A breathing space is a way to regain calm and poise in the midst of a hectic day, reconnecting with yourself and broadening out your experience. Try it now!
It’s easy to identify the practice of meditation and mindfulness with the period of time we spend sitting down to following a formal practice. The rest of the time we just carry on as normal, using meditation like a car uses petrol. We fill up at the pump with calm and relaxation, and then charge around until the talk is empty and we need to fill it up again. It’s much better to be solar-powered: gathering strength from an unfailing source as we go about our lives and the topping that up when we have time.
In other words, we need to find ways to be mindful, patient and kind throughout the day, especially when things get busy or challenging. The Breathing Space is a helpful way of doing this, especially if you are prone to stress, depression or so on. It’s taught as part of the eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, but it is helpful for everyone.
The practice can be done as a time-out in the middle of the flow of activities: a way to reconnect you with yourself and the practice of mindfulness. You can take breathing spaces regularly through the day to break up the cascade of activities so you can absorb what is happening and step away from the accumulating tensions that produce stress. Or you can take a breathing space when things get difficult: when tension is building up or you notice the warning signs of stress or low mood.
It helps to find somewhere you know you won’t be interrupted, but if need be you can take a breathing space while you are walking down the road, sitting on public transport, or anywhere you can just focus on your own experience.
This practice is often called the Three-Minute Breathing Space, and three minutes is a good length of time. But you can do it more quickly, or expand it into something longer – the stages of arriving/acknowledging, gathering/focusing and expanding/absorbing are a helpful structure for any meditation practice.
The Three Steps
Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture. Then ask:
‘What is going on with me at the moment?’
Notice and acknowledge your experience, instead of turning away. You might start by noticing the sensations in your body, especially where it is in contact with a chair or the floor. But also notice your emotions and thoughts. This is particularly important if there is a lot going on or you are experiencing strong feelings. Stay with these experiences for a few moments, allowing any negative feelings or experiences to be present.
Then gently settle your full attention upon the breathing. Experience fully each in-breath and each out-breath as they flow in and out, one after the other. Noticing the breath in this way can bring you into the present, helping you connect with a state of awareness and stillness.
3. Expanding awareness
Maintaining a sense of the breath, expand your awareness around the breathing to include the whole body, and the space it takes up, feeling that your whole body is breathing. Have a sense of the space around you, too.
Open up once more to whatever has been happening in your day, allowing space for all of the thoughts and feelings associated with it, but connecting these with the breath and feeling them in the body. Maintaining a connection with any sense of stillness and peace that may be present, hold in awareness the whole of your experience: sensations, thoughts and emotions.
This sequence is rather like an hour-glass. Wide focus, followed by narrow focus, followed by wide.
When we’re in an unhelpful state such as stress or anxiety our whole experience is narrow and closed – focused on whatever that is troubling us and our efforts to or fix it. In a breathing space we can open a door by giving our experience a different kind of attention: simply acknowledging what is happening without getting caught up in it. Our awareness broadens out as we include bodily sensations along with our thoughts and feelings. And we can reconnect with the state of mind we develop in longer periods of meditation.