Have you ever found yourself stuck on the “What if…………….?” hamster wheel? You go round and round and round in your mind, but you don’t get anywhere because the only answers that come fill you with dread. This causes even more panic and the wheel just spins faster. What you are experiencing is anxiety, which is a normal physiological reaction to danger, except the danger is all in our head. How do we stop this cycle and find a way to calm ourselves down? The answer is two-fold: attuning ourselves to the present moment in which we are not in danger and understanding that we have control of our thoughts – instead of believing that they control us. Another way of saying this last concept is learning how to look “at” our thoughts rather than “from” our thoughts.
Below is a video that can be used daily to get you in the practice of being an “observer” of your thoughts, rather than trapped in the spin cycle of fear and anxiety. Like any other exercise, it will get easier the more you do it, and your ability to focus on the present moment will increase. As you listen to this guided meditation, you will imagine you are on the bank of a steadily flowing stream, looking down at the water. When I do listen to this exercise, I picture a stream flowing from my left ear through my head and out my right ear. Upstream you will imagine the brightest trees of autumn dropping large, beautiful leaves, which are floating past you on the surface of the water. At first, you will just watch them passing by, without interrupting the flow.
Then, whenever you are aware of a thought, you will imagine the words of it written on one of the leaves as it floats by. Allow the leaf to carry the thought away. If a thought is more of a picture thought, let a leaf take on the image as it moves along. If you get thoughts about the exercise, see these too on a leaf. Let them be carried away like any other thought, as you carry on watching.
At some point, the flow will seem to stop. You will find yourself no longer on the bank seeing the thoughts on the leaves. As soon as you notice this, see if you can catch what was happening just before the flow stopped. There will be a thought that you have become stuck on. See how it took over. Notice the difference between thoughts passing by and thoughts thinking for you. Do this whenever you notice the flow has stopped.
Then return to the bank, letting every thought find its leaf as it floats steadily past.
There are a few ways to do this exercise. You can read the guided meditation that follows, and then close your eyes and follow the steps. You could also make a recording of your own voice reading the exercise and listen to it with your eyes closed. Another option would be to download the audio recording. Whatever method you are most comfortable with is fine. When you are able to relax into this guided meditation, you will find it a useful tool to escape anxiety and rumination.
“Leaves on a Stream” Exercise
(1) Find a time and place where you will be least distracted. Sit in a comfortable position and either close your eyes or rest them gently on a fixed spot in the room.
(2) Visualize yourself sitting beside a gently flowing stream. To your left you see colorful red, bronze and gold autumn trees, and their leaves are slowly falling down onto the water. These leaves are gently floating along the surface of the water. Pause 10 seconds.
(3) You will notice a thought comes to mind. Imagine placing this thought on the next leaf that floats in front of you. Watch that thought as it floats by. Do this with each thought – pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Even if you have joyous or enthusiastic thoughts, place them on a leaf and let them float by.
(4) If your thoughts momentarily stop, continue to watch the stream. Sooner or later, your thoughts will start up again. Pause 20 seconds.
(5) Allow the stream to flow at its own pace. Don’t try to speed it up and rush your thoughts along. You’re not trying to rush the leaves along or “get rid” of your thoughts. You are allowing them to come and go at their own pace.
(6) If your mind says “This is dumb,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m not doing this right” place those thoughts on leaves, too, and let them pass. Pause 20 seconds.
(7) If a leaf gets stuck, allow it to hang around until it’s ready to float by. If the thought comes up again, watch it float by another time. Pause 20 seconds.
(8) If a difficult or painful feeling arises, simply acknowledge it. Say to yourself, “I notice myself having a feeling of boredom/impatience/frustration.” Place those thoughts on leaves and allow them float along.
(9) From time to time, your thoughts may hook you and distract you from being fully present in this exercise. This is normal. As soon as you realize that you have become sidetracked, gently bring your attention back to the visualization exercise.
What was it like for you to engage in this brief visualization exercise? Be patient and compassionate with yourself if you found yourself struggling to remain fully present and mindful. This is natural. Begin to reframe any difficulties that you may have encountered during this visualization exercise as opportunities for growth. Mindfulness is a tool that takes practice to become skilled. The potential rewards of choosing to engage in regular mindful awareness is the ultimate freedom from the unnecessary suffering of maladaptive thoughts. Loosen their grip on you and choose to become the mindful observer.