I've had all kinds of extra reasons to think about comfort over the past few months. In a way, this is nothing new. A part of my work involves understanding what comfort is, how it is measured, and especially how it is either promoted or defeated by the design of spaces and places. In some of the experiments I've been doing in my virtual reality lab, I've been doing my best to try to figure out how the design of a domestic space -- a home, in other words -- interacts with the personality of the occupant or owner of that space to generate different kinds of feelings. It's a fascinating question that I can only approach part of the way using my usual arsenal of scientific instruments. Poking and probing at peoples' bodies and minds will only yield so much information I think. In fact, it's starting to seem so complicated that there are times when I feel a little embarrassed by my approach, as if the very idea that I can get close to the deep answers I'm looking for using psychological questionnaires and little body sensors is obviously laughable. But what I've learned so far encourages me to think that I'm on a good path -- that what we can measure will make a difference to how we design, even if we're only really getting a meager slice of the whole pie.
But now I want to get a little more personal about all of this. I've spent this evening, like many others over the past while, wandering around in a house that I only live in part of the time now, looking for somewhere that's comfortable. For instance, if I want to go cocoon with a book or just sit quietly with my thoughts, or write some things down, where do I go? And the answer to that question, I've concluded tonight, is nowhere. There is nowhere in this house that I can sit happily and feel at home. But here's the interesting part of this discovery: maybe that's not such a bad thing.
I had a conversation with my pilgrimage friend Nicole sometime ago. We were on a little pilgrimage at the time (can a pilgrimage even be little? Not so sure about that.) so the fine details of that conversation are lost to me now among the big crashing waves of self-discovery our little group experienced during our adventure. But I do remember her mentioning a friend of hers who deliberately eschewed comfort, and that idea, of veering from shelter, became a kind of mantra for me during the pilgrimage and afterwards as well. So the new angle here is that maybe there are times in one's life when those feelings of comfort are not really the goal. And maybe what my body is telling me in some subtle way is that it's got nothing to do with where I sit or what vista is in front of me or how the chair I'm in is designed or who I'm with. It's got to do with what's going on inside. It's not time to settle. It's time to sort myself out. It's tough. It's....well...uncomfortable. But it's also completely necessary. What's happening to me now, during an epic phase of self-discovery perhaps bigger than any I've experienced before, doesn't feel as though it's being driven at all by the spaces I inhabit. But do the spaces I live in push and prod my thinking in certain directions? It must be so. My other home is a small apartment where I spend about half my time. I don't always feel comfortable there either, but it feels more like a cockpit from which I can steer my psyche with some small semblance of predictability. When I moved there, it was important to me that nothing come through the door, not the smallest household item or piece of furniture, unless it was chosen explicitly by me. I felt a strong desire to control all the variables, to keep things stripped down to the minimum. It wasn't comfort I was going after there, either so much as simplicity, silence and focus.
The relationship between place and person is an evolving and complicated dance that can either promote or impede the process of self-discovery. I've written about this stuff and I've obtained funding to study it and I've conducted the experiments and drawn all the graphs to try to account for some of the simpler aspects of this relationship. But now I'm living the crash course. I don't always like it. It isn't natural to sit with discomfort. But it is transformative.