Your co-worker has just sent you the most irritating email… again. You feel the heat rise to your face as you get ready to hit reply and let him have it. Afterward, you feel a triumphant sense of satisfaction. You read the words over and know that you’re right. You spend the next hour ruminating over how angry you are, how obnoxious he is, and how irritating it is that you have to deal with this person. A few hours later, when you feel calm, you wonder if you should have written everything that was on your mind. You feel guilty about your reaction and anxious about how you’ll be perceived. On your way home, you realize the AC in your car isn’t working. You think about how everything is going wrong at once.
Most of us spend our days constantly reacting to everything around us. We get angry, we ruminate on our angry thoughts, we automatically react, we feel guilty about the way we reacted, and then we ruminate on that. We become anxious as we consider all the “What ifs?” and “What will people think?” Unexpected things come up, and we think about how everything is going wrong, and how unfair it is. And then we repeat the cycle the next day.
How Meditation Changes Your Experience
The goal of meditation is not to clear your mind, it’s to change the way you relate to the world around you. Normally, we follow our thoughts all day long, wherever they take us. We constantly react. We think we’re reacting to the circumstances and situations around us. But really, we’re reacting to our own thoughts and feelings about those situations. Meditation teaches us that our thoughts are just thoughts, and that we don’t have to automatically react to them.
Instead of automatically reacting, we can learn to take a pause. We often don’t realize that we have an option to step back from our thoughts and feelings. We can allow our thoughts and feelings to simply pass by. And then we can choose how we would like to respond to a situation with intention. By practicing meditation, this becomes much easier to do throughout the day. When you meditate, you practice coming out of your thoughts over and over again. You practice not reacting to your thoughts. You practice simply letting your thoughts pass by. So when something upsetting happens, you have already practiced the skill of pausing, stepping back, seeing your thoughts as just thoughts. This makes it much easier to allow yourself to become calm in the midst of stress, and actually choose your response.
3-Minute Emergency Mindfulness
When you are hit by a stressful situation, you're likely to feel flooded with difficult thoughts and feelings in all directions. This is normal. Your feelings are a signal that this is something important to pay attention to. Once calm, you'll have more freedom to choose how to best respond in a way that's helpful to you. Here’s what you can do to come back to the present with more peace of mind.
This 3-minute emergency mindfulness tool is most helpful if you already have a meditation practice of 5-10 minutes a day to build on. If you don’t, try the meditations here.
The 3-Minute Breathing Space
The 3-minute breathing space has 3 steps, one for each minute. You shift your attention from a wide view for 1 minute, to a narrow view for 1 minute, back to a wider view for 1 minute, like following the shape of an hour glass. Follow the steps below. You can do the practice wherever you are, eyes open or closed. You might start a stop watch timer or use a clock with a second hand to keep track of the minutes.
Step 1: For 1 minute, focus your attention on your experience right now. Take a “weather report” of what’s happening right now for you. Use your 5 senses and notice what you can see and hear right now. Notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice that your thoughts are just thoughts and your feelings are just body sensations calling your attention to the situation.
Step 2: For 1 minute, focus in on just your breath. Continue to follow your breath all the way in and all the way out, wherever you feel it in your body. You can focus on the tip of your nose, the rise and fall or your chest, or the pause between breaths.
Step 3: For 1 minute, expand your awareness from your breath to your whole body. Feel your body from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head. One breath, one body.
At the end of 3 minutes, expand your awareness to the room and space around you. Before choosing how to respond to a situation, ask yourself:
What is most important to me about this?
What is my goal in this situation?
What is meaningful to me about this?
Choose how to proceed mindfully, with a positive intention. Examples may be:
Consciously choose to accept whatever is out of your control right now
Remove yourself from a negative situation
Do what makes you anxious if it's important to you. You can be anxious or not feel like it and do it anyway.
Silently send a difficult person a compassionate wish, “May you have peace of mind.”\
You can do the 3-Minute Breathing Space when feeling stressed, or simply as a practice once or twice during the busy day to have a more peaceful mind. In order to build your ability to calm your mind, download free meditations here.