Making Space Through Breath: A Visualization

I’ve posted previously about the sensations I’ve experienced in the midst of anxiety, as if the stressor is right in my face, raw and unescapable.

Combatting this feeling has been my number one priority, since anxiety overtakes me before I even know it, triggering my fight-or-flight response. Once my sympathetic nervous system gets going, getting it “back in the box” can be difficult, possibly taking days, depending on the intensity of the stressor.

Anxiety can make us feel like we’re trapped and suffocating.

My current strategy is to create protective distance for myself in a very simple way. And it consists of visualizing an expansion of the space around my body.

It goes something like this: Imagine you are inside a deflated balloon. If you are experiencing tighteness in your head or chest, this serves as an effective analogy, particularly if your balloon is constricting you. Without letting your mind be consumed by the tightness, allow yourself to acknowledge the stressor that surrounds you.

Then, taking a deep breath in, exhale through pursed lips and inflate that space around you. Imagine how it feels to expand the balloon and release that clinging sensation. Feel the fresh air moving against your skin as the space around you continues to broaden.

Maybe you begin with the area around your head first, as if creating a bubble around it allows oxygen to flow freely, then move the expansion towards the torso, protecting and releasing the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

Or perhaps begin with the chest if that’s where the constriction feels greatest. Anxiety can squeeze your breath, so focus on mentally removing that weight from your sternum and ribs, visualizing an expansion of the free space around your chest with a deliberate slowing of breath. This takes some work, a back-and-forth between imagining space expanding around you and your breath taking advantage of the room that it has.

Breathe, expand and feel the space!

If your chest is mired too deeply in anxiety, turn your attention to your extremities, starting with the feet and hands, getting a foothold there and allowing the sensation of space to move slowly towards the center of your body.

The idea is to E-X-P-A-N-D the space around you, dispelling the feeling of closeness and suffocation that results in the wild urge to flee. Note that this is not avoidance of the stressful situation. You are acknowledging its existence…and then creating room so that your brain has space and time in which to think, to know that it’s protected from words and sensations and fearful possibilities. To know that it’s safe in the “now”.

Try this the next time you have a quiet moment. As with many of these techniques, it is helpful to practice in times of calm, to feel into what that sensation of space feels like. The more we practice, the clearer and more familiar that sensation becomes, and we can draw upon that feeling during stressful times.

100+ Breaths: Another Back-to-Sleep Option

Another stressful night left me wide awake at 3am again. Not fun when you’ve got a long day of work ahead of you.

I went to my tried-and-true tactic: several guided meditations which usually work to take the place of the worries swirling in my noggin. But this time it wasn’t enough. The voices were soothing but I wasn’t close to falling asleep.

So I came up with a simple impromptu meditation that kinda-sorta breaks the mindfulness “rules”.

So many numbers out there for me to count while I’m not sleeping…

I’ve been taught that one can count the breaths to help deal with the chattering “Monkey Mind”, and this can be done in various ways. For example, count each inhale as one and each exhale as two, repeating with the next inhale as one and exhale as two, and so on, never progressing further.

Or counting each breath cycle up to 10 (or any other preset number) and then start again at one. If your focus is lost at any point, start at one again, working your way back to 10, restarting at one if your mind wanders off again.

These types of counting techniques aren’t meant to get you anywhere. The number you reach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the breath counts your point of focus, giving the Monkey Mind something to do and keeping anxious thoughts at bay.

But for this particular 3am waking, I decided to try something else: count breaths without a stopping point. Instead of observing the breath without changing it, as is usually done during other mindfulness meditation practices, I counted during the exhale, consciously extending the breath as I thought the number. And as I focused on my breath, I kept track of the ascending numbers. This required a touch more concentration and yet was simple and boring enough to not excite my mind.

Inhale, exhale, eighty-six…inhale, exhale, eighty-seven…inhale, exhale, eighty-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

Somewhere in the 70s and 80s the numbers started jumbling in my head and I repeated several, not being sure exactly where I was. By the 90s, my monkey brain was muttering. I remember getting to 100 and going past it, but my memory is foggy. Consciousness faded in the one hundred teens, I think.

