Meditation Exercise: Leaves on the stream (by far my favourite and what I practice most)
This is an eye-closed exercise. First read the instructions and then when you are sure you understand them, close your eyes and do the exercise. (Or you can use the recordings at the end of this post)
Imagine a beautiful slow-moving stream. The water flows over rocks, around trees, descends down-hill, and travels through a valley. Once in a while, a big leaf drops into the stream and floats away down the river. Imagine you are sitting beside that stream on a warm, sunny day, watching the leaves float by.
Now become conscious of your thoughts. Each time a thought pops into your head, imagine that it is written on one of those leaves. If you think in words, put them on the leaf as words. If you think in images, put them on the leaf as an image. The goal is to stay beside the stream and allow the leaves on the stream to keep flowing by. Don’t try to make the stream go faster or slower; don’t try to change what shows up on the leaves in any way. If the leaves disappear, or if you mentally go somewhere else, or if you find that you are in the stream or on a leaf, just stop and notice that this happened. File that knowledge away and then once again return to the stream, watch a thought come into your mind, write it on a leaf, and let the leaf float away down the stream.
(It doesn’t matter how vivid or clear the imagery is, as long as the concept is there, that you notice your thoughts, and let go of your thoughts once you notice them)
Continue doing this for at least 5 minutes. If the instructions are clear to you now, go ahead and close your eyes and do the exercise.
(Continuing reading AFTER the exercise)
You can think of the moments when the stream wouldn’t flow as moments of cognitive fusion, while the moments when the stream does flow are moments of cognitive defusion. Many times we become fused to a thought without even being aware of it. Thoughts about this exercise can be especially “sticky”. If you thought “I’m not doing this right” or “this exercise doesn’t work for me,” these too are thoughts that you may become fused to quite easily. In many cases, you may not even notice them as thoughts. Other particularly sticky thoughts are emotional thoughts, comparative ones, and temporal or causal ones.
A recording of the exercise in English (starts after 5 seconds):
Leaves on the stream – 12 minutes
Leaves on the stream – 11 minutes (starts quicker, less guidance towards the end)
Leaves on the stream – 20 minutes (starts with being aware and accepting body sensation)
Leaves on the stream – 12 minutes (start directly, less instructions, suits those who are familiar with the exercise but still need some prompts)
A recording of the exercise in Mandarin: