Leaves on a stream: self-distance for cravings & withdrawal

When the cravings monster roars, use the leaves on a stream technique to prevent relapse.

This simple technique is fast, effective, and therapist-approved. Read on for easy instructions and a soothing video walkthrough.

Leaves on a stream Pinterest Pin

You are not your thoughts

Leaves on a stream starts with this truth: you are not your thoughts. They’re outside of you; you can see them if you look. And they lose power over you when you do.

Whatever belief you have in the moment, it arises from any number of immediate circumstances. You want it NOW, nuts to the long-term consequences!

And just as it rises, so too does it fall away.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Steven Covey, First Things First

The first counterintuitive step is to accept the feelings of anxiety, distraction, fear, or desire. Don’t get into a tug-of-war with the cravings monster. You won’t win.

This is what over twenty years of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has proven. Feeling your emotions rather than trying to escape them through some activity you’ll later regret leads to greater success at beating cravings.

And that paper’s from 2006. Here’s a 2015 one with depressed smokers, a double whammy.

The better you know your monsters, the more you let their attacks wash over you instead of resisting, the stronger you become.

Because your addiction is how you escape those feelings.

But what if you saw those thoughts as external, part of a monster, an attack that you can withstand? Something not part of you?

Why leaves on a stream trumps tug-of-war

Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a recognized expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, calls this the secret to self-control. Here’s his illuminating TED Talk on it:

Some quotes from the talk, if you want a boildown:

  • journal when and where you have cravings, how they feel, and what thoughts they give you (I give instructions to make this most effective in this article)
  • habit leads to “autopilot mode” and generates low will to resist
  • the secret to self-control is to give up control
  • so don’t play tug-of-war; drop the rope!

Buddhist practitioners have known this for thousands of years. The core of their mindfulness practice is to notice thoughts as they rise and fade. No labeling, judging, or shame. Just noticing.

The ancient Stoics also practiced their “view from above” exercise, where they visualized themselves as though from a camera floating journalistically, catching them in the act. Seeing yourself outside yourself, or your thoughts outside yourself, stops you from getting caught up in strong emotions.

This shrinks the monsters. You don’t, of course, have to act on every thought you have.

But you can weaken their power over you, using leaves on a stream.

leaves on a stream

Leaves on a stream meditation

Sit in a comfortable position. Visualize yourself sitting beneath a tree, watching a gentle stream burble by. When any thought enters your mind, place a “capsule” or a “bubble” with that image on it on a leaf, and watch as that leaf floats downstream.

Focus on the stream: how it looks, how it sounds. Observe any thoughts or feelings that come up, and without judgment, place them on a leaf. Watch them glide downriver.

It’s okay if you get stuck on a particular thought. Just think this: “I’m noticing I’m thinking about X.” Then put it on a leaf, and return to watching the stream.

This is the gist of it, but here are some tips to make it easier and more effective by an actual therapist (unlike me).

Audio, like a bubbling brook, wind, and some light music, is very helpful for me. Dr. Akira Olsen’s is the best leaves on a stream meditation on YouTube for that reason.

See also:
The Happiness Trap 8-week online program (based on ACT like leaves on a stream)


Leaves on a stream, the Stoic “view from above,” or mindfulness meditation (start here) dulls strong emotions. Cravings don’t stand a chance as long as you don’t fight them. Instead of playing a losing game, cast this spell to shrink them:

  1. Notice when you have thoughts like “I’m feeling a lot of stress / desire / loneliness right now.”
  2. Insert “I’m having the thought”:
    • “I’m having the thought ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress / desire / loneliness right now.”
  3. Then insert “I’m noticing”:
    • “I’m noticing I’m having the thought ‘I’m feeling ___________________.”

This gives you space between you and your thoughts, and it’s in that space that you can choose not to surrender to your vice of choice. Remember, you are not your thoughts. You can choose not to act on them.

From depression to OCD to smoking and porn addiction, science and real people prove the effectiveness of leaves on a stream. Keep these exercises as an essential part of your recovery toolkit, and it’ll get easier day by day.

The war is just a series of battles, but habit reduces the need for willpower, and knowing your enemy makes you stronger.

“To fight with desire is hard: whatever it wishes it buys at the price of soul.”

– Heraclitus

Leaves on a stream: self-distance for cravings & withdrawal

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