Taking a space to breathe

Over recent weeks, in my group and 1:2:1 work, I have experienced more and more clients arriving in a stressed, overwhelmed state.

Take, for example, Richard, a Chief Executive in the private sector. After we had met for our second session and sat down, I asked him, “How are you?” and without even taking a breath, a torrent of information was delivered at light speed about how much he needed to do before the end of the year, the long hours he had been working and the little time he had for anything but his to-do list.

Sitting listening to him and the ‘tyranny of shoulds,’ I noticed a sense of contraction in my torso, a tightening in my forehead and my breath became faster and more shallow; it was exhausting! After a few minutes I asked him to pause, and offered a short mindfulness exercise to help him be more resourceful and move into a more reflective conversation. After we finished the exercise, I asked him again how he was. “Right now,” he said, “I am just grateful for this space, this space to breathe.”

In our busy lives, especially in the final weeks of the year, where we are focused on finishing our work and preparing for the festive season, like Richard, it can be a struggle to find the space to breathe.

Yet when we consider our current context with the 24-hour working culture and connectivity, and political and environmental instability, this is not a luxury: this is an important part of our resilience, health and wellbeing. Finding the internal space for our brain and body to recover is essential.

Without this space we are constantly ‘on’ — even when we think we are taking some time out, often we are exacerbating our ‘doing mode’ by checking our phones, the news and social media feeds, resulting in an ongoing state of agitation and reactivity.

Remember: the brain does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.

The constant agitation of our thinking minds…is actually fed and compounded by our diet of television, radio, newspapers and movies. We are constantly shovelling into our minds more things to react to; to think , worry, obsess about; and to remember, as if our daily lives did not produce enough. The irony is that we do it to get some respite from our own concerns and pre-occupations, to take our mind off our troubles, to entertain ourselves, to carry us away, to help us relax.

But in consuming a steady diet of this ‘stuff’ which feeds the mind’s hunger for information and diversion, you are squeezing out of your life some very important alternatives; time for silence, for peace for just being without anything happening; time for thinking, for playing, for doing real things.”

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

There is so much written now on the researched physiological and psychological benefits of creating this internal space; a movement of becoming present and stepping out of our normal mode of agitated thinking and doing.

Examples include:

  • Dr Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind body medicine, has evidenced that practising a ‘relaxation response’ (a physical state of deep rest) for 10 or 20 minutes once or twice a day acts as an antidote to the fight and flight response and the long term effects of stress.
  • In a recent blog post, Dan Gray, reported findings from the medical journal Nature, where researchers from Harvard Medical School found that a calm brain with less neural activity could also lead to a longer life: “This study shows that daily periods of slowed activity, whether spent in meditation, unitasking, or simply being still or sleeping are as important for brain health and longevity as activity and exercise…the brain is the most energy-hungry organ in our body, consuming nearly a third of our energy, although it weighs only about one-seventieth of our body weight…For our brains and our bodies, less is more and rest is best.” — Gayatri Devi, MD

Those of my clients who take the time to consciously pause in all the busyness of their lives and develop a mindfulness practice (one form of a relaxation response) often report the additional practical benefits, such as a greater cognitive bandwidth; tolerance for life’s events; an ability to move from unconscious reactivity to intentional responsiveness.

This time of year offers us the chance to pause and reflect on the choices we have made this year in terms of our self-care and its effect.

Just take a moment now and consider the choices you made during 2019 to resource yourself so you could be resilient, flourish and at your best:

  • What have you done this year to nourish yourself?
  • What were the activities undertaken that gave you energy?
  • What stopped you?
  • What supported you?

Personally, as I pause and reflect on the hundreds of hours we have spent in the last 12 months in service supporting our clients in their leadership or coaching practice, it reinforces the importance of creating habits that nourish us.

Whilst I am extremely proud of the difference we have made to our clients and their organisations, one thing I am most proud of this year is how our team continues to role model self-care as a core underpinning of our coaching practice.

Too many coaches are on the edge of burnout themselves; so it is important for us to be the change we want to see in our clients. We believe we need to be role models, taking time to fully resource ourselves in our wider lives so that we have the physical, emotional and spiritual energy to facilitate deep change in others.

This is not easy as there are always reasons to not take this time — so it takes discipline and a belief that this time is as valuable as everything else we do as professionals; otherwise, other activities will always be prioritised.

Five weeks ago, our team gathered for our annual retreat, ‘Coming into Presence,’ where we spent three days together as a team in meditation and in silence. It was such a magical space; both challenging and nourishing, creating a depth of connection between us that I am sure our clients will benefit from in the coming new year.

During this time, my colleague Vici who was co-leading the retreat with me read the following poem, Fire by Judy Brown. I offer this to you now as further reflection on the topic of your self-care:

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.

A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

The time to resource ourselves will never miraculously appear in our professional and personal lives; we need to make the time.

How will you find space to breathe next year?

How will you create the space to enable your fire to burn brightly?

Finally, I would like to offer you a further resource to support the further development of your self-care: an MP3 of a ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation practice.

Why this practice? Well, self-compassion is a key component of self-care and this exercise helps us develop this attitude to help us cope with challenges.

This meditation helps us develop a more compassionate response to ourselves and our lives. I would encourage you to practice this every day and notice the effect in the way you relate to yourself and others. This can be extremely helpful especially at this time of year.

I look forward to connecting with you soon and Vanessa, Juliette, Liz and myself are wishing you a very happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous 2020 — wherever you go, pause, take a breath and choose to be fully there!

Kind regards



Jon Kabat Zinn – Full Catastrophe Living
Dr Herbert Benson – The Relaxation Response
Dan Gray – 6 Ways to ‘Quiet’ Your Brain and Live Longer, Thrive Global

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