There is a story from the early Christian monastics that tells of a student approaching his spiritual father and saying something like, “Father, I am continually struggling with these wandering thoughts. What should I do?”
The father replies, “Can you stop those birds from flying over our heads?”
“Can you stop them from swooping down and building a nest on your head?”
“Yes, I could stop them from doing that.”
The father concludes, “Thoughts are like that. We cannot control whether they fly about in us, but we can prevent them from settling down and building nests upon our head.”
A similar story was told by St. Paisios but with a modern day example. He said something like our minds are an airport. Airplanes (thoughts) can fly overhead, but we do not have to let them land.
It takes time and practice to adopt this principle. Many of us simply take it for granted that our thoughts are either inherently true (I know that’s what this situation/person means) or intrinsically a part of us (that’s just the way I am), but actually neither of those are necessarily true. Most of our thoughts serve the purpose of protecting the self created narrative of our life from pain (mostly fear and shame). They seek to keep the pain away or to put the pain out. What they rarely do on their own is seek to heal the pain. If we can begin without judgment to set aside or even delay these thoughts, we can begin the journey of descending into the compassion and peace of our hearts where the image of God resides within us. This can be the beginning of healing.
Let’s bounce back to the first story. Most of us have probably not been doing what the spiritual father described, so if we continue the metaphor, there isn’t just one bird’s nest on our head. There are perhaps dozens, maybe even hundreds of bird’s nests piled one atop the other upon our heads. This metaphor makes me chuckle, but it’s also tragic. Is it any wonder that with all these nests dedicated to the protection and pacification of our self-created ego driven narrative that we struggle to find peace within ourselves, with others, and in our world?
In the first story, instruction was given to prevent a nest’s creation, yet what most of us need is some pretty intensive nest removal. I do not presume that an article like this can
remove these nests, and I likely have just as many, if not more, nests on my head than you; however, I will conclude this article with some reflections on nest removal.
- We have to start noticing the nests. As mentioned above, we often simply take our thoughts for granted. Realize that you are not your thoughts. Perhaps, start writing them down as you begin noticing them.
- Many thoughts (nests) are built upon an identity of consumption. We consume praise and pity from others. We consume tv, music, movies, games, excess food and other over indulgences. We consume through our passions. We treat other people as objects and consume them too all in the hope that we will be fulfilled and satisfied or at least the pain mentioned above will be pacified. The alternative to this kind of identity involves a transformation from a consumer to a communer. As we commune moment by moment with God, the many bird’s nests dedicated to our consumptive identity become less and less important.
- Think of your heart as a fire. We don’t have to stay obsessed with the bird’s nests, and as we spend more minutes of the day in the compassion and peace of our heart with Christ, that dry old nest is simply burned away. Of course, a fire can be dangerous too. With a heart that is sick, we continually re-traumatize ourselves and do harm to those around us.
- We need other people. Most all of us are pretty good at self-delusion, and some nests are too stuck or too painful to be dealt with on our own. The journey to healing often requires a co-traveler to help us navigate the path to freedom. That thought that says, “I don’t need anyone else,” or “I’m not so bad,” etc. Yeah, that’s another bird’s nest.
- Learn to grieve with kindness. For most people, there are a lot of things worth grieving in life, yet most people have some conversations in their head that are downright mean. Grieving is often met with denial, or it’s a very bitter form of grief. Learning a new dialogue, learning to grieve with kindness opens a healing pathway through pain. Perhaps, something awful happened to you. Can you notice the nests that blame you and label you? Can you grieve what happened with kindness and introduce that event to the compassion and peace of Christ in your heart? Perhaps, you have done awful things. Can you grieve your past actions? Can you seek forgiveness and then accept it with kindness?
- Have patience with yourself and with others. These birds nests didn’t get firmly entrenched overnight. They probably won’t get removed overnight either.
- The most loving thing you can do for yourself is to pray and be with God. Seek guidance to grow your prayer life to prevent future nests from being built.