This is an exercise adapted from a modern “third-wave” form of CBT called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). However, it provides a good way to practice some of the psychological skills that the ancient Stoics described. The foundation of wisdom and virtue, according to Epictetus, is to make the “correct use of our impressions”, and this begins with our being able to spot them without being “carried away” by them, often postponing any response until later. This exercise is likewise designed to improve your ability to notice automatic thoughts (impressions) and let go of them, rather than going along with them, and being swept away by unhealthy feelings or desires. Think of it as a way of exercising and strengthening the basic cognitive skills required throughout the day if you’re to retain your Stoic mindfulness throughout other situations, like doing sit-ups each morning.
Read the steps below carefully then pause for a few minutes to try the exercise before continuing with the lesson. Throughout this week, we’d like you to practice this meditation at least once per day…
Leaves on a Stream
- Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position, take a moment to relax and settle down as you begin to observe your stream of consciousness more closely.
- Picture a slowly-flowing stream or river; this can be a memory or an image you’ve made up. Imagine that it’s autumn and there are a few leaves falling in the river and being slowly swept past you and off downstream. Imagine you’re observing things from a distance, from high up on the bank or a bridge overhead. This gives you something to which you can keep bringing your attention back.
- It’s natural that from time to time your attention will wander or other thoughts and feelings will spontaneously pop into your mind. Rather than interpreting these as distractions and struggling to prevent them, just accept your automatic thoughts (or “impressions”) as normal and harmless, view them with “indifference”, and incorporate them into the exercise as follows.
- When a thought intrudes, or your mind wanders, just catch it as early as possible, and bring your attention back gently to the image of the river rather than allowing your attention to be swept along with the content of the thought or associations it triggers in your mind.
- Turn the thought into an object. For example, if words cross your mind, imagine they’re written down on a slip of paper; if a memory or image pops into your mind, turn it into a photograph; if a feeling or bodily sensation grabs your attention, picture it as a colour or shape.
- Now place that object on one of the leaves, “out there”, at a distance from you, on the river, and just let go of it, and allow it to drift naturally downstream, until it eventually disappears from view.
- Keep catching your automatic thoughts or impressions early, turning them into objects, putting them on leaves, at a distance, and letting go of them, in this way. Even if the same thoughts or feelings keep popping back into your mind, that’s absolutely fine, just keep responding in the same way.
You should keep doing this for roughly five minutes each day, or more if you want. It’s important that you don’t approach this as a way to avoid or “get rid” of your automatic thoughts, as if they were something “bad”. Rather, your goal is to focus on patiently acknowledging and accepting anything that automatically enters your stream of consciousness, with a sense of detached indifference.
Ideally, you’re neither grabbing onto these thoughts nor trying to push them away, but allowing them to fade naturally from the mind, in their own time. The Stoics believed that “impressions” occur automatically in the mind and that these are inherently “indifferent” (not bad) but that our response to them is the most important thing in life.