the practical buddhist : essentials

3 lessons from venturing outside my comfort zone

Since January 12th I’ve been on the road, traveling, visiting family, and living in ways that are outside my comfort zone. In brief, I’m taking three weeks to travel across the US and back and this post is about the three lessons I’ve learned thus far living outside my comfort zone.

As a bit of a catch up since I last posted, I’m currently living in San Jose, California and the southern end of the San Francisco Bay Area. I moved there from the coast in May 2015 to take care of my aging parents who are both in their mid-eighties and in failing health.

After eight months of full-time assisted living duty and part time writing and consulting, I figured it was time for a bit of a break. I embarked on my journey two weeks ago and I started writing this post in Enid, Oklahoma where my son-in-law is stationed at Vance Air Force Base at the Flight Training Wing. There were turboprop planes and jets taking off and landing most of the time. It was pretty awesome. He’s training as an USAF pilot and it was very cool being so close to the aircraft.

The week prior to Oklahoma I was in South Carolina visiting one of my three sons and his family. We built a playground for his young children braving the light snow flurries in the process.  Now I’m in Denver, Colorado visiting friends.

As the journey has progressed, I’ve become aware of three lessons about living outside of my comfort zone.

With only one bag, I hit the road.
With only one bag, I hit the road.

Lesson 1 – I Can’t Meditate Anywhere

I decided to take the train for a change of pace. As a consultant, I fly a lot for business and for this three-week journey, the train seemed like a needed change of pace.

I booked a sleeper car, or a roomette as they’re called on Amtrak, for the five days and three trains that it would take to get from SF to Chicago to Charlottesville. VA and finally off at Clemson, SC.

But ‘sleeping car’ is a misnomer and they should be called ‘anything but’ sleeping cars. Sleep wasn’t possible for me and over the five days I was on the train, I had difficulty maintaining my meditation practice.

It improved at my son’s house but was impeded at my daughter’s home, largely because they were in temporary lodging facilities and we were pretty cramped.

I thought that I’d be able to meditate anywhere, but I was wrong. Instead of forcing it, I gently acknowledged the difficulty in the situation and moved on knowing that the next day might be better.

I’ve noticed for some time now that other Buddhist bloggers have expressed frustration and disappointment when their practice is disrupted. To me, this is falling victim to the snares of self-induced suffering. The Buddha taught his followers to remain unattached to preconceived outcomes, knowing that this very attachment was what invited suffering.

However, even in difficult situations like what I described over the past weeks when my practices has been altered, I’ve found that I suffer much less when I gently acknowledge the difficulty and move on – just as I do when thoughts arise during meditation.

Life is far too short and precious to invite needless suffering.

Lesson 2 – Service to Others Can Fill the Void 

One of 17 goals for 2016 is to help someone everyday. I learned that while my meditation practice was altered, remaining open to serving others eased the disappointment. Each day that I am open to serving others I am presented with multiple opportunities to help, to comfort those who are in pain, to hug someone grieving the loss of a loved one, to touch another in kindness, to carry groceries for a woman with four kids, to waltz with crying babies, etc.

Each of these opportunities to serve others arose over the last three weeks. I am grateful beyond words for them.

They allowed me to exercise compassionate-kindness, one of three simple practices that characterize Practical Buddhism. They form the triad of my lifestyle and when one is lacking, I find that I attract opportunities to practice the other two.

Lesson 3 – My Tattoos Opened Opportunities for Conversation

My right arm is a work of art in progress. I refer to it as ‘the dharma sleeve project.’ It’s kind of funny, I’m now 58 and I didn’t have any ink until I was 55. In the three years since my first one, I’ve added four additional tattoos, three of them as part of ‘the dharma sleeve project.’

Here are a few photos of it thus far. You can click on each photo to see a larger image.

IMG_0448 IMG_0446


While on the train, especially in the dining car where I took my meals, my tattoos invoked a common reaction in all but a few passengers. Most of the passengers were couples in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Most didn’t have any visible ink.  Since I wear nothing but short sleeve black merino wool t-shirts, my ink is always visible.

In each encounter I noted an initial staring at the ink followed by visual eye contact with me.  Knowing how I used to do the same thing, I safely assumed they were ‘sizing me up’ or judging me in the context of my ink. It doesn’t bother me at all, in fact, I enjoy watching the reactions.

On the train, you usually don’t pick your dining partners. All seating is at the discretion of the dining car attendant. That means I was usually seated with the same people who reacted to my ink from afar. But people are people and all of the folks with whom I shared a meal left the encounter knowing I was a genuine, caring, and compassionate person.

The tattoos were always the initiator of conversation. I shared what each meant to me, which led to me sharing about my profession as a writer and author in the process that led to other conversations and soon the ink was forgotten. In a matter of a few minutes I was no longer a stranger with tattoos, but a new friend with an interesting story.

The Value of Living Outside Your Comfort Zone

Forcing ourselves to live outside our comfort zone can teach us many lessons.  When we live outside the environment that provides us with comfort and predictability we are forced to take life as we experience it. We don’t alway have a warning about people we meet or the events that will occur.

Our comfort zones insulate us from the real world. It’s good to get out beyond our insular borders and see what life throws at us.  The uncomfortable nature of living outside our comfort zone can be made less so by remaining flexible, unattached to anticipated outcomes, and extending kindness to all we meet.