Seeking Discomfort

Contemplative anthropologist and mindfulness teacher Michael J. Kimball from his conversation with Dov Baron (Aug. 19. 2018): 

Why do you go to the gym?

You go to the gym to improve your health.

The gym has tools in it. You might have machines for lifting things. You’ve got treadmills and so forth. Those are the tools.

But is the gym a path? Yeah, it’s a path towards better physical and mental health.

It’s the same kind of thing with mindfulness practice.

There are many tools that are in that particular gym, and when you’re using them on a regular basis, you find yourself moving in a direction that’s different, maybe, than where you were heading before.


When I discovered that contemplative work is rigorous – that you’re really actually practicing techniques of turning towards pain, turning toward the insights you get from really understanding to yourself and to the rest of the world – I knew I had to keep doing it.

I’m slowly learning how to bring anthropology and mindfulness together. I think they complement each other beautifully, but how to talk about it is a whole other thing.

I think it comes down to excavation – what you do physically to understand where people come from.

You’re out there with a trowel and you’re scraping very carefully, mapping the layers as you go down, and you start to uncover things that no one has seen for thousands of years – holding in your hand something that someone made seven thousand years ago that hasn’t been touched since by human hands.

 Michael Kimball, Galtaji, Jaipur, India 2013

Michael Kimball, Galtaji, Jaipur, India 2013

That’s a process of discovery and insight.

I realized that’s exactly what I needed to do to my own experience. I needed to take those tools and do the same thing – systematic, rigorous, layer-by-layer – discovering those insights and seeing how I connect up to the rest of the world.

The working title of my book, before it became Ethnowise, was Culture from the Inside Out.

For me, it’s about seeking discomfort. That’s the key. Seeking it.

Our personal discomfort zones are inextricably blended with cultural discomfort zones. You can’t really tell without a lot of careful excavation what cultural and what’s personal.

We take everything personally. But when you start to recognize the cultural components of that, then you start to take it less personally and realize, Oh, welcome to being a human being.

We live in relationship with each other. So when you start to peel that onion, you start to find that those kinds of things you took personally, many of them aren’t personal anymore. They’re just part of being human in a society and in a cultural context.

But you’re not going to discover that until you actively seek discomfort. You’re looking for it. You’re not seeing it and then moving away from it. You’re actually gravitating toward it.

That takes a lot of courage.


Kimball, M. J. (2017). Ethnowise: Embracing culture shock to build resilience, responsiveness & connection. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company. (publisher, Amazonlibrary)