My girlfriend likes her big open Texas spaces and large packed crowds are not her thing. There just gets to be a point where all she can see is backs and shoulders and it's unpleasant to say the least so I made sure we were able to get her in a window seat. I sat next to her in the aisle so I got the best the of super packed train experience.
Others were making the best of it, chatting it up with strangers about what fun they'd had at the fair as the train slowly unloaded at each stop. A small girl was curiously poking my feet with hers to see what reaction she would get as her mother unknowingly bumped those in front of and behind her with various bags and her self as the train slowly rocked around.
I didn't mind all that much, we were all there and there wasn't much we could do about it. It was still unpleasant though. I could see in my girlfriend's face her level of discomfort rising.
I saw it as an opportunity to consider the past, present, and future discomfort of others in similar uncomfortable travel of others. As I looked around the train I saw people of diverse decent and considered how some of our respective families arrived in this country: crammed into the holds of slave ships like cargo with little care, or stowed deep in commercial cargo ships from Asia, trudging across the scrub lands of the American Southwest or squeezed into the trunks of cars or panel trucks. Until air travel became affordable enough, almost everyone made an uncomfortable trip to get here. What's a handful of minutes on a clean air conditioned train?
I suppose this kind of opens the door towards metta- or loving-kindness practice which isn't really a Zen thing. It's not that it's not practiced, there's just not the emphasis on it as there is in some of the other traditions. In comparison to what others experience, I had comfort to spare.
As Zen practice it falls back to the acceptance of the moment as being uncomfortable, that life is suffering. Rather than focusing on sending out happy thoughts to the universe,* I focused on what was going on right then. What was making me uncomfortable?
Well, unfortunately for this example, for me it didn't feel all that uncomfortable. I've ridden on packed trains and sat uncomfortably in the back seat of a car for hours on end so I knew what to expect. I was sitting after all, most of those around me weren't. There was the conversation going on around me to listen to. The small girl was pretty entertaining in a cute puppy antics way.
On the other hand, zazen can be a pretty uncomfortable. There's nothing to distract you as you sit on the cushion. It can be like a case study in discomfort. I originally explored this in "Sleepy Legs and Boring Zazen" and "Staring Down Death", but I've had some time to work with these thoughts. I've also experienced several more times since then where I didn't think I could sit there any more out of pain.
In times like these I wasn't yet able to actualize being in the moment, but each second was an opportunity to push myself further. It's difficult to really stay in the moment with that much pain when you know it will it will end, even if you don't feel it's soon enough.
Tolerance really seems to be the right word in these situations. We're not supposed to place judgment on our experiences. We're not supposed to learn to like the pain just as we're not supposed to hold on to pleasure. While "acceptance" implies "favorable reception" (dictionary.com), "tolerance" deals more with "the act of endurance." To tolerate implies dissatisfaction from the outset, a bare minimum; "acceptance" is more positive. Sure this reeks of duality, but we have to start somewhere.
This doesn't just have to apply to situations though, it can apply to people and their practices as well. As tolerance is further defined as "a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry." We don't have to like something to tolerate it.
Tolerance is often seen as the first step towards acceptance and many people get ahead of themselves and fear that this will eventually lead to liking what they're told to tolerate. For this reason they resist. Which isn't surprising, anytime you push something, you provide something to resist. This is a principle taught in a physical way in Aikido that has other applications in interpersonal situations.
In sitting, we experience that it takes time to build up tolerance and then maybe acceptance to discomfort. Taking this and the previous paragraph's concept we learn patience in tolerating others' intolerances.
Try to keep this in mind next time you're in an uncomfortable situation. Sometimes you're able to change things for the better, but sometimes you can't and tolerance is the best you can do; stick it out because nothing is permanent. Sometimes means other than standing up against intolerance are most appropriate; accept it and act as a role-model instead of an instructor.
*I don't know how to put that without sounding patronizing, it's possible that I don't understand the practice all that well. I can see it's potential benefits but I'm sure that sitting on a cushion staring at a wall and clearing the mind for hours probably seems a little ridiculous to some Theravada Buddhists or Vipsassana practitioners. I do take everyone's beliefs and practices seriously, we just find some fit each of us better than others.