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Preparing for the New Year: Are Old Patterns Really Comfortable, or Just Familiar?

Ilaugh at myself on a regular basis, because I hang onto things, thoughts and ways of being that are familiar but are really uncomfortable, and so do most people. There are many arenas where we convince ourselves we're comfortable when we're not. Those arenas can include a relationship, a job, a way of relating to the world, a social group, even an uncomfortable position in bed when you don't want to get up and get another pillow or a blanket or just move to a chair.

We tell ourselves that we are comfortable in the most uncomfortable positions. Why? I really need to use the bathroom, but I don't want to get out of bed. Now how comfortable is that? Being in charge is my way, and I believe I actually like all that responsibility and stress. Or not being in charge is what I tell myself I like, even though it's infuriating to be constantly told what to do.

The familiar is not in and of itself more comfortable than the unknown. In fact, it may well be worse and it may even be accompanied by the greatest discomfort of them all, which is the realization that I'm stuck and not doing anything about it.

What is so scary about change that we would rather twist ourselves into pretzels than straighten ourselves out and walk a different path? Recently, my husband and I ran away from home and didn't go back. I know that sounds funny, but it was kind of like that. We took off on a vacation and when we got where we were going, we knew we had to leave for good. For us, it was a life or death situation -- specifically my life or death, because my health was declining rapidly in our former environment. For several years, I hadn't the energy or wellbeing to do much of anything, and soon I wouldn't be able to work, which dramatically threatened our financial survival as well as my physical existence. Then, wow, when we got to our vacation destination, I perked up, had more energy than I had in years and I was beginning to recover. It was palpable, and it wasn't going away.

Life or death, being able to work or not, feeling completely drained or having glimpses of wellbeing, which would you choose? Now you would think that this choice would be easy, but it wasn't. First, it was my husband. I knew immediately that I felt different. The natural environment was full of chi, life force, and I started to breathe and walk better. In addition, I had fewer of the responsibilities that had been impacting me so badly. But my husband wasn't sure we should stay. Kind of insane, actually, but no more insane than the person who can't escape an abusive relationship because it's "comfortable." Of course, he could manufacture all kinds of excuses as to why he was in doubt about us permanently moving, such as, could we make a living? But we could both see that was bogus, because I wasn't going to be able to continue working anyway.

To his credit, he shifted pretty fast, and we were in harmony for a while about making the move permanent. But then challenges arose, and my mental-emotional inertia began to dominate. There didn't seem to be a place for us, not one that worked, this or that geographic area wasn't perfect, maybe I could go home, but just play it out differently -- as though I hadn't tried that for years.

So there you are -- life or death -- and we were still wondering whether or not to move. And, by the way, the doubts and hesitations kept taking different forms so that we wouldn't recognize them for the simple resistance they were. He balked, I worried, we all doubted. And why?

Now here's the tricky part. You can say that human beings are to some extent a mass of cellular memories, and those memories define what we see and perceive. I recognize a horse by the fact that I have seen horses before, or at least pictures of them. If I had never seen a horse or heard anything about them, I would have to start from scratch. What is this thing? Is it a threat or a help? How would I take care of it if it were mine? What could be my relationship to it?

Memory is how I know about things, and so that's where I go for information. If I have strong intuition, I might pick up vibes about things that are unknown. But typically, even there, we are dominated by memory. Let's go back to our example of the horse. Let's say I believe that I am picking up a vibe that this creature is friendly, scary, unpredictable or safe. Where is that vibe coming from? From what is actually there, or from an association I have with the way that I have interacted with animals before or from a distant memory of my mother talking about tall brown creatures when she was reading me a story at bedtime?

How many of us can actually differentiate between our intuition of what is and our emotional or visceral response to something that may be being influenced by a hundred factors outside our awareness? How many of us are even willing to admit how prejudiced we are -- prejudiced in the literal sense of the word of prejudging?

So as I lie in bed, needing to get up and use the bathroom, but snuggled under the blanket, I have a hundred associations that tell me that bed is safe and that's where I get comfort, even though I'm as uncomfortable as heck. And I have a hundred associations that tell me that my knees are going to hurt if I get up, or that the floor will be cold, or whatever. And I'm not even evaluating my needs in the moment, because I am stuck in a set of memories which I'm not noticing are dominating my decision to stay in bed until my discomfort becomes so acute that I dart out of bed and then I have a truly negative experience rushing into the bathroom without taking the time to get out of bed carefully or even throwing on a robe.

Now let's expand from this somewhat amusing example and see ourselves in a job where we no longer fit or in a relationship that is hurtful. Don't we have a ton of memories of what we have experienced or heard from others about leaving either? Oh the job market is terrible, and you'll never get a new position. Or you have to keep a job at all costs because Dad and Mom were terrified from the Great Depression, and security was more important than self-realization. Or all guys are creeps, so you might as well stay with the one you have. Or divorce is damaging to the children, which is totally irrelevant because you don't have any.

And so, take a moment to think about the many choices you are facing today in many arenas of your life. And ask yourself, am I really comfortable, or is this just familiar, and do I have positive associations with something, even though the good stuff happened only once 20 years ago, or do I have negative associations with change?

And here's a very familiar example of this phenomenon: overeating. At some time in my life, I was hungry and felt really comforted by eating, but I'm not actually hungry anymore and continuing to eat is hurting my stomach, but I associate eating with comfort so I keep trying to comfort myself with food. Or in the beginning of the meal, I really enjoyed the taste of that dish, but now I'm not even conscious that there is food in my mouth, yet I keep seeking the pleasure of that experience by eating more.

These examples show us that instead of being present to our current feeling of discomfort, we are being dominated by the memory of comfort or pleasure that once was. And how often have we done that with relationships? How often have we felt sad to lose a relationship that hasn't met our needs in years, but with which we associate some comfort -- even if it was only one hug on one desperate night of loneliness when we were young?

Discomfort isn't always a sign that we should change. Of course, there are times when discomfort is a necessary part of the experience of growth. I may very well go through discomfort if I leave a relationship, a job or my beloved home. And I will probably be uncomfortable if I confront the patterns that are making me sick -- whether it's the way I eat or the way I deal with my kids. And those discomforts have value, because they are in service to growth.

But the familiar is not in and of itself more comfortable than the unknown. In fact, it may well be worse and it may even be accompanied by the greatest discomfort of them all, which is the realization that I'm stuck and not doing anything about it.

So as we begin a new year, let's make it truly new by becoming increasingly willing to confront situations and patterns that are sickening us and embrace the courage and optimism we need to tell all those cellular memories, "Thank you for your input, but you are just a memory. You are just the past, which can inform me, but I live in the present and am guided by the future."

Happy New Year!

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