There are many challenges in our modern lifestyles. At work we’re doing more with fewer people, keeping on top of busy workloads, deluged with information and meeting demanding customer and business expectations. And in our busy personal lives, we do our best to keep a work-life balance, juggle family, friends and social life around the things we need to get done. Put these together and it’s no wonder we feel that there’s never enough time in the day and that days, weeks and months flash by. It’s almost as if the earth was rotating faster around the sun, but the scientists haven’t noticed. So, it’s no wonder that we sometimes experience stress, anxiety, frustration, or low mood.
Like an experienced white-water canoeist, deftly working his way through the turbulent water and rocks, practising mindfulness can make a useful difference in how skilfully we negotiate life’s challenges. As our attention typically drifts into automatic thought half of the waking day, improving the quality of our attention allows us to better observe, and be more aware of, what’s going on. We can notice when our mind and emotions are agitated and full of noise and do something practical and positive about it. Using the right skills, we can shift from a noisy, agitated, limited and unaware space, where we can’t think straight and are more likely to react based on past habits, to one that’s calm, spacious and aware, where we can find the cognitive space and clarity to evaluate options and respond skilfully.
The Three-minute Breathing Space practice was developed by the founders of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy as a relatively quick way to intentionally move the attention and acknowledge what’s going on in the present moment. In other words, shifting from an agitated and drifting, to a calm and alert state. The practice we’ll explore here adapts and extends this approach with relaxing and releasing tension, as well as expanding the awareness.
We tend to think of mindfulness for when we’re peaceful, calm and relaxed. Ironically, it’s when life gets difficult that we’re least likely to use the skills; just when we need them most. The extended breathing space is a useful three-step process that can really make a difference in these situations.
The three steps are:
- Open and acknowledge
- Coming into this moment and asking, “What’s going on for me now?”
- Noticing what comes to mind without going off into the detail of any particular thought
- Acknowledging any strong emotions that are already here
- Becoming aware of body sensations and tensions
- Breathe and settle
- Bringing your attention to anchor on the flow of the natural breath
- Watching your attention for being distracted off in thought if this happens, acknowledge the thought and bring your attention back to the breath
- Allowing a focus on the breath to settle any busyness, agitation or movement in the mind and emotions
- Release and expand
- Following your breath, expanding your attention to the whole of the body
- Then relaxing and releasing any tightness and tension in the body
- Extending awareness into the space and sounds in the room and outside
- Resting in a sense of spaciousness, free from the limitations
These three stages are a useful structure for any self-guided meditation and can really help prevent the mind from wandering. So, if you’re having a hectic day you can use the breathing space to return to a more balanced, open and aware state. For example, you can use the natural break points between activities as a prompt to practise a short breathing space. That’s assuming that you get some time to pause between the start of one activity and another, of course.
The three-step breathing space is a useful tool to help embed a more aware, alert, open and kind-hearted attention into your day. With practice you’ll find that you can quickly run through the three steps without working through the instructions in your head and the more you practise the easier it becomes. So next time you’re feeling particularly challenged, give the breathing space a go and experience the difference that this simple process can make.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to experience the extended breathing space
Suggested weekly practice
- Try using the breathing space process as your morning meditation, either by yourself, or using the breathing space guided audio.
- Use “what’s going on for me now?” to check-in with your mind, emotions, and body between activities during the day.
- Try the same process when you are walking between locations from mind, emotions, body, then focus on breath then expand out to full body awareness and sounds, end up reaching right out to the most distant sound, and resting in the spaciousness that includes everything.