Have you ever heard something, completely out of the blue, that changed how you see and experience the world? I did.
Last year I attended a show at a falconry center where I was able to see some incredibly beautiful eagles, hawks and owls. The presentation took place in a small amphitheater on the compound and an experienced trainer brought out a few birds one at a time and talked to us about them.
During a portion of the presentation the trainer had an eagle perched on his forearm and while speaking he would occasionally lift the bird to flight. The eagle would fly a substantial distance away, far enough that I had to visually strain to keep it in view, the trainer would then put some food in his hand and call the bird. Each time the eagle would swoop in at a ferocious speed that made the audience instinctively 'duck', land on the trainer's arm and take the food.
Of course, we all 'ooohed' and 'aahed' at the magnificent sight, marveling at how well the eagle was trained and commenting on the special connection between the bird and its trainer, but the trainer was quick to point out that there's nothing special about this. The eagle doesn't come by it naturally, to want to fly to a human being - in fact, its instinct is to stay away.
So then, why did the eagle do this? It's physical hunger, we were told; its instinctual drive for food to ensure its survival, was greater than its fear based instinct to stay away. In other words, its hunger was greater than its fear.
When I heard this, time seemed to stand still. In that instant I saw not only how this concept applied to the human experience but of greater significance, how in completely captured the pivotal point that determines our personal evolution or conversely our stagnation and decay.
Inherent in the experience of being a living, breathing human is the deeply held need to grow and evolve, an instinctual drive to thrive. But evolving, i.e. moving from where we are to where we need to be, is often easier said than done because it requires stepping out of our comfort zone.
Understanding comfort zones and our connection to them is important. Comfort zones serve a purpose in our lives in that being structured, predictable, providing safety, shelter and sustenance of various kinds, they create order out of what might otherwise be chaos. And that feels good. Based on the amount of time we spend in them, they also become very familiar places and for all these reasons combined, we draw comfort from them. But it doesn't stop there and, if we're going to be really honest we have to acknowledge that they also allow us to hide from ourselves and others, and avoid facing the things that trigger our fears.
When 'opportunities for personal evolution' (sometimes known as "crisis") come knocking at the door signaling that we have outgrown the usefulness of a comfort zone, rationally we may be aware of the reasons why it is in our best interest to take the evolutionary step forward but emotionally we may find ourselves resistant. We know that our comfort zone is no longer the best place for us to be but the fact is, it's familiar. What's on the other side of this familiar territory is completely unknown and, as our panicked hearts insistently remind us, when we step into the uncertain waters of change we're not in control and therefore at greater risk of failing.
Ah, the very thing we fear the most, Failing, and by the way, Failing doesn't like to travel alone so with him you can be sure to find his close friends: Lost, Alone, Not Good Enough, Anxious, Overwhelmed, and Powerless.
So why, with so much at stake, would anyone knowingly put themselves in such a fearful and turbulent state?
What was once your Protection, is now a Prison
Imagine a little bird developing inside a shell. Without its shell the bird would be exposed to predators and turbulent weather and it wouldn't survive so, it's clear that the purpose of the shell is to provide protection that is essential to its growth and survival. Day after day, oblivious to what is taking place on the outside or the fact that there even is an 'outside', the bird exists safely within its spherical world.
Now, because the bird is a living being, it is also growing and after a while it starts getting uncomfortable inside. Increasingly, there is less and less room to move. At first it's just a feeling of mild discomfort and the bird shifts this way and that trying to find a comfortable position however, with each day that goes by, it becomes more cramped inside and eventually the point comes where its very survival is at risk.
Finally, it just can't take it any more! What was once its protection has now become its prison and if the little bird stays within the egg it will definitely perish. Here, the bird finds itself at a critical juncture and has an evolutionary decision to make: (1) Remain within the egg, the only world it has ever known and in doing so, die; or (2) Do something that goes against every protective instinct it has ever had to date, this being, to peck through the walls which up until now have defined its world and ensured its safety.
In order to survive and evolve, its hunger for survival has to be greater than its fear of the unknown. The bird has to leave what was once its comfort zone and take flight to realize its destiny as a bird.
What all of this means to you
Now let's talk about how this applies to your life. Peel back the layers of all the things that make us different from one another and you'll find that basically, we all want the same things. We want to be loved for who we are, know that we're safe and we belong, be valued and appreciated for what we do and grow to our full potential. You may have a few personal variations to this list, but it's pretty much the same for everyone as psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out in the 'Hierarchy of Needs'.
Therefore, within the context of what most of us want and need, the concepts of 'hunger' and 'fear' often appear like this:
When we think of fear our immediate response may be to conjure up Hollywood movie images of terror, blind panic and dread. However, if we reframe fear to include not only those but also behaviors that are resistant and counter-productive to our personal growth, we will find that fear has many other faces.
Some examples of this broader concept of fear include; apathy, procrastination, blame, control, aggression, manipulation, lying, resignation, the 'whatever' attitude, letting things slide, choosing to remain invisible, and avoidance, to name a few.
The seemingly endless roller coaster ride of wanting our needs met and fearing they won't be, can easily become the theme of our lives.
Using discomfort to your advantage
In our society we are conditioned to expect comfort, fulfillment and pleasure, now and at all times. Day or night, if we need cash we can go to a machine, punch in some numbers and money comes out. If we're hungry but either too busy or simply can't be bothered to buy groceries and prepare a meal, we drive up to a box, speak into it and *presto*, food appears through a window.
Having been nurtured in these excessively cushioned environments where we expect the immediate and continued fulfillment of our needs, we're often shocked find ourselves totally unprepared for Reality and the essential role that 'discomfort' plays in the growth and development of our total being.
To be clear, what I'm speaking of here is different from the kind of momentary flare ups of being upset with something that has occurred in a given day or week. These are the types of things that frustrate us but not to the extent where we feel we're at a breaking point and have to take drastic action.
Within the context I've outlined, experiencing prolonged discomfort is very important information. Long-term anger, resentment, bitterness, stress, depression, anxiety and hopelessness signals that you have outgrown your comfort zone and now have an evolutionary decision to make in just the same way as the bird who had outgrown its shell. It is a sign that as a natural, evolving being you are ready to go to the next and extraordinary stage of your development.
However, in a social climate that tells us we're supposed to feel good all the time, and if we don't there's something wrong with us, we might not recognize Discomfort as a sign that a great evolutionary step is getting ready to take place, in much the same way as labour pains precede bringing a new life into the world.
In fact, precisely because we have been conditioned to expect comfort as a way of life, these signs are often considered an aberration of the collective norm and are silenced with the use/abuse of antidepressants, alcohol, drugs and the many forms of 'soft' addictions that distract us from our discomfort.
Instead of numbing ourselves to the flashing signs signaling a time of growth, it would be infinitely more supportive and beneficial to our personal evolution if we'd recognize them for what they are, step up to the plate and get focused, prepared and excited about entering our next stage of evolution.
There will be some uncertainty
Taking those first steps out of our predictable world of familiar beliefs, behaviours and connections, and stepping into the unknown can be very disorienting. Our fears get triggered, we panic and are filled with racing thoughts of turning back and calling the whole evolution thing off! But understand that these feelings of stress and disorientation are not an indication of failure but are, in fact, a defining characteristic of taking this great step.
Think about it, when that little bird first poked its head out of the shell and was shocked at the strange world staring back, do you think it didn't have a strong urge to pick up the bits of shell and patch up the hole?
So, what's important to know is that there will be moments when you will feel very uncertain and want to turn back. It's just a natural part of the process but this is the time when you need to get very clear and focused on your goal, have a great plan, a strong support system and with every ounce of your being, want to get to your destination. Your hunger for it has to be greater that your fears.
The reason why you must risk going forward and break free of the emotional undertow that tries to pull you back to your former, and now ineffective comfort zone, is because this is the only way you can grow to your full potential, experience a deeply fulfilling life and realize your life's purpose.