We all want to feel comfortable, and when we don’t, we would like to be comforted and consoled. At times we all want someone to say “poor baby,” but have you ever thought that consolation might be more of a hindrance than a help? What’s really behind our desire for consolation? In his book, Three Seconds; The Power of Thinking Twice, author Les Parrott III, Ph.D. ties our desire for comfort to our first impulse to keep the comfortable status quo. Although the book is mainly directed toward success in business, the principles Parrott discusses also explain why the vast majority cling to concepts that comfort them rather than accept the discomfort that’s inevitable in moving forward. Spiritual awakening is no exception since it can’t happen without change.
We’ve all heard that our first impulse is best, but Parrot points out that extensive testing has proven that’s usually not the case. Why? Within 3 seconds of hearing or seeing something new, the brain calculates whether the information offers comfort or a challenge. The brain is in the survival business, but it almost always equates survival with keeping the status quo. Unless the brain is convinced it has to change to survive, it won’t. That’s why the brain reacts with several negative impulses when it’s confronted with change, and none of them are in our best interest. Parrott lists the following as the top 6 impulses of the brain that keep us locked in a prison of fear and misery:
- Don’t even try because it’s hopeless and I’m helpless
- Reject challenges because they’re daunting, difficult and uncomfortable
- Settle for the status quo because I lack the vision to imagine the process or the outcome
- Shirk responsibility because it’s easier to shift blame or pass the responsibility on to someone else
- Do the minimum. I can squeeze by with that, and often that’s all that seems to be expected
- Avoid taking action because I fear failure
Of course all these thoughts are self-sabotaging. But even when we don’t like the results, the brain keeps feeding us the information, and worse, we keep listening. Parrott says that if we just pause and let those first impulses pass, we have the opportunity to think a different thought that could empower us to move forward. But researchers who tested dogs that were given very mild shocks discovered that it didn’t take long for the dogs to feel so helpless, they allowed themselves to continue receiving the shocks even when it was obvious to them there was an easy way for them to escape. When we continually acquiesce to the brain’s impulses, we train ourselves to react like those dogs. We keep going along with the status quo even when our heart is telling us there is something better.
Is it any surprise that the often uncomfortable process of spiritual awakening is regularly rejected in favor of information that gives immediate comfort and consolation? Comfort and consolation support our beliefs about ourselves and our world and show us how to increase our comfort levels rather than challenging them. They make us feel better temporarily, but as soon as the feeling wears off, we’ll need to find something else. Comfort and consolation come from outside us. Lasting comfort, in the form of imperturbable peace and the joy of knowing All That Is, is an inside, do-it-yourself job. It comes after we’ve first allowed ourselves to think differently and be shaken out of the comfort zone of life in this illusion.
Spiritual masters understand that they help no one when they offer comfort and consolation in place of truth. As Jesus demonstrated his love, he also pulled the rug out from under comfortable beliefs. Instead of consoling people with the status quo, he challenged his followers to follow his example and leave their comfort zone as well. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas Jesus said, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be astonished, and having been astonished, one will reign, and having reigned, one will rest.” The important part of this verse is understanding that rest comes after seeking, being troubled and astonished, not before. In the gnostic Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus encouraged his followers to take the initiative instead of relying on him, “Enlighten your mind…Light the lamp within you…Knock on yourself as upon a door and walk upon yourself as on a straight road.” And in the gnostic Secret Book of James, Jesus encouraged, “Be eager to be saved without being urged. Rather be fervent on your own and, if possible, outdo even me.”
Of course Jesus’ words imply both self-responsibility and risk, but without risk nothing is gained. This trade-off made us think of the “Wimpy” character in the old Popeye cartoons who constantly repeated the phrase, “I will gladly pay tomorrow for a hamburger today.” When Wimpy was hungry, he went with the brain’s first impulse that told him he was helpless, the problem was hopeless, challenges are difficult, he might fail, the minimum would do and the easiest one of all, someone else could take responsibility. Wimpy risked his entire being for the consolation of a hamburger today. There’s no way to legitimately argue with the old saying, “if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” When we feel spiritual hunger we can appease it with whatever offers immediate comfort and consolation today, or we can give ourselves a moment to think about what we’re going to lose by accepting consolation. Then we can follow Jesus and light the lamp within.