During the mindfulness course we touched on the concept of rumination: the mind creating an endless thread, with infinite possible scenarios in the imagination. ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles,’ Mark Twain is reported to have said, ‘but most of them never happened.’ If you observe closely, there will be an initial trigger: it could be an article or Twitter post that you read, a comment from a friend, a frustrating email. Then, like racehorses out of the gate, we’re off, thoughts bolting for the distant finish line.
It’s emotional charge that gives the spiralling mind its energy. Emotions are the wind in the mind’s sails. You will have noticed this in good moods, as well as bad: an excited mind will spiral joyously, just as a sad mind will spiral despondently. This makes sense when we consider that emotions are a call to action – a sign for us to attend and take care.
The trickiness of a spiralling mind is that because of its very energy, it rapidly takes us far away from whatever initially needed attention and care. It will zoom into past, future, and parallel universe, at great speed. If you are feeling low, memories of previous times you felt low will play across your mind, as if feeling rubbish right now weren’t bad enough. This, incidentally, is why recurring depression feels so hard, because actually it’s not just the weight of this moment on your shoulders; it’s the weight of every other low moment you’ve ever had, bearing down on this one right now.
As well as dredging up the past, and making predictions about the future, the spiralling mind will hone in on everything in the here and now that seems to back up those racing thoughts. Run out of milk? Worry about that, too. Friend not picking up their phone? Fuel to the fire.
When we recognise this process, it’s tempting to get in there and problem-solve. How can I make it stop? Why am I up at 3am yet again? But at this point our problem-solving is running off the storm system itself. When the hurricane of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations gets going, we need something equally powerful to interrupt it – but of a fundamentally different nature. The three-step breathing space provides deliberate, open, and embodied attention.
The Three-Step Breathing Space has 3 key parts:
1) Acknowledging what’s here in your experience right now: your mood, thoughts, emotions, body sensations. There’s no need to change these, just notice what’s here, with some friendliness.
2) Gathering the attention to the sensations of the breathing somewhere that feels steady, like the abdomen. Notice this in-breath, and this out-breath, just as they are, breathing themselves.
3) Expanding the awareness, to include the whole body sitting, standing, or lying down, just as it is, being itself.
Practice this a few times with the track, and then try doing it by yourself: the beauty of the breathing space is that it’s portable. To remember its steps, you can use the acronym AGE: Acknowledge, Gather, Expand. Try and practice it two or three times a day in ordinary moments. This helps train the attention to follow its hourglass shape – broad awareness, narrow, broad – so that in those moments when the spiralling mind’s tug is strongest, we have this internal resource at our fingertips.