Lanterns on the water: a mindfulness activity
When many people think of either mindfulness or meditation, they may think of a classic image. You know the one. An individual in a darkened and quiet space sitting very still and quiet, trying to clear their mind of all thoughts. I know that is what I pictured and I was intimidated and honestly discouraged before I even started. The idea of trying to stop my thoughts from appearing overwhelmed me.
Lucky for us, this perception is not reality. Mindfulness is the practice of learning to recognize your thoughts and feelings while not acting upon them or letting them “hook” you. I’ve found the imagery of getting “hooked” by your thoughts that Russ Harris uses in his book, ACT Made Simple (I’ll write a future post with more on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so don’t be a stranger) to be especially helpful for me. The basic idea is that we cannot stop our mind from having thoughts and the more we try to, the more those thoughts will show up in our mind. Try it right now. Don’t think about a bagel.
What happened for you? For many people, the mere suggestion of not thinking about a certain object (here, a bagel) results in thoughts about that object, even if the thought it is, “I don’t want to think about…”. The trick is to learn to accept your thoughts as they come in to your mind but not get “hooked” by them. We have all had the experience of getting hooked by a particular thought. The thought or feeling comes into our mind and pulls us away from what we are doing, and if it is an especially difficult or distressing thought or feeling it can be a struggle to get back to the task at hand.
Lanterns on the Water is a mindfulness activity I adapted from an ACT activity called Leaves on a Stream. The basic idea is that as thoughts come into your mind, you picture them as a small paper lantern and place them in the water. The nice thing about any mindfulness activity is that they are flexible and you can personalize them with what works for you. So, if you don’t connect with the Lanterns on the Water image, you can use leaves on a stream, or suitcases on a conveyer belt, whatever works best for you.
Lanterns on the Water: A Mindfulness Activity
- Sit in a comfortable position and either close your eyes or rest them gently on a fixed spot in the room, whichever feels right for you.
- Imagine yourself sitting next to the water, it could be a slow moving stream or a lake with a gently breeze. As you visualize the water, breathe in and out for about 10 seconds.
- For the next few minutes, take every thought that enters your mind and place it on a paper lantern and into the water…let it float away. Do this with every thought, even pleasurable or happy thoughts that you might want to hold a bit longer. Place them on a lantern and into the water and let them float away.
- If your thoughts stop for a moment, just continue to watch the water. Sooner or later, your thoughts will start up again.
- Allow the lanterns to float away at their own pace. Don’t try to get rid of your thoughts by speeding them up. You are simply allowing them to come and go as they will.
- If you hear your mind saying, “This is boring”, “I’m just not good at this”, or “This is so stupid” – just put those thoughts in lanterns and let them float away.
- If a lantern gets stuck, just allow it to hang around until it is ready to float away. If a thought comes back again, place it on a lantern and let it float away.
- If a difficult or painful feeling arises, simply acknowledge it. Say to yourself, “I notice I’m having a feeling of impatience/annoyance/frustration”. Place those thoughts on lanterns and allow them to float gently away.
- It is normal for your thoughts to hook you and distract you from being fully present during this exercise. As soon as you notice that a thought has hooked you, gently bring your attention back to the water in a nonjudgmental way.
What was it like for you to engage in lanterns on the water mindfulness activity? If you found yourself having difficulty staying fully present, be patient and compassionate with yourself. This is normal. Try to recognize the struggles you may have experienced with this activity as opportunities for growth.
I will be writing a recurring “Mindfulness Mondays” post for those that are interested in trying the many varied mindfulness exercises that are out there.
Leave a comment to let me know how this exercise went for you or if you have a favorite mindfulness activity that you have tried and would like to share.
Adapted from: Harris, Russ (2019). ACT made simple. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.