Finding Stillness Amongst Chaos

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Living in today’s fast-paced, high stimulation world, you’ve likely had the all too common experience of feeling like your mind is just spinning and that you’re hopelessly caught in the tidal waves created by your thoughts. It can be a very overwhelming experience leaving with you the sensation of just treading water but taking on some gulps along the way.

I wanted to share with you a metaphor/exercise that I use with clients that may help you find a greater sense of peace and control over your life even amongst the chaos of today’s world. It’s designed to increase your level of mindfulness, or becoming a nonjudgmental observer of your own mind, as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it. It also helps you separate your true self from the database of your mind (the collection of habitual thoughts and core beliefs you’ve acquired throughout your life).

The first step in the exercise is to picture a large river with rushing waves and whitewater coming down it. The river represents the contents of your mind’s database – your thoughts, feelings, memories, behavioral impulses, etc.

Now imagine you’re right smack in the middle of the river getting pelted by the negative thoughts or feelings. How’s that feel? If you’re like most, the answer is “not good” or “overwhelming.”

When we feel like we’re smack in the middle of the river, on the verge of being knocked over, our natural tendency is to try and start holding back or “filtering” the river. Imagine yourself trying to hold back a river with your two bare hands, and you can get a sense of how much energy/effort might be involved in attempting to do this. The ways our mind attempts to “hold back” the river is with a variety of avoidance strategies that only complicate our lives.

To gain more conscious control of our lives, we need to get into the observer role or mindfulness perspective. To do this, imagine the exact same river with the same whitewater and large waves, but now see yourself on a nice secure high bank well above the water level.

When you’re on the bank, you can stay perfectly still, even if the river is rushing. From this perspective, you can safely observe the river with no danger of being swept away by it. You can now just let the river flow freely, observing it as it goes by you.

Even if the river contains intense feelings like anger, fear, anxiety, guilt, or painful negative thoughts such as, “I’m worthless,” or “I’ll never succeed,” it is “safe” to allow these thoughts and emotions to come up as long as your vantage point is the riverbank, rather than smack in the middle of the river.

So the second step is to imagine removing yourself from the river (literally pulling yourself out of the current) then sitting still on the riverbank as you watch the river and the waves flowing past you.

Then start watching the river and ask yourself, “What’s my mind doing?” or “What’s coming up for me?”

Finally, use the strategy of labeling what you observe as thought, memory, emotion or behavioral impulse. For example, instead of saying “I’m worthless,” say, “There’s the thought that I’m worthless.” Or instead of “I’m anxious,” say, “There’s the feeling of anxiety.” Many people find the combination of imagery and the technique of verbally describing and labeling, without judging what’s in the “river,” to be very powerful in helping them get into the observer role.

From the observer role, you will likely experience a greater sense of peace and stillness. It’s that stillness that helps you regain conscious control over your life – a prerequisite for finding genuine contentment in your life.

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