The Forest Analogy of the Mind: Radical Acceptance and Cultivating Inner Peace

By Mike Sturm – Oct 4, 2018

Forest fires and the human mind have more in common than most people realize. Well actually, it’s not so much the forest fires that are like the mind, but rather the forests themselves.

Let me explain.

You see there’s this notion within those practicing mindfulness that somehow the goal is to purify the mind, rid it of the bad or destructive thoughts and inclinations — the end result being an idyllic crystal clean spirit that can do no wrong. But nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t believe such a thing actually happens. I don’t believe it’s possible. I don’t even think it’s really desirable.

Fires Are Part of the Forest

As anyone who has been practicing mindfulness for any period of time will tell you, the mind is a crazy and unpredictable place. Thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires pop up, escalate, and fall away many times each day. Wonderful feelings of pleasure, contentment, and relaxation wash over you, and then give way to something else. And so on, and so forth during our waking hours. And that brings me back to the forest.

As any forest geologist will tell you, forests aren’t lush and green from end to end, they’re populated with both dense, green areas, and sparse, dying, dead, or even burning areas. That’s right, forest fires — which make us tend to feel on edge and as if we need to act swiftly — are a natural part of the life cycle of a forest.

Lightning strikes or spontaneous combustion in dry conditions happen in forests, and burn the dry and dying parts of it — dying out as wetter, healthier parts are encountered. Portions of a forest also die, decay, and create conditions for future growth. The animals wandering around also play a part. And this has been happening for millions of years.

The mind, in many ways, is like a forest. And if you don’t believe me, sit for just a few minutes and be mindful of what kinds of things pop up in your mind. You’ll see that like a forest, there are lush, wonderfully peaceful parts of it, but there are also ugly, dry, and sparse parts of it — parts that may be on fire with various feelings you’d rather not have. The temptation may be to try to put out the fires — to replace the dry and dying parts with lush green sprouts and spend more time and energy taking care of those. But I don’t think that’s the right approach to take.

Burning and Acceptance

Rather than trying to put out natural fires or stop natural decay, why not embrace them as part of the forest? Let them die out in the same way they popped up — without getting wrapped up in them, and possibly making them grow stronger and last longer. Being mindful and trying to cultivate a healthier mind are noble goals. But we cannot allow idealism about what we should feel, think, desire to make us expend too much effort on something futile.

Rather, what we should do is allow the fire or decay in our minds to happen — not take over, but just run its course. The trick is to allow it to play out, but not contribute to it. As I once read in a mindfulness meditation training, simply observe, but do not get involved in those unproductive, unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Much like forestry personnel observe and monitor a natural forest fire, but do not get boots on the ground and start meddling.

Most important in this analogy between our mind and a forest is the following: you must accept the mind as a whole, rather than focusing on small parts of it. Your mind is more than the undesirable thoughts and feelings that pop up, much like a forest is more than the sparse, dry, and dying sections of land within it.

What’s more — and this is key — those dry and sparse parts of a forest that seem imperfect and ugly, those are perfectly normal parts of a beautiful whole. In the same way, the imperfect thoughts and feelings that keep popping up in your mind — the ones that seem ugly and anxiety-inducing to you — are part of the greater whole of your mind. If you can accept them as they are, and simply restrain yourself from contributing to them, you will feel so much better about yourself. That alone will help immensely in being more at peace with yourself, which goes a long way in helping to be at peace with others, and do what needs doing.