As far as back-to-sleep methods go, this was not a quick fix, but I was too awake to try anything else. I counted for a good 20-30 minutes. I manipulated the breath, so as I mentioned, this practice didn’t follow the mindfulness meditation “rules”, although it did offer me meditation practice in lieu of spinning my worry wheels.

But in the wee hours of the morning when nothing else seemed to be working, it got me to where I needed to be: asleep.

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When the going gets tough, I’ve found counting to be one of the most effective last-ditch back-to-sleep methods, for me preferable to getting out of bed and going out to the couch to read or something. If nothing else, I get in some effective meditation practice. Additionally, this was not a night with a totally hyperactive Monkey Mind. My monkey was awake for distractible.

Note that as I was doing this, I lay on my side, bolster between my knees, white noise playing through my earbuds (yes, I’ve taken to sleeping with earbuds in!). I was in “sleep position” and keeping still, so the only “moving parts” were my brain and the expansion and contraction of my chest and belly.

When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.

But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.

But some days are extra tough.

I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.

Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.

While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.

Tree!

So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.

What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.

And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.

This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.

Breathing into Limbs: A Grounding Visualization

I’m perpetually on the lookout for different ways to ground myself.

When things get tough and I feel my anxiety rising, I’ve gotten better at pausing and pulling a grounding technique out of my “mental tool bag” before the feelings become too intense.

One that I came up with recently works quiet well, especially if you can take a quick break and find a quiet corner.

As I breathe, I visualize my breath inflating my limbs, filling them with relaxation.

The idea behind this one is that you take a few deep breaths to help slow your breathing down, and then start imagining that your breath is going down into one arm, inflating it.

I’ve visualized it in two ways. The first being breathing into the arm as if it were a balloon that inflates in all directions, all the way down to the fingertips, until it’s completely full. I imagine it glowing from within.

The second entails imagining the breath filling the arm in the way that a fern leaf unfolds. The expansion starts at the shoulder, then upper arm, elbow, lower arm, wrist, hand and finally fingers. As the arm fills with the inhalation, it brightens. This visualization is best when your breathing has already slowed considerably, as it may take a longer breath for your entire limb to sense the serial expansion down to your fingertips.

If my breathing has slowed enough, I imagine the breath entering my limb gradually, just like a fern leaf gently unfurls, part by part.

Either way, I wiggle my fingers at the end of the in-breath, and then as I exhale, the fingers fall still again and the breath exits my arm as it arrived.

Then I do the same with my other arm, followed by one leg and then the other.

On days that I’m really rushed, I might only have time for one limb, particularly if I’m sitting at my desk at work. But that’s okay. Even that short bit is better than letting stress run away with me. That little pause may be exactly what I need.

If this “extremity inflation” sounds too complicated in the heat of the moment, I urge you to try it when you’re lying in bed with your eyes closed. Then you can focus on the sensation of expansion and get familiar with it, so that when you need to call upon it in a stressful situation, you’ll have an easier time bringing up that imagery.

My limbs glow as the breath brings brightness into them.

What I particularly like about this visualization is that it’s a touch more complex, and therefore requires more attention from you. The inhalation all the way to the wiggling fingers makes it more difficult to be thinking about other things. So while it may demand more, I feel that it also delivers more, since everything else decreases to a dull roar in the background as you visualize the air rush in and inflate your body.

And of course, there are different variations of this that you can play with, such as expanding your entire body.

If you are able to practice with this, or even duck out to the bathroom for a few moments of eyes-closed peace, I think you’ll find it a lovely way to give your nervous system a needed break.

Making Meditation Easier

So the recurring theme in my posts about meditation is the struggle that I have with maintaining focus. This has been complicated by breast cancer medications that are associated with cognitive effects, not to mention the eventual menopause and “brain fog” that has resulted from them.

And while I’ve taken all sorts of classes and scoured meditation how-tos, I used to wonder, am I even doing this “right”? Shouldn’t I have an easier time with this by now?

A recent “Daily Trip” contemplation on the Calm smartphone app, narrated by meditation teacher Jeff Warren, reminded me that it’s important not to overthink what we’re doing.

The breath is a wonderful point of focus because it moves through our body and elicits sensations in a number of places.

Often in mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to use different aspects of our breath as an “anchor” or point of focus. The breath is a nice anchor to use because it helps us move inward while still staying present. It’s also a moving target, so to speak, so it might be more interesting to watch (and therefore focus on) than a static sensation.

But people are different, and if it’s really not working for you, or if focusing on your breathing actually makes you feel more anxious, you can switch to another focal point. How about the sensation in the hands, the feeling of your body’s weight against the surface on which it rests, or the distant sounds around you?

Maybe you even use several anchors within a single meditation (consider dual focus). The idea is to remain present and aware of what is happening now, even if you have open all your senses in order to do so. What anchor(s) work(s) best for YOU? It is, after all, YOUR meditation.

What really matters is just that you make it back to the present.

And then, instead of worrying about maintaining focus, what if we let go of that? It’s okay, even expected, for your mind to drift off. I would argue that losing focus is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Because it gives us the opportunity to be aware that we are no longer focused. And once you realize this, you have returned to the present. Nice job!

The more you practice this back-and-forth, like tossing a beach ball between your anchor and your errant thoughts, the more adept you will become at realizing that your thoughts have carried you away. The more you do that, the easier it will become to return to your anchor, and that’s the whole idea.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

Staying Present: Dual Focus Meditation

If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you might have found it difficult to hold focus on your breath. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a beginner to struggle with this. There are some days that the mind refuses to be still and even a long-time meditator will find themselves carried away by thoughts.

In an effort to help keep my head here and now, I started paying attention to how it was that I lost focus. For me, it happens during the lull between breaths.

The breath remains the main focus.

What is that lull? Well, there’s a very short, almost imperceptible pause between my inhale and exhale. I’m okay during that time because I can focus on the sensations in my chest and belly. That’s not the pause that gives me problems.

It’s after the exhale that I experience a longer pause before the next breath begins, especially if my breaths are slower and deeper, because my body doesn’t require another breath right away. And that’s when I’m more likely to “see something shiny” and my mind wanders off.

But I found that by focusing on my hands during this pause, I could keep my random thoughts at bay.

If you’re having focus issues and would like to try this, all you need to do is consider your focus as cyclic. First, with the inhale and exhale, focus on the breath sensation–choose wherever you feel the air movement most distinctly, such as the rising & falling of your chest, the rushing of air in and out of your nostrils, or similar. It will be different from person to person.

Next, during the pause between your breaths, turn your focus to the sensations in your hands and fingers. There may be some tingling or throbbing, or perhaps nothing discernable. That’s okay. Just see if there’s anything there that you can feel.

Then, when your next inhale begins, pay attention to the breath again.

The main point of this exercise is to stay present during those times that the mind is very active.

It may sound like you’re jumping from one body part to another, but in reality the transition is very smooth. The focus on the hands gives you a place to go until the next breath returns, all the while keeping you present.

When I first tried this, I thought I was “cheating” because I wasn’t staying with the breath. And I had to remind myself that the purpose of this wasn’t to earn a gold star for being the best “focus-on-only-the-breath” meditator. It was to stay with whatever was happening “now”.

Allowing a slight change in focus when my mind is active keeps me present. Staying present calms me more effectively. And that helps me return to the meditation cushion day after day after day.

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There is beauty in the stillness that we experience between breaths. This dual focus practice isn’t meant to pull us away from that. Rather, it gives us a focus for those days when the mind is active and easily distracted, and appreciating that stillness is not available to us.

I Am An Imperfect Meditator

I meditate. It is a daily habit that I engage in with the best intentions, but I am a victim of my wandering mind. Some days are better than others, most days I struggle with distractions.

Often, I can be halfway through a sit before I realize that I’ve been clenching my jaw or tensing my brow or gripping some other part of my body, thinking I’ve been relaxed but I’ve been kidding myself.

There are times that I’ve managed to stay with my breath, and then start getting excited that I’ve stayed with it that long, and then start imagining how I might look, staying with my breath…and of course, then I’m no longer meditating.

Yep. Welcome to the noise in my noggin’.

So it goes, day in, day out. Everyday, once or twice a day, or maybe even more. Some days feel like a complete waste, like I’ve got a freeway running through my head and have no idea what I’m doing.

But once in a while, I get a few moments of golden light. They may just flicker in and out, but when I look back at those moments I know everything flowed.

And those mindful sessions make all the other ones worth the effort. Every time I pause before reacting. Each time I recognize my body’s physiological response to a stressor. When I remember that I don’t have to respond with anxious energy. That I get to chose what happens inside my head. That I can just say, “Sh-h-h-h.”

That I can stand back and observe the storm without getting sucked into the whirlwind.

I meditate and often don’t do it well. But I still meditate. As of this posting, 1,380 days in a row, originating with the most frantic breaths shortly after my cancer diagnosis. Even through chemo, when I thought I wouldn’t make it through the night. Sloppy meditation sessions that seemed to be going nowhere.

Change doesn’t require force, it requires consistency.

Those imperfect meditation sessions have changed over time, imperceptable on a daily basis. Perhaps they have worn away a few rough edges the way constant drops of water oh-so-gradually wear away a stone. And just as an indentation forms where the drops hit, so meditation has molded a little basin for me, a bit of extra space in my mind that provides just that much more breathing room.

I am still at the very start of my mindfulness journey, so imperfect and stumbling. But even with the little that I have achieved, I am light-years ahead of who I was before I started, wide-eyed with fear and not knowing how to stop the rush of emotions.

It was terrifying then because I didn’t realize what was happening. Now I know, and that makes all the difference.

Revisiting Yoga After Cancer: Finally Coming Around

Decades ago, my introduction to yoga took place in my parents’ library, a small paneled room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. There I found an illustrated guide, replete with black and white photographs of odd contortions and strange nasal flossing. It seemed weird.

Oh, the moves I could do!

I had barely begun elementary school, and at that age was a natural-born yogi, as many young children are. Lotus pose? I could get my legs into position without using my hands. King Pigeon was no big deal, and nothing hurt when I folded myself up. I didn’t have a regular yoga practice at that age, but I would get occasional exposure to yoga moves at school, and I imagined all yogis wore diaper-like pants and lived on mountaintops.

High school provided an opportunity to do more. One of our French teachers practiced yoga, and I took a season of classes with her. Really, I remember little from that time. At that point, I was still limber but not as lanky, and yoga wasn’t particularly exciting. Volleyball was my game and I had no appreciation for how yoga could improve my playing. Had I practiced it properly, yoga could have helped immeasurably and prevented many a lost serve. But I lacked introspection and so barreled on as before.

Yoga resurfaced in my life now and again, but obsessed with more active ways of sweating, I steered away from it. I swam, ran and eventually strength-trained my body into shape. Yoga didn’t have a place in my view of what fitness should be.

Holding poses for a prolonged time? Not for me. Sweating through hot yoga? You’ve got to be kidding. A friend sustained a serious back injury from a yoga teacher who tried to force her into a pose. That was it; I was done with the idea of incorporating yoga into my already packed fitness routine.

Then I got cancer.

And I realized that my mind was victim to free-ranging anxiety. Desperate, I immersed myself in learning to meditate. I know they say that you need to find calm in the midst of chaos, but being thrown into chaos is not the best place to learn to be calm. I limped through cancer treatment and clung to the hope of peace. The only relief came from my love of fitness and drive to exercise as soon as the worst side effects of each infusion had passed.

Still, I pushed yoga away. Not interested. I needed to get my body back to where I’d been pre-cancer, not do slow movements that might tweak something and burned too few calories.

But the more meditation I did, the more mindfully I moved, yoga kept coming up, like a refrain in a song. Movements paired with breath.

I have made space in my life for yoga.

And then, it hit me. Movements paired with breath. I was all about the breath by then. Yoga provided the movements. And I found bliss.

When I opened myself up to yoga and invited it into my workout routine, something magical happened: my body started stretching out. All that tension that I’d carried for decades that had gradually tightened me up started releasing. My fingers found the floor in a forward bend again, and gently brought my palms with them. My heels easily pressed against the ground in a downward dog, with little peddling required. Moves that I could once do became available to me again.

So here’s the thing about breast cancer: after surgery, you lose some mobility in the affected side. Even now, side bends stretching my left side “pull” uncomfortably compared to my right side. Anyone who’s had lymph nodes plucked out of their armpits knows that that area stays tender for a good long time. Often, this brings an imbalance to the body.

My workouts had consisted of pounding myself through rowing, conditioning intervals, strength training with heavy weights and swinging kettlebells around. But without yoga, something critical was missing. Initially, I was afraid that “sacrificing” exercise sessions to yoga would result in faster decline of my physical ability and a push towards a more sedentary existence. Oh, how wrong I was! If anything, yoga has moved me towards vitality, flexibility and a sense of youthfulness that straight strength training had never allowed. Yoga opened up my whole body and allowed it to breathe freely.

What this has offered me is another way to look at how my cancer journey is progressing. After the aches and pains associated with never-ending adjuvant therapies, I admit I felt it was all going to be downhill, and that all I could do was desperately cling to my workout routines as my abilities gradually slipped away. Yoga brought back an element of fitness that I’d forgotten, and now, even though I know that I will be lifting less and rowing slower as time goes on, there is a new, perhaps more gentle world of fitness that I have yet to fully discover.

Keeping Anxiety at Arm’s Length

These are the most difficult mental calisthenics I’ve ever done.

The most frightening part of anxiety for me is that when scary, intrusive thoughts hit, they are right in my face. It feels as though there is no buffer zone so they come at me fast. I am highly reactive — nausea, cold bowels, rapid breathing, sweating, buzzing head. No opportunity to pause and consider a response. I am thrown into “flight” mode.

I don’t get panic attacks the way others have described them: heart beating so hard it feels like it’ll burst out of your chest, or hyperventilation to the point of getting lightheaded, even passing out. But I still feel anxiety intensely and physically.

So my practice lately has involved allowing stressful thoughts into my line of sight, but softening them, so that they appear blurred and more distant.

I establish this by immediately focusing on my body sensations as soon as I’m aware of the physical sensations of anxiety. That means feeling down to where my skin touches my clothing and focusing on the sensation of pressure on my seat and feet (if sitting) or the entire length of my back (if lying down).

Once my attention in on my body, I revisit the stressful thought, but as if squinting with my “inner eyes”, sometimes looking at it from the side instead of head on. I acknowledge its presence, but fuzz out the details, and most importantly, I keep it at a distance from me so that I have some space. Then I bring in deep breaths, slowing them down and allowing them to calm me as much as possible.

This is not even remotely easy. On some level, I’m still reacting to the thought and do experience a fear of bringing it closer to me. But the soothing nature of the breath helps temper my reaction. I think of this as exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, except where everything takes place inside my head.

Establishing the breath as a self-soothing “anchor” takes time and consistency in practice.

Lately, I’ve been having more success with this, particularly when I wake in the middle of the night, which is one of the most frightening times for me to experience runaway anxiety. This self-comfort would not be possible without established meditation and relaxation techniques — I’ve used the breath to soothe myself through cancer diagnosis and treatment, but the great majority of my meditation practice takes place when I am not stressed.

That fact, along with consistency in practice, has been critically important to me. In order for the breath to serve as an effective anchor, it must be recognized as one. And that means building up “anchor-like” peaceful associations over time so that the link is not easily broken.

None of this is a quick fix. But as with many things that are not quick fixes, the process of achieving success is part of the success itself. And that is a very reassuring thought.