Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Festive Overload? Catch your Breath

At this time of year, it can feel hard to find time to breathe, let alone commit to a meditation practice.  At times of stress, we are most in need of what we find it hardest to give ourselves: a break.  Time out is more than a magazine and should appear higher up most of our priority lists. 

Taking time when there feels to be none available can have a paradoxical effect: pausing just for a few moments, can enable us to see things more clearly, to feel less reactive, and better able to deal with the 12 days of Christmas when tensions tend to run high, even in the most zen of households. 

The 3 minute breathing space is a technique developed by Professor Mark Williams et al., whom together devised the 8 week program Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.  Practised regularly, as part of one's day, it can be a lifesaver and is an accessible bite sized introduction to mindfulness for anyone interested in the benefits it can offer.
It's a simple and concise practice: the clue's in the name.  It has 3 distinct stages, through which attention is focused, gathered, and then expanded to include the body as a whole.  The more spacious sense of awareness cultivated can then be taken into the next moments, minutes and hours of one's day helping one to feel more grounded in one's experience, combatting the overwhelm that frequently accompanies the so-called 'festive' period.

Taking a breathing space...

There are 3 steps to this practice which can be done anywhere:

1. Acknowledging

Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture, before asking yourself:  ‘What is going on with me at the moment?’

Notice and acknowledge all of your experience, rather than denying, avoiding or suppressing the bits that you are maybe less enamoured with.

You might start by noticing the sensations in your body, especially where it is in contact with a chair or the floor.  Notice also your emotions and thoughts.  This is particularly important when there is a lot going on, or you are experiencing strong feelings.

Stay with all of these experiences for a few moments, allowing any negative feelings or experiences to be present.

2.  Gathering

Now allow what you've noticed to fade into the background, and settle your full attention onto your breathing.  It may be helpful to focus your attention on your abdomen.  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 possibly an increased sense of stillness.

3.  Expanding awareness

Maintaining a sense of the breath, intentionally 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.  You might like to say to yourself, 'Let me feel whatever it is that is present, for it is already here'.

Hold in awareness the whole of your experience: sensations, thoughts and emotions.

The sequence of the Breathing Space has been likened to an hour-glass: it starts with a wide focus, which is then followed by a narrower, more specific focus which then broadens, and finishes wider still. 

Whilst we experience stress or anxiety, our whole experience is narrow and closed: we tend to focus only on whatever it is that is troubling us, and our efforts to fix it.

By pausing briefly, to do a Breathing Space we can open a door by giving our experience a different kind of attention: simply acknowledging what is happening, resisting the temptation to become caught up in it.  In this way, our awareness broadens as we include bodily sensations along with our thoughts and feelings, which helps us feel more grounded, whole, and hopeful. 


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