This session we were introduced to the three-minute ‘breathing space’ – a shorter meditation to help us include mindfulness deep in our daily lives. We were asked to do it at least three times a day. I decided to try and do one each time I made a cup of tea at work (so, as my colleagues will attest, many more than three times!). Something I have since found helpful is the Headspace app – which you can set to send you reminders throughout the day to take a mindful moment.
The ‘breathing space’ is made up of three parts – explained in our handout from Segal, Williams and Teasdale – Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression pg. 184;
- Awareness – Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting an upright posture. If you can, close your eyes. Then ask – ‘What is my experience right now, in thoughts, in feelings and in bodily sensations?’. Acknowledge and register this experience, even if it isn’t one that you want.
- Gathering – Redirect your attention to your breathing, to each breath as it comes. Your breath can work as an anchor to bring you into the present and help you become more aware.
- Expanding – Expand your awareness so you get a sense of your body as a whole and stay like this as best you can for a minute or so.
How does the breathing space meditation help us manage our thoughts and feelings?
Firstly, it brings your attention to the present and stops you thinking about the past or worrying about the future – that rumination that can so easily lead to a negative spiral. Secondly, it actually takes up thinking space. If we are spending time trying to be aware of our breath, we are not ruminating and worrying as much. Thirdly, when our mind wanders, and we bring it back to our breath we are getting practice in recognising that our mind has wandered into thoughts – and practice in ‘changing gear’ back to being aware of the breath.
Even if when we practice, we are only bringing our mind back to the breath from thoughts about what’s for tea, this trains us to get more skilful at doing it when we do have more difficult and intrusive thoughts. Through the breathing space, we get better at stepping out of that automatic pilot mode and reconnecting with what is happening in the present moment.
Recognition and ‘stepping out of the stream’
It feels like this recognition is one of the most important parts. In recognising my mind had wandered into thoughts or emotions, I felt like I was gaining some perspective on my thoughts – and seeing them just as thoughts or moods, and not as reality.
I always imagine it like a stream. It’s easy to get stuck in the stream, bogged down and washed away by the endless tumult (or the gentle flow when we’re lucky) of thoughts and feelings. Doing a mindfulness of the breath meditation helped me to mentally step onto the bank.
My thoughts and feelings were still there. But my focus became trying to stay aware of the bank and letting the thoughts and feelings flow past without becoming too engaged with them. The hardest part is, when a difficult thought or feeling comes along, is not to get sucked back in but instead to recognise it – ‘I’m judging myself now…there goes that thought about not being good enough…here’s a bit of frustration’ – and then return to the breath (the bank) without following the thought any further down the stream.
I quite like my metaphor, but I read a more beautiful one in the Segal, Williams and Teasdale book:
“Some instructors picture the mind as being like a vast clear sky. All our feelings, thoughts and sensations are like the weather that passes through, without affecting the nature of the sky itself. The clouds, wind, snows and rainbows come and go, but the sky is always simply itself, as it were a ‘container’ for these passing phenomena.
We practice to let our minds be that sky, and to let all these mental and physical phenomena arise and vanish like the changing weather. In this way, our minds can remain balanced and centred, without getting swept away in the drama of every passing storm.”
Over the past few weeks, we’d been practicing and developing our capacity for awareness and mindfulness through the meditation, discussions and homework. We were learning, slowly, to step out of the stream and onto the bank.
Next week we’d look closer at what comes next – something the treatment course describes as ‘being with our experience’ or ‘staying present’. This would include further exploration of the vicious cycle of depression and help recognising the negative automatic thoughts that are symptoms of the illness.