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Cushion stacking

An exercise to help with mindfulness.
This exercise can be done one-to-one with a young person, or with a group. The objective is to identify primary experience as different from the thoughts, labels, and worries we normally add to that experience. It’s best to do it in a playful way, even a little tongue-in-cheek, if the young people are older. Keeping a lightness about it helps them take not take it, or you, or themselves too seriously. Ideally, you’d have a stack of meditation cushions, or yoga blocks but you could use blankets, sofa cushions, pillows, even empty boxes. Books will be too heavy but empty box files, or empty binders could work but they might not come back in one piece, as you’ll see in a second.
Ask someone to go first and to identify a problem, issue, or worry, like -I’m anxious about my exams. And then, with the help of the group, help them investigate what’s going on underneath that. What are the primary sufferings in the body? An upset stomach? Clenched shoulders? Gritted teeth? Even if they’re not quite sure, phrasing a statement in a when/then framework, such as, ‘when I think about my exam, then my stomach gets upset’, can be helpful. The physical sensation ‘my stomach gets upset’ is identified as the primary suffering. Hand the young person a cushion and ask them to hold it as they feel its weight.
They can turn it around in their hands, toss it up and down a bit, and then say the phrase, ‘my stomach is upset’, or ‘when I think about my exam, my stomach gets upset’. So they identify the statement with the block or cushion. And work together with the young person, and possibly with other people in the group, to identify what worries that might pile on top of this. These are the secondary sufferings. So each time a worry is identified ,another cushion is added. So for example, I might not do well on my exam. I’ll probably fail the exam. I might fail all my exams. I might fail school completely. I’ll never get into college or university.
I’m going to fail at life. My life is over! So take it to the maximum ,almost to the point of ridiculousness, and this is where a bit of playfulness works quite well. Point out how we say these things out loud and then we can really hear how dramatic and over-the-top they are but in our head they sound so real. And allow the young person to walk around with the stack of cushions, feeling the weight and unwieldiness, and it would be great if they’re so high they can’t see over them. Explain that, by not acknowledging our original experience and working with that, we create more resistance, more suffering, more difficulty.
And finally, ask the young person to tip the cushions so they fall to the floor and the young person is left holding that one first cushion. Encourage them to feel the lightness - how actually it doesn’t seem so heavy or overwhelming anymore. If you’re working in a group, it can be helpful to hear what others are worried about because most likely it’s something that others are thinking as well. We’re showing that, by staying with the basic sensations of our experience, rather than allowing our thoughts to run away, or pile on top of us, sensations feel manageable and not so overwhelming.

In this video we describe a technique to help young people manage anxiety.

This exercise is called “cushion stacking” and looks at how worries can pile up and how the sufferer can focus on the fundamental problem. The technique can be used as a one-to-one or a group exercise.

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Anxiety in Children and Young People during COVID-19

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