The Three-Minute Rest

by Dan Cavicchio, MA, NCC

Think of what life was like for our ancestors who lived in hunter-gatherer societies. Although there were many stressors at the time — including some life-threatening ones — people spent vast periods of time during the day walking, gathering food, harvesting crops, and so forth. There were many periods of “down time” during the average day.

Now compare that to today. We wake up and immediately there are emails to check, news to browse, schedules to meet, and plans to make. Most of us have jobs to get to or kids to feed and send off to school. We’re often engaged in non-stop activity during the day, all through the evening, right up until the point at which we fall asleep. It can be exhausting!

Life might have been less intellectually stimulating thousands of years ago — but at least the mind had plenty of time during the day to unwind and rest. Today, we rarely get this time unless we intentionally create space for it.

Along those lines, I’d like to present a brief practice that I call the “three-minute rest.” I share this with some of my psychotherapy clients — especially those who have a great number of responsibilities, and tend to be in high-gear all day.

The Three-Minute Rest

The three-minute rest practice condenses some helpful relaxation, meditation, and mental focusing techniques into a simple package. The practice involves:

  1. Stepping back and observing our current line of thought
  2. Re-directing our minds down a new road, and
  3. Opening to a sense of peace as we travel in that new direction.

This doesn’t need to be done in exactly three minutes, of course. It could potentially be done in one minute — or twenty. The time is up to you. But I find that virtually all of us can spare three minutes at various points throughout the day. (I, for one, sometimes put on my sunglasses and take a few minutes to do this practice before I start up or get out of my car.)

Here is the general format of the three-minute rest:

First Minute

For the first minute, try to step back from your current line of thought and move into an “observational” or “witnessing” state. During this minute, your goal is to simply observe what is moving through your mind.

When I am leading people in this phase of the exercise, I often suggest that we can watch our thoughts and feelings just as we would watch clouds drift by in a summer sky — or as we would watch leaves float by on a river.

Our job is to say, from an observational state:


  • “Oh, there is a thought about work.”
  • “There is a thought about my date on Friday.”
  • “There is a feeling of stress.”
  • “There is a concern about my diet.”

Ideally, we can do this in a calm, dispassionate manner. We are no longer in our thoughts and feelings; rather, we are watchingthem.

In ACT — a variant of cognitive-behavioral therapy — we call this practice “cognitive defusion.” We are becoming un-fused from our thoughts, stepping back, and observing them from a bit of a distance.

This alone can provide some sense of relief from the mind’s busy chatter. However, I find the next step to be very powerful.

Second Minute

For the second minute, choose a calming word or phrase and begin to slowly, gradually repeat that phrase to yourself.

You can select a word like “peace” — or a phrase like “peace of mind.” Or you can choose a passage from an inspirational or spiritual text.

It really doesn’t matter which word or phrase you choose — any that feels appropriate will do. Once you have chosen a word or phrase, spend the second minute repeating it gently but firmly, and shifting your attention to that new line of thought.

It’s very likely that you’ll repeatedly get drawn back into the mind’s chatterbox style of thinking. However, when you feel yourself getting drawn away from a sense of peace, clarity, and focus, simply return your attention to your repeated phrase.

I want to be clear that this shouldn’t be a fight-the-thoughts type of experience! You’re simply steering — gently — your mind down a new path. If it’s helpful, you can think of a parent singing a lullaby to a crying child. The child will eventually turn his attention from his upset to the soothing melody.

Third Minute

During the third minute, you can begin to allow the repeated phrase to fade into the background as you aim for a direct experience of peace, warmth, and inspiration. Even if you can only “touch” this sense of peace for a few seconds at a time, it’s a success!

It’s very likely that during this third minute, you will find yourself drawn back into stressful thought and feeling patterns. When that happens, simply repeat steps one and two: step back and observe the thoughts and feelings; gently move your attention to the repeated phrase; and then once again try to enter into a direct experience of peace.

Again, even if you only feel a slight amount of peace for a few seconds, it’s a success. This process helps to develop a new habit of thought; it will likely become easier to access and hold the sense of peace as you continue to practice.

These moments of peace — however brief they are — are powerful openings for new experiences to flow through. Imagine that you lived in a dark, smoky room, but that every so often, you could crack open a window and breathe fresh, clean air. This is what these rest moments are like. They allow us to clear the mind, if even just for a few seconds at a time.

Now, like most folks, I find that I am very sporadic in this type of practice. I get swept away into my activities, thoughts, feelings, concerns, plans, and so forth. But I do find that the more I get in the habit of taking rest periods like this — up to once an hour, if I’m able — the benefits are very tangible.

Inner gifts like peace, warmth, and inspiration are offered to us all the time. However, they need an opening to flow through. Clearing, focusing, and opening the mind — even for just a few instants — opens the window and lets the fresh air flow in.

Dan Cavicchio is a cognitive-behavioral therapist with offices in Boulder and at People House in Denver. For more information, please visit his sliding-scale therapy website.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth