Sometimes when I’m out running, I follow a whim and head off the beaten track (my running traits are bizarrely reflective of how I live my life). There’s a stretch of woods that I love and I venture in. It’s gorgeous and mossy and overgrown in there. Sometimes I feel a bit silly going in, simply because I’ve never seen anyone else do it and I wonder if I should. Sometimes I feel a bit nervous in case there’s a “bad man” lurking in there. But mostly I just enjoy it; it’s so overgrown and untouched, I’m deeply in the woods and I love that.
I was there recently, I picked my way through and found a fallen tree to sit on. The sunlight is dappled and it’s calm in there. I took off my shoes and allowed my feet to touch the earth. This doesn’t happen enough. I was still warm from running but beginning to cool down. There was a slight breeze on my skin, some leaves blew down from the trees. Immediately my mind started complaining, “really, is autumn coming already? So summer’s over then?” A tad dramatic! It was mid-August, it’s lush and green, I’m warm enough to be barefoot and bare armed, but I was focusing on the fact that there was one small (and enjoyable) sign that the inevitable change was coming: autumn, then winter, then it will be freezing cold and everything will be dead. Do you ever catastrophise? Take a dramatic response to one small sign? Like you eat one biscuit and call yourself a pig, or make one mistake and deem yourself useless? Or someone else makes a mistake and you deem them useless? That dramatic response is the unhelpful bit, it’s out of proportion, it stops you enjoying the biscuit (which makes you want more biscuits), or learning from the mistake, or allowing them to.
So why do we do it? For each of us there will be a mixture of beliefs, conditioning, old stories, instinctive and learned fears at play in our version of this. We humans love stories and drama; we are so creative we jump on a story and off our imaginations run. Like the story of how I’m insignificant and lazy. Or, no one listens to me. Or, British summers are rubbish. Or, people like me can’t do things like that. Or, I’m useless with money. Or….. insert one of your own. Our beautiful, brilliant minds love attaching meaning but sometimes they can work so hard at keeping us safe that they can hold us back – don’t blame your mind, it’s just doing its best!
Of course our minds are also wonderful at automating things, and so more often than not these stories are unconscious, we don’t even know they are at play as we react to life, react to the falling of a leaf on a summer’s day. We can see them clear as day in other people, but it’s not so easy to spot them playing out in ourselves. Not easy at first anyway!
NOTICE. The practices of mindfulness and meditation are primarily about tuning in to yourself rather than outside stimulus and then noticing what you experience. You don’t need to practice these per se, but you do need to give attention to your thoughts to start to notice when a story, however dramatic, has hooked itself in your mind.
NAME. Identify what is happening. Recognising the thoughts as some form of drama can help you detached from them a little. It’s just a thought process, all thoughts move on eventually so let it. If another story springs up (like, I’m an idiot for being so dramatic) name that as a story.
BREATHE. The breath helps us return to our bodies, to where we are in reality rather than where we are in our heads. It also helps us stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which may well be useful if your mind is catastrophising and causing you to express stress, fear or anger.
REALITY. Without the story, what is going on? What is your actual experience? Is it tasting a sweet crunchy biscuit? Is it lying in a warm and comfy bed with a whole day ahead of you?
For me on my run, the reality was that I was sitting in the woods enjoying a warm breeze on my skin, my heart rate was returning to normal, summer was blooming as well as fading. Tuning into the reality of my experience brought all kinds of new thoughts: thoughts of how the seasons reflect our lives and to only long for one particular season is to miss the beauty of our lives in their wholeness; thoughts about how every season has beauty, power and gifts; thoughts about how our society is obsessed with youth and yet youth isn’t the fullest expression of all we are as humans, it’s just when we look prettiest. These thoughts allowed me to feel connected to the earth and to every single human on it. I enjoy that story and it’s always true. They also allowed me to feel grateful for where I am in my life: for the fact that I can run with relative ease, that I have woods to explore, that I have time to be out in them, that the lines around my eyes may well be the sign of autumn is coming but it is very much still summer in my life. When you consider the reality of your experience, what are you grateful for?
Like this? Try Lessons from the trees part one. x