Updated: Feb 9
The Art of the Pause
One of the key elements of mindfulness work is to develop the ability to pause (especially in chaos). This might seem like an incredibly easy thing