Bird-watching is a lot like thought watching


I am not much of a birdwatcher but I am learning to become a thought watcher and I was intrigued the other day by a metaphor which connected the two ideas.

For about six months now I have been practising meditation. Practising is what you do when you are not very good at something and the thing that I am not very good at is controlling all the thoughts that run around my brain. Or the other way of expressing that idea is that I am very good allowing all the thoughts that are running around my brain to control me. The trouble is not all these thoughts are helpful.

Sometimes these thoughts are like lists “remember this, don’t forget that”. Reasonably useful but annoying relentless especially in the middle of the night.

Sometimes these thoughts are anxieties “what happens if I can’t sleep/get ill/make a mistake” or “how on earth will I manage …work/life/people/problems/computer hassles/lists of things to do”. Such thoughts sometimes have a basis in reality, but often get enlarged out of all proportion.

Sometimes these thoughts are a downward spiral of negative self talk “I shouldn’t have…/I’m rubbish at…/If only I were….” . I’m pleased to say that I am much better now at recognising and challenging such negative self talk and this has been one of the first benefits of meditation which I have written about elsewhere in this blog.

Meditating is simply training your brain in the same way that exercising is training your body.

Imagine that you are sitting at a window watching a bird table where all sorts of birds, large and small are coming and going constantly to feed. What you are watching is your mind. Your thoughts are exactly like the birds: they can be encouraged to arrive but they also arrive spontaneously and they fly away at moments of their own choosing.

The skill that I am working on is learning to simply note them, it’s called “noting” – no prizes for originality!

When you first begin to learn this skill the initial revelation is that “lo and behold: you are NOT your thoughts”. Your thoughts are simply your thoughts, they cannot attack you they cannot harm you and they are not the essence of who you are they are simply the activity of your brain.

So learning not to be controlled by your thoughts but to simply be aware of them is a lot like learning to be a birdwatcher.

Picture yourself sitting quietly in a corner of your garden observing your bird table: one particularly large bird comes down and you are most interested in it. Then it flies away. You jump up, rush to get your car keys, leap in the car and drive down the road trying to follow this bird.

Sounds ridiculous? Exactly, it IS ridiculous. But that is precisely what we do when one particularly large or engrossing thought or  worrying problem crosses our minds. We react to it in ways that are very similar to jumping out of our chair, reaching for our keys and driving down the main road. Instead of simply letting the thought go, instead of simply noting it as a concern or a feeling, we react and respond trying to resolve it or ‘sort it all out in our head’. You can rarely think your way out of a mood. You need to get out of your ‘left brain’ which is shouting at you ‘if only you think long enough and clearly enough about this problem, you will feel better’. You won’t. You need to get into your right brain which allows you acknowledge and accept that this is how things are at the moment and this unpleasant thought or feeling is also a valid part of life and it will pass, jumping up and down all over it, trying to ‘figure it out’ will not help.

Other birds/thoughts will affect you differently, you won’t want to jump up and follow them. In fact you will find them so scary that you will perhaps dive for cover behind your garden chair or run inside to get away from them. (I’ve always experienced a slight uneasiness around birds especially in confined spaces so this is perhaps why this metaphor resonated with me).

You can see why either reaction is ridiculous in the context of birdwatching. To become a skilled birdwatcher you simply have to learn to sit, to attend, to observe and to be still. And that is an exact description of the skill of “noting”.

And it is a SKILL. It is not a mood. It is not an emotion nor is it some weird trancelike state. It is a skill. It can be learned and it can be practised, just like learning how to hulahoop or or how to do ‘keepy uppies’. It seems dreadfully obvious but in order to learn it you must practice it – it isn’t enough to just read about it (on a blog like this).
You cannot learn about playing the piano by reading about what it feels like to play the piano you have to play the piano!  (Try an app such as Headspace)

Setting aside some time daily to practice this skill will improve your ability to notice, at other times of the day,  when ever your thoughts have thrown you into some mental ‘wild goose chase’ or into a dark downward spiral of fear.

Here’s how you can practise, if you want to start now:
Sit quietly in an upright position, it helps to have your feet flat on the floor and your legs not crossed. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Don’t try to change your breathing, your body knows how to breathe, you don’t need to think about it you just need to focus on it. Sometimes it helps to put your hand on your tummy where you feel your breath coming in and out. Then simply count the breaths in and out, counting from 1 to 10 over and over again. I guarantee you will not get beyond 3 before a thought has arrived like a little annoying bird at the food table of your brain.

Don’t give up, don’t beat yourself up in despair. You are not trying NOT to think. You are simply learning to observe your thoughts so when they come along, here is your first opportunity to practice the skill of noting.

Here’s how it goes in practice:
1, 2, 3, “its auntie Edna’s birthday today I must get a card, she’s always so particular, I don’t think she likes me, I should have remembered yesterday, now it will be late”… ” Oops!” What number was I on?”

Whenever you realise that you have got engrossed in something that has taken you away from the focus of counting breaths all you have to do is pause and ‘stroke it with a feather’ by simply acknowledging it and naming it as either ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’. (It will be a thought if all you are trying to do is remember auntie Edna’s birthday, if however you live in terror of auntie Edna, you may experience these ‘thoughts’ as feelings such as nausea). The idea of ‘stroking it with a feather’ is simply that noting is gentle, you are not taking out a mental shotgun and trying to blast those thoughts/birds away, you are merely acknowledging them as they come and go.

Naming, acknowledging and labelling are all really helpful skills in increasing our awareness of what is going on between our ears. And what is going on between our ears affects us powerfully, it can change our mood, it can drive our reactions and it can limit our potential.

‘Consider the birds of the field’ but don’t chase them or let them chase you!

6 thoughts on “Bird-watching is a lot like thought watching

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  1. Brilliant analogy! Thank you, that is a really helpful article and I know a person I need to pass it on to x

  2. Hi Sheila. I was just clearing away Christmas cards (don’t like to end Christmas too soon! Tree still up) and found yours with your blog address on it. I enjoyed your piece on meditation, and yes as you suggested in your card, very much speaks of what often happens in the silence of a Quaker meeting. When time I will enjoy reading more of your writings. Love and best wishes Sally (as in Tile Hill Wood half a lifetime ago)

    1. How lovely to hear from you on here, yes it was half a life time ago but you didn’t need to remind me who you are! I look forward to hearing how you and your brood are each year. Strangely enough just today I also cleared the remaining cards which I had held on to in order to reply. We are really well. Matt got engaged on Christmas day to Stine who is Danish, a great joy shared by all of us! Wedding in 2019 I think. I am (finally) enjoying the life of a priest, the first three years were hard but I’m not so on my own as I felt at the start. We haven’t grown much numerically but alot of other exciting stuff is great fun ie community engagements such as offering ESOL classes and training courses in improving your mental well-being. Thanks so much for getting in touch, I feel very priveleged to have followed your very impressive teaching career, so few have stuck at it … well done you. lots of love

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