing his students, telling me how enthusiastic and appreciative they were of the wisdom he was able to pass on to them. But, he said, somewhat puzzled, no matter how keen and committed his students were, all of them hit roadblocks at some point on the path. They all went through periods when they stopped doing the exercises that they knew, from personal experience, were nourishing to their hearts and minds. They failed to apply themselves to the teachings from which, again, they had achieved life-changing results. Why, he asked, do people fall into these holes?
There was a lot I could have told him. There are natural rhythms in every human pursuit, including studying meditative and spiritual practices. The ‘learning curve’ is not a straight line, there are natural ups and downs. There are periods when a student works to understand a new teaching, puts it into practice, becomes enthusiastic about the results, and then the energy seems to fade. This is often because, having learnt the lesson and worked at it, the fruits of that practice now need to be assimilated subconsciously.
Another explanation relates to the three natural universal energies: stillness, activity and inertia. These are sometimes referred to as swan energy, tiger energy and sloth energy. All three are ever present, and they play off each other. A little wakeful ‘swan’ focus leads to purposeful ‘tiger’ action under the knowledge gleaned. And this is followed by a period of rest or inertia to recharge the batteries. That third ‘sloth’ phase might have been the one my friend saw in his students - a natural period of rest after the energised focus and work.
Resistance to change
There is another reason for this drop-off in enthusiasm which is less positive. It is the inner opposition that can arise when someone is trying to change their life. Change, by definition, means moving from a familiar, habitual state, to a new, unfamiliar way of living or thinking. This move is always accompanied by feelings of doubt, insecurity and discomfort. In fact, if you are not experiencing a little of these uncomfortable feelings, it is unlikely that you are experiencing genuine change.
The Fear Barrier and the Comfort Zone Diagram
I discuss this at some length in my book Conscious Confidence: Use the Wisdom of Sanskrit to Find Clarity and Success. In it I refer to the ‘Fear Barrier’ as the blockage that makes us reluctant to achieve real change in our lives. I created a diagram to illustrate this Fear Barrier and the Comfort Zone.
In this diagram you can see that within our comfort zone we are relatively efficient, confident and competent. We go about our lives reasonably effectively and meet the ordinary demands that are thrown at us. Within that circle, there is a degree of light and contentment, and things basically get done.
And really, what is wrong with that?
Nothing, at all. Unless you hear of a larger freer world that is beyond our ordinary circumscribed existence. Having heard of this wider world, a desire for it arises and then work has to be done to reach that new world.
A quick side-note of caution
None of what I am saying here is meant to imply that new ways of thinking or acting or feeling, are necessarily better or more efficient than the old ways. That’s a separate conversation. All I am pointing out is the effort to try something new and perhaps even risky, has an attendant subtle force of resistance. It’s overcoming that force of inertia that I am addressing. Once you are out of your comfort zone, and past the fear barrier, you can do things however you want. The old ways can be the order of the day, but they will be fresh, no longer done out of habit.
The mounting pressure to turn back to the comfort zone
Now let’s return to our discussion of the diagram of the Fear Barrier and the Comfort Zone.
The gradation of rings in the diagram, each darker than the next, shows that the going can get tougher as we move further from our comfort zone towards a new way of living and thinking and doing things. The pressure mounts to turn back to our previous habitual living. That barrier shows itself in a variety of ways.
Sometimes it’s anger, especially when the prompt to leave our familiar patterns comes from an external source. Our boss, spouse, children, or just friends and acquaintances press us to do things differently and we react with annoyance. We blame them if something goes wrong, or if we feel too many demands are being placed on us, and the temptation arises to scurry back to our old way of thinking or acting.
The resistance can come in ways other than anger, blame and annoyance. You can feel apathy, boredom and a lack of energy.
Or the mind can start to generate a plethora of excuses. All sorts of things can crowd your timetable so you never get around to doing whatever it is that will ultimately set you free.
And then there is the elephant in the room – fear.
Fear can show itself in the form of anxiety, insecurity or self-doubt. All of its many facets have the effect of freezing the heart and sending you back into the comfort zone.
The comfort zone is not that comfortable
By now, you may be getting an inkling of the truth of the saying of Eddie Harris Jr: The sooner you step away from your comfort zone; the sooner you’ll realise it wasn’t all that comfortable. The ‘comfort’ of the comfort zone is illusory. This is because it is liable to be disrupted at any moment by unexpected external events. These surprises are beyond the control of our relative ‘efficiency’ and ‘competence’ within the confines of its narrow bounds.
Another quotation says: “The comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”
True growth and freedom lie beyond the limits of the fear barrier and the comfort zone. There is a new world waiting for you when you have done the work to move out of your comfort zone. This world opens up when you have met the barriers to freedom with courage, determination and discipline. This new world has its own geography and signposts. It has its own challenges and pitfalls. But it is a world of freedom, where growth is possible.
The false security and safety of the comfort zone
The diagram also shows other benefits that lie beyond the fear barrier: Creativity, Conscious Confidence and Power.
Those who cling to the comfort zone, believe it to be a place of safety and security. They think that risk and even danger lie outside the comfort zone. This is the exact reverse of the truth. While life in the comfort zone can seem predictable and secure, it is in fact subject to unforeseen events that come out of left field. The random events of life show us the problem with acting as if everything will proceed in a straight predictable line!
The reason for this is the limited horizon of the comfort zone. Inside it we can only see to the edge of our incomplete thinking and emotional capacity. Herein lies another clue to why most people have no desire to leave the confines of the comfort zone. They don’t know that they are in fact confined. My teacher used to tell us that the best way of keeping someone in prison is to plant the idea in their minds that they are free.
It is only when we have awakened to the fact that in the comfort zone we are, in Shakespeare’s words “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in”, that we desire to make our escape. This is because the escape, to be effective and long lasting, has to be conscious and disciplined. It involves work – another reason few make the journey.
When we break free, as I said earlier, we find another world waiting for us. We look back on the relative certainties of the comfort zone and wonder how we could ever have found them satisfying. We realise our confidence was conditional on circumstances.
Having gone free, we breath the clear fresh air of reason, positive emotions, and the good fellowship of others who have made the journey. As I mentioned above, this new world has its own challenges, there is still work to be done, but it is of a different order, and the details of its landscape are the subject of another blog post, perhaps several.
I’ll just make the final point that the apparent ‘safety’ of the comfort zone is exactly that, a mere appearance. If your vision is limited to a few feet in front of you, then a freight train barrelling out of the fog will catch you every time. Beyond the fear barrier your vision is many times wider. Life’s freight trains are still coming, but now you can see them from a distance and you can take appropriate steps well in advance.
Perhaps one final encouraging quotation to finish:
When you step out of your comfort zone, you are stepping into your greatness.