by Leslie Smith Frank
The day arrived for me to return to teaching after a two-month hiatus. I had taken time to be on retreat, to pause, reflect, recharge. Coming back to work I love and have done for many years should have been a happy, easeful event. Yet what I experienced that morning was fear, anxiety, thoughts of being underprepared, worry, dread. All in spades. It felt absurd and awful.
This reaction was not a matter of competence — it was something else. Surprisingly, my mother’s voice emerged from deep memory, saying, “You’re not coordinated enough.” She speaks to an eight-year-old girl who wants to bake cookies. Back then, maybe there was a danger, but what got picked up by that little girl was a feeling of incompetence. I have been shaken by that feeling for decades, unable to get free of it.
What I usually do when I feel fear, dread, or worry is make myself busy. It could be by reviewing my notes, tidying the room, or rushing around. When I feel distressing thoughts and emotions "get busy/distraction" mode kicks in. I distance myself from actually feeling my own hurt. I don’t want to be with those feelings. I want them to stop.
I'm becoming aware that this busy-ness actually increases my suffering. Somehow, distress gets stronger when I turn away from it. Operating under the radar, it gathers steam with each well-worn neural firing of feeling unsafe. “I’m too busy for that kind of self-care,” is the message my body/mind/heart receives. Too busy to pause, to feel, to offer kindness, to meditate, to walk, to write, to eat, to phone a friend, to ask for help.
And when I hear myself saying, “I’m too busy,” and really hear it, the deepest belly laugh emerges. This is my life. How can I be too busy to engage kindly and gently with myself? My suffering gets magnified, expanded, ingrained, strengthened, and emboldened by neglecting to pause, breath, and check in. Is this the secret? That suffering will always be but the form, intensity, duration, and quality are, in some powerful way, up to me?
On that morning of returning to work, I did something brave. I sat quietly. The painful feelings were hard to sit with. Being with the terribly unpleasant sensations and emotions coursing through me felt like getting hijacked. Yet I stayed still, actually feeling the squeeze on the heart, the roiling in the guts, the tension in the neck. Whatever has the nature to arise also has the nature to pass away.
I didn't turn toward the pain in order to make it go away. I was really wondering about it. There was a sense of curiosity, of actually caring for my one precious life. So instead of rushing around, I tried staying still. I tuned in to my body below my neck, sensing areas of contraction, pressure, tingling, stabbing, ease, numbness. Sensations sometimes stronger, sometimes less so. I sat and felt the sensations changing. “There, there” I whispered silently to that dear little girl.
The unpleasant emotions did their thing, coming and going. I'll make time to sit with them, next time they show up. It wasn't so bad.
And in case you wondered, my class went fine.