Today I’m going to share my own personal story of struggle and finding greater mental strength.
I say ‘greater’ because mental strength is not a destination. It’s not a perfection project. It’s not about fixing ourselves and trying to become someone better. But rather, mental strength is a moment-by-moment choice to tap into what’s deepest and truest within us, to know ourselves more deeply, and be ourselves more fully.
Through my own journey, I have learned to let go of a lot of inner turmoil, struggle and suffering and tap into more wholeness, resilience and wellbeing.
But I still go through the normal human ups and downs, pains, and difficulties. Life is messy sometimes! But I have learned to suffer a lot less by accessing a source of strength that I previously never knew I had.
Keep reading to learn more or listen to the full episode below.
Where it all started
In many ways I had an idyllic childhood. I was raised in Mullumbimby which was known as the epicentre of hippie culture in Australia in the 70s’. I grew up riding horses with my brothers, swimming in the creek with my friends and picking fruit off the trees.
Despite that, there was trauma from my childhood that kept pulling me down into suffering, self-hatred, depression, and anxiety, and by the age of 17 I had developed an eating disorder.
It was at this stage I hit crisis point. I was only 17 years old and yet I knew I wouldn’t be able to bear that kind of pain for the rest of my life. It was one of those sliding door moments. I had two choices – either I’m going to take my own life, or I’m going to give myself a chance to find out whether it’s possible to be free of this suffering.
I chose life.
The first steps to finding my strength
At first I had no idea where to start, so the only thing I could think of was to go to the school library and I started taking anything I could find off the shelves about happiness, reducing suffering and stress, and books on how to feel better.
I ended up with a weird pile! I had everything from comparative religion to books about depression and eating disorders, but two themes kept coming up:
1. There are ways to train your mind to reduce suffering, and
2. Meditation is a practice to train your mind in this way
I had heard of meditation as an esoteric concept, but not as a way to reduce suffering. So, at the age of 17, I found a meditation class where I was living and went along with my best friend Katie.
During the course, I realized that what was causing a lot of my suffering was my thoughts. I had these profound experiences where I was able to step back from my thoughts and relate to them in a completely different waym, so that they lost their power over me. I felt empowered because I realized I had a lot more control over my situation than I thought. So, I threw my energy, time, and commitment into these practices and within a year and a half, there was a radical change in the state of my mind.
This change flowed out into the quality of my life, the people I surrounded myself with, the work I did, how I related to my family, and what I thought was possible for me. It was a huge transformation and my life would never be the same.
Then, in my late 20’s, when I was really enjoying a newfound sense of wellbeing and quality of life, the realization hit me that other people didn’t have these skills. So I decided I’d devote my life to helping people who were suffering like I was, to develop these tools and skills.
I wanted to help people feel happier, healthier and stronger.
How we can stay strong in difficult times
For the last 14 years, I have taught mindfulness and emotional intelligence skills to thousands of people from all around the world and I also co-founded Mindfulness.com, a popular meditation app which has just hit 1 million downloads.
It’s been a wonderful career but in the last three years I have noticed big changes that have made me pivot in a new direction. That of teaching mental strength. During these years, there’s been no shortage of things to weigh heavy on our hearts and in our minds.
We’ve been dealing with increased costs of living, the war in Ukraine, the threat of the next climate-related disasters, and a pandemic to boot. Personally, you may be dealing with plenty of your own personal challenges on top of all the other things that are making headlines right now. Maybe you’re already worried about a friend who is ill, a problem with your kids, work stress, financial difficulties, work life balance and so on.
If you feel like you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing right now, it’s no wonder. There’s a lot going on in the world right now.
During these past years I’ve also been through my own big personal challenges and so I’ve spent alot of time reflecting on what it takes to stay mentally strong in a time like this. And I’ve come out the other side of it with a new creation, mindfulness-based mental strength training. A four-step framework to ensure we stay resilient, confident and connected to purpose through good times and bad.
My big vision is that, if we can stay strong through hard times and unlock the best in human potential, then we can come together to solve the world’s most meaningful problems and usher in a new age of harmonious, sustainable, peaceful, and connected living.
Two of life’s big lessons for me
Throughout my journey, I have learned many things that have shaped and changed me, and I would like to share two of the biggest ones here.
1. Happiness is a skill, and
2. Suffering is optional
According to mainstream culture, we should focus on external circumstances to be happy. However, the biggest research project that’s ever been done on human happiness, undertaken by Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, showed that what makes a human being most happy is not the big achievement, perfect relationship, or money.
It’s when the mind is fully present in the moment and not wandering.
This is an empowering and inspiring realization because it means that we have more power over our happiness than we thought. It’s through training our minds that we can grow happiness within us and carry it with us wherever we go.
The other important realization on the path to mental strength is that suffering is optional.
Most of human suffering comes from negative thoughts. This is in no way meant to discount or minimise anything you have been through or are going through. Many of us have been through horrible, difficult things. This is all the more reason not to add more suffering on top of a very painful experience.
The difference between pain and suffering
The way I like to think about it is this: unpleasant external circumstances are ‘pain’. Suffering is the psychologically-formed pain that we go through from thinking certain thoughts.
Pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. We can’t control what happens, but we do have a choice about the way we think about what happens. And I’ve made that choice for myself over and over and over again, to let go of suffering, so I can speak from first-hand experience when I say that it truly is optional. We simply need to train our minds in a new way.
Training the mind to be stronger
The Buddha once said, “Wherever you incline the mind towards, that becomes the inclination of the mind.” This maps very closely to a saying in neuroscience, “neurons that fire together wire together.”
So what this means is if you practice gratitude again and again, you will eventually become a more grateful person.
If you practice resilience, you will eventually become a resilient person.
If you practice joy, you will eventually become a more joyful person.
The mind is reshaped and rewired by whatever we do, whatever we think, how we act every day. We can strain the mind to suffer less, we can train the mind to be happier. We may think we’re stuck in our patterns, stuck in our suffering. But it’s incredible how quickly change happens.
And it all starts with making a decision like the one I made when I was 17. When we make the decision that we want to suffer less, and we want to get mentally stronger, we can start to take meaningful action to change things and improve our quality of life.
This is my story from struggle to finding greater strength. A story that is still unfolding day by day.
I hope something in my story is of benefit to you. And I hope that you can take these realizations away, experiment with them and implement them in your own lives.
And if you want to learn a little bit more about how to train your mind to be stronger, I’d love to support you.
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