I was in a heightened emotional state when I jumped out of a plane at 2,000 feet into a cloud, and for about six seconds all I knew was rushing, noise, pressure on my face and a sense of moving at great speed! It seemed like I had no thoughts, just an extreme awareness of senses.
When my parachute opened I was jolted up to what seemed like sudden stillness. However I could not raise my head and when I managed to look up a little, I noticed the parachute ropes were all twisted. In a strangely calm state I recalled what I had learned from my training, and managed to swing myself round until they opened. It was only when I could catch my breath and look around, that my mind started to chatter, although quieter than normal. I told myself I ought to think about landing because although it did not seem like I was descending, as nothing was going past me and the ground still seemed a great distance away, I definitely was. My landing was not particularly elegant but I was exuberant as I lay in a vibrant green cabbage patch. “You’re in the cabbages!”, a young man in a boiler suit shouted as he ran over to me.
Fear seems to exist because one has knowledge of the past and awareness of what could happen in the future. Although in a way, fear does also help bring us to the present - thoughts of a particular outcome can send all other concerns way into the backgrounds of our minds. Since my parachuting days when I experienced falling through the sky at speed, I have been a nervous plane traveller. But this fear does help me keep things in perspective, and I often find flying quite therapeutic (once we have landed!). Letting go of thoughts to stay calm in turbulence can be quite a challenge!
What really helps bring us to the present, and lets us appreciate the present moment free from thoughts of the past and future, is curiosity. Going ahead and doing something anyway, regardless of what we might be feeling. Being curious with our experience can bring out its riches and let us see its challenges from a fresh perspective. Another quality that helps us keep us with our present moment experience is trust
- trust that the future can look after itself for a while and we can enjoy and rest in the present. These are just two of the attitudes that we cultivate in our MBSR classes and mindfulness training.
In my mindfulness classes this week, we have been exploring thoughts and the realm of thinking. It can be liberating to see our thoughts as mental events that happen in our minds, rather than things that are always true. Thoughts come and go, and can be observed. Even when I get taken away by my thoughts, as will always happen, with mindfulness practice there can then be a moment of awareness, when I remember that the voice in my head was just a thought that need not necessarily be acted on.
Of course, we would not want to be observing our thoughts all the time, as we would not be able to do so many things. But when in a stressful situation, or when I find certain thoughts going round and round and not leading me anywhere, to be able to stand back is refreshing. It is also useful to go a step further and label the type of thinking that has been going on – ruminating, planning, day-dreaming, rehearsing and so on. When I can have a sense of myself as separate to my thoughts, to be the container for them, to accept them with kindness and patience, I then find myself in a better position to make a wiser choice as to how to proceed.
To engage in trying to observe our thoughts, it can be helpful to start by noticing sounds. Sounds clearly begin and then end; some are pleasant, some are unpleasant. They all arrive, linger a moment or longer, and then leave, maybe being replaced by silence or by another sound. Listening to sounds in the present moment is a helpful practice to do before turning our attention to thoughts coming, staying a while and then going.
People use various metaphors when practising an awareness of thoughts meditation, and often settle on favourites that work particularly well for them. Some like to imagine a cinema screen, with changing images that represent different thoughts, or actors being on a stage representing the thoughts as they walk on one side and then off the other. Leaves passing along a stream or buses or train carriages are other useful metaphors; one can notice when the train or bus takes one away with a thought, and then you can bring yourself back to the platform or bus-stop, watching the thoughts go by again. (I have found that the bus image does not work particularly well for people who live in the countryside, as we only have one bus an hour, and the trains are not often rushing into stations on time!) A stronger image for when one has lots of thoughts, is to imagine one is standing under a waterfall and the thoughts are pounding on your head. Then you step out of the waterfall and watch the thoughts from a distance. This is fine to start but my waterfalls always keep rushing at the same speed!
My favourite image is that my mind is a clear blue sky and my thoughts are the clouds. Sometimes small fluffy clouds, sometimes or sharp. They might come fast or slow, maybe linger or sometimes be pushed out by other clouds. The clouds either simply represent the thoughts or might even have a word written in them. The moment I notice a thought, I instantly turn it onto a cloud and watch its progress. And when I catch myself having got taken off by a thought, I just come back to watching.
I notice as I write I am always slightly looking up at them. Maybe next time I do this meditation, I will imagine I am back in my parachute and the clouds are coming around me. But I feel it will work better if I am aiming to be stationary. However much my parachuting days might have made me a nervous flyer, I will always have extremely fond memories of those chilly, bright autumn days when I took to the skies. This might be why I like the clouds metaphor so much. Decades later I then took up paragliding which was equally thrilling, although this needed greater courage – harder to make myself run off a hilltop than jump out of a plane!
My adventures in the air came to a halt when I became pregnant, and were then replaced by the greater challenges and joys of being a parent. The fear I have when going out in a car with my son who is learning to drive is pretty high; but on reflection, it is not the same as when falling through clouds, and hopefully we won’t have the same experience of ending up in a cabbage patch!
As a teenager, I was drawn to the idea of parachuting, but didn’t seriously consider it because it seemed far too frightening. It was a significant moment when I was twenty, and discovered on a course that my thoughts and beliefs could be things that I had, rather than things that had me. Once I realised I could be afraid and go parachuting, I signed up straight away. I had had a belief that because I was afraid I could not do something, and then realised that this was not the case. Fear is based on thoughts. We can observe these thoughts dance around in our minds while we stand back and make the choices we truly want to make.
I have written a little more about facing fear in a previous post, following a drive up a rather icy hill.
(The photo might be a bit unclear, but it is me about 25 years ago)