Why was I suffering so much on such a ordinary day?
It was a cold and dreary day, but nothing too out of the ordinary for a winter's morning in London. I was teaching mindfulness to a group, as I’ve done countless times before.
The only difference was I hadn’t felt good for a few weeks. It was the depths of winter. I was less enthusiastic and cheerful and low on motivation. I had been feeling unwell. I was spending lots of time indoors, sleeping, to try and recharge.
The Suffering Began
Suddenly, as I began to speak in front of the group, my heart started racing like it’s never done before. Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. After struggling through about half a sentence, I told the group I didn’t feel so good, and let’s sit down and do a meditation together.
I told the group to stop, take a deep breath and relax. And I was closely following my own instructions. Within a few minutes, I was feeling better, and felt able to carry on speaking. Somehow I got through the session. But I had this newfound self awareness of my own state of body and mind each time I spoke. Fortunately, the group seemed quite happy, unaware of how challenging it had been for me.
I immediately had to teach another two groups. What would happen? Would my heart race again and make it difficult for me to speak? Fortunately not so much. The experience didn’t repeat itself that day. But I was certainly shaken by the experience.
Once I reached home, I didn’t want to stand in front of a group and teach again. I even seriously contemplated not teaching ever again! ‘Maybe I could be more of an organiser, and get others to teach?’, I thought. Maybe I could just write and hide behind computers and books.
But before long, I spotted what was happening. How I was running away from fear rather than facing up to it. Moving towards difficulties is what I’ve been teaching others for years. So I took a big spoon of my own medicine and mindfully and kindly decided to move towards my fear. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but in some ways I also felt I had no choice. If the choice is between being more open and loving, or more fearful and sad, is that really a choice?
Moving In Close
I decided to face another audience. I was hoping my challenge was a one off. But it wasn't. My racing heart and discomfort did return. Again and again. Each time I had the opportunity to teach in front of a group, I said yes. And each time I had to face up to that feeling of fear - of not knowing how it'd turn out. Of not knowing how my body and mind may react. Sometimes I felt fine and sometimes I had to turn my eyes away from the audience for a while to work through my inner feelings as I taught.
At first the feeling didn't stay isolated to teaching classes. I even began to feel some discomfort whilst speaking to a small group of people, even friends. But I'm pleased to say I didn't really shy away from any of these situations. I kept turning up and worked through the anxieties till they passed.
These were certainly moments of suffering. But reflecting back on them now, I’m grateful for them. Without such suffering, how could I possibly have any compassion for others going through high levels of stress or anxiety? How could I recommend others to face their fears if I’ve never faced my own fears? Of course I’d prefer to have not had suffering, but having had it, there’s many ways I can make great use of the experience.
How You Can Overcome Your Suffering and Fear
Here’s what I did and continue to do to help me overcome the suffering that visited me, based in what I’ve read to work scientifically. Perhaps some of these strategies will work for you too.
Acknowledge this is normal. Take a kindful and friendly approach. Acknowledge that you are suffering and that suffering is not a sign of something wrong. Suffering means you’re a human being going through an experience every single human being goes through at different degrees. Do you really think you’re the only person who’s suffered like this? No. And this is what connects us all.
Small opportunities to face your fear is the name of the game. In my case, I sought out small groups. I taught with others. I rebuild courage and a positive attitude.
Challenge yourself regularly to rechallenge yourself. By challenging myself regularly, I went from a feeling of dreading to teach, to a feeling of not wanting to stop. I remember teaching passionately about wellbeing in a company and having to make a big effort to stop getting carried away!
Build up your challenge. If you start feeling bored, it’s a good sign to give yourself a bigger challenge. Take time to consider what would be a good next little step in your journey, and go for it! Know that you’re treading a path many others have walked on before, and your journey will be able to help others.
In the psychological world, this is called exposure therapy and has been found to be very effective for many people. Next week, I’ll go through this again, explaining a bit more from the psychology and science perspective as to how and why it works so well.
I hope you find this helpful. Let us know in the comments if you’ve effectively used this approach to overcome your fears. Or do share any other thoughts. I love reading your comments!
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