Most people spend most of their time trying to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Meditation--the act of observing our mental and emotional patterns--reveals to us how much we cringe from discomfort. The slightest sound can send our nerves into an uproar. When our knees and backs begin to ache, our bodies can feel like prison cells; and all that we yearn to do is escape.
In the middle of a meditation retreat, anything feels preferable to the torture of sitting completely still. Our bodies and minds crave stimulation, anything to break the monotony of our whirling thoughts.
Boredom can be a very powerful teacher.
One could argue that America's obsession with materialism is grounded in the human impulse to avoid discomfort. In the panoply of pleasure that is Western culture, it's amazing that anyone is interested in meditation, which by American standards is tantamount to asceticism.
In a wealthy, developed nation such as ours, there are very few reasons not to indulge oneself. America abounds with countless distractions--food, entertainment, mindless internet indulgence, and so on. We are a culture of distractions.
But if we are lucky enough to develop a practice of self-examination, we soon learn how conditioned we are by the pain/pleasure principle. Very simply, we crave pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible. We do everything in our power to organize our lives to eliminate discomfort. Air conditioning and aspirin are great examples of how accessible and second-nature our tendency to extinguish physical displeasure has become.
I don't have statistics on this, but I'd wager that modern people devote almost all of their mental time pursuing pleasure and trying to avoid pain. Buddhist practice turns the light of our attention to this impulse (and all others, as well). Then the moments when we would mindlessly react expand to become opportunities to exercise choice.
Instead of indulging in candy or binge watching Netflix when I'm stressed, how else can I respond? How can I learn to accept the stress?
Rather than lashing out with words when someone says something I interpret as offensive, how can I digest their supposed criticism and learn from it?
It begins when we identify the pleasure/pain impulse; then, with attention, a space emerges. In that space, we can choose. Do I move my legs while I am meditating? I will if it's too painful to endure or if I have a knee injury. I probably won't if it's just a general ache from sitting cross-legged. With attention, the choice becomes ours; rigid, habitual patterns transform into potentials for us to exercise freedom.