In a blog post from Creating Your Beyond, my person blog, I talk about Breaking Free From The Comfort Zone: How avoiding the uncomfortable causes even more distress. I discuss “experiential avoidance,” an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) term that details the human tendency to avoid taking actions that bring up any discomfort, even when engaging in a certain behavior could be rewarding and/or an opportunity for self-discovery. Rather than take a risk, some people stay in the same place—mentally, emotionally and physically—which is arguably creates discomfort, especially in the long run.
After posting that blog, I reflected on the pain and difficult emotions that can arise when we find ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes we push ourselves into a place of the uncomfortable and, other times, we find ourselves there following or in the midst of a situation or event that is undesired and perhaps out of our control. This could be learning of an affair, a divorce, a trauma, a health crisis, loss of a job or a loved one, etc. And for the current situation living through a global pandemic. Whatever it is—and we’ve all experienced at least one event or situation in our lives that created significant discomfort—the emotions that arise when we feel stressed or scared are worth exploring. Emotions can serve as important messengers, if we pay attention to them. It’s hard to slow down in this world—especially so when we feel like we’re in the throes of crisis or dealing with the aftermath of a fire—but by taking a mindful moment to reflect on our emotions and explore what our emotions are trying to tell us, what can be an otherwise uncomfortable experience becomes an opportunity for discoveries, personal growth and even significant transformation. We can’t tell in the beginning what the transformation will be as it is a lived through experience. It is in looking back we can see the path of transformation.
Discovering The Beauty Beneath the Fire
A few weekends ago, my partner and I were up in Pike National Forest near Woodland Park in the Hayman Fire area in Colorado. The Hayman Fire of 2002 burned for more than 30 days and scorched to the ground 138,000 acres, causing $42 million losses in housing costs alone. This is a place that we’ve visited often, both pre and post fire, and as we cruised around on our ATVs I was struck by the devastation as well as the resilient rebounding of nature. The loss of mature old growth trees revealed the unique beauty of the landscape of the forest that had been unexposed before the fire. I was able to witness what I fondly call ‘The Baby Forest’ returning to life with a thriving diversity of plants, flowers, shrubs and trees that could not fully develop when the old forest overshadowed the floor before the Hayman Fire. I could see rocks, cliffs and other amazing features in the overall landscape, which are usually hidden. You can notice them in the photos I took of the area. Also notice the ‘Baby Forest’ filling in the scorched land. When life is going along in an automatic routine in usual fashion, we generally do not notice the underlying features of who we are as unique individuals with a unique history. Sometimes it takes a fire of some sort to bring both new things and the long overshadowed to the surface.
All this got me thinking about how we all experience fires in our lives—whether we started them ourselves or they were lit up by another. When dealing with a forest fire in our own lives, it can be hard to see the forest through the trees or see the fire as an opportunity to experience or grow something different. But, there can be beauty and eventual growth in the wake of any destruction. And, when we feel into our emotions, seeking messages and learning from a painful experience, what we rebuild is oftentimes more fulfilling than what was there before. One thing is for sure, however. When a forest fire sweeps across the landscape of your life causing devastation, something new will happen. Today we are trying to put the forest fire out across the globe. We are and will create something new.
On this note, I asked a forest ranger we met on our ride about the fire and what has occurred in the ecosystem and environment since Hayman Fire. The ranger said that, in a way, the fire was actually good for the area. A balance of flora and fauna was restored. Plants once overshadowed by the looming trees now had a chance to thrive, which was improving the vitality of wildlife, particularly the deer, in the area. We saw an abundance of wildlife on our excursions through the burn area. While initially scary and even devastating, there can be beauty, growth and opportunity to be found beneath or in the wake of any fire—mental, emotional or physical. It can be challenging, but it boils down to a matter of taking the time, however long or short, to sit with the pain compassionately and then seek the wisdom that resides within the experience. Letting yourself recover with a sense of curiosity and knowing a new ‘Baby Forest’ will spring forth within you that holds lessons valuable to your life.
The Beauty of Change
I invite you to think back on one of the forest fires of your life. You’re in the midst of one now, think back to a previous one—we all usually have a few. Remember, it may have been that you felt you wanted to quit when the pain felt too heavy and hard to bear. And, like many humans before and among you, you may have fought the pain, not realizing that fighting pain just increases the intensity of it. What we resist persists, and that is certainly true of pain. Allow yourself room to experience the present with whatever might show up be it fear, anxiety, anger and even numbness. Today it feels surreal to me. I am curious and impatient like a teenager.
However, when we recognize that everything is impermanent—the fire you were thinking about eventually went out, right?—including your pain, it becomes more endurable. And, there is strength and security of self to be discovered when we’re in the throes of a fire. Think about where you are today versus where you were when a particularly devastating fire ignited in your life. Do you feel stronger knowing that you got through it? Did you develop increased trust in your ability to navigate a challenging situation, walk through the fire and come out the other side?
The secret to happiness isn’t the absence of pain or thinking you’re skilled in the art of avoiding it. Rather, it’s learning to embrace change and to lean into and accept pain and other emotions as part of your life experience. It’s also about seeing in hindsight that you have proved yourself capable, even if you fell apart some (we all do and that’s totally okay). But, you got where you are today through these experiences and tomorrow you will probably learn something new about yourself and the world. And, by accepting that what you know and experience today will change and then change again tomorrow, you’re able to embark on a path to greater fulfillment—even if it sometimes includes the pain that comes with stepping (or being pushed) out of what you think you know…today.
Embrace Change and Create Something New
It’s human nature to resist change, although it’s the only thing in this world that we can 100 percent count on. What would you like to let go of and change today? How has something devastating, like a forest fire, ended up becoming a gift in your life? How can you tap into the beauty of change and nurture something new? And, if you need a little more inspiration, check out 21 Insightful Quotes On Embracing Change from success.com, with quotes from people like Henry Ford, JFK, Bill Clinton and Lao Tzu.
About the Author: Brenda Bomgardner is in her encore career. One of her greatest joys is seeing people move beyond life’s roadblocks toward a fulfilling and meaningful life. She believes each person has a purpose in life waiting to be realized that evolves over a lifetime. And the path to reaching life’s purpose is as unique as each individual. We all have dreams. Step by step she will walk with you on uncovering how to bring your dreams to fruition. Brenda is a counselor, coach and clinical supervisor specializing in practicing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training (ACT) which is a cutting edge evidenced-based processes. This means there is scientific research proven to show ACT works. Before becoming a therapist, she completed a successful 17-year career in Human Resources at a Fortune 500 company. On a personal note she loves the great outdoors, ATV riding, adventure travel and family. To learn more about Brenda visit her About Me page.