Before we embark on the adventure of mindfulness practice we might be somewhat like a fish, so used to the watery medium we swim around in that we don’t even register its existence. That’s what’s particularly radical about mindfulness. We go from swimming around in the water of our minds to actually stopping and noticing it, and by “it” I mean all that goes on within our minds, within our awareness.
Moving now to another analogy, I sometimes think of it as like a forest. At the start we sort of think we are the forest – all the different trees that grow there, the plants and the forest creatures. They are different aspects of our personality, our likes and dislikes, our habits and tendencies and also our relationship to others – who they are and what the world out there is like. We don’t at the outset realise how much all of this is in transition and how it fluctuates from day to day. How one day we wake up feeling primed for what lies ahead, cheerful, positive and good about ourselves and the whole of our day seems brighter and warmer. We feel we’re in the flow and that we’re doing ok, we are ok. Then the very next day (or maybe later the same day) it all changes, our self-esteem gets a knock from something going wrong or another’s criticism of us and suddenly everything feels hopeless, unmanageable, doomed and we’re not doing ok, we’re not ok.
Once we wake up to this going on, while the ups and downs still happen and can still be very uncomfortable, we can at least have a sense that “this too shall pass” – which is sad when it’s a lovely thing but a relief when it’s a difficult thing – thank goodness! And we can become interested, even fascinated by it all, this ever-changing kaleidoscope of conditions, inner and outer, that give rise to the phenomenon of how we experience our lives moment by moment.
So going back to the forest analogy we can become like naturalists – explorers of what exactly is going on within the ecology of our minds. The tall, stately trees with their roots reaching down so deep and wide into the forest floor, perhaps they’re like some of the long-standing facets of our being, the underlying structure to our personalities, our oldest habits and tendencies. Even these aren’t fixed however, but are in a process of change through either growth or decay. They relate to those well-worn neural pathways that are laid down over time until they seem set in stone.
Then there are the forest flowers, ferns and other plants that come and go with the seasons. For a while we might find our experience is suffused with something inspirational, like a carpet of bluebells spreading through the whole forest. At other times, it’s as if winter has set in, all is so frozen and still, or so it seems.
And there are all the creatures that live in the forest – the woodpeckers, owls and other birds; squirrels, shrews and voles, rats and mice; countless insects from woodlice to stag beetles and the bigger beasts such as foxes, badgers and deer. These creatures which come into and out of view are like the flux and flow of our everyday thoughts in awareness. Some are welcome and delightful like the roe deer running through a glade, others are relentless and unwelcome like the repetitive drilling of the woodpecker’s beak on a tree trunk, or the harsh cawing of crows, like those ruminating, negative thoughts that run amok. Some might even seem like mythic beasts – monsters – lurking in the shadows, never fully seen. Then there’s the sense of the observer, the seer of all that goes on, perhaps like a benign bird of prey hovering over the forest.
So over time we get more familiar with the forest. We recognise recurring patterns of thought and what getting sucked into them does to us, emotionally and in our bodies. We also find out how complex and multi-layered our thinking process is. There are the “top of mind” thoughts – the more obvious ones – then underneath that maybe a sub-vocal narrative response to all that’s going on that we hardly register, although it can be very powerful and might often be self-critical or fearful, ever on the alert. Then there are the thoughts of the observer, noticing all this. It’s all as dynamic and eternally manifesting as the secret life of the forest.
In writing this I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ well-known poem The Thought-Fox which is about the act of writing a poem, but also has a flavour of the aliveness and dynamism of the thinking-feeling-sensing process I’m trying to describe. Because it is such a complete and whole piece of writing, I’ve set it down in full below.
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Like all metaphors, the forest one isn’t completely congruent with the thinking process and it perhaps tends to concretise what is really evanescent and ungraspable. However, I like the wholeness of the image, its physicality and emotionality reminding us that our thinking isn’t separate from our bodies and emotions but that they’re all intricately and deeply interlinked. Also, that as we explore and come to know the forest of our thoughts, feelings and emotions we feel more at home there and at ease. We can begin to befriend its inhabitants, even the monsters, and in so doing befriend ourselves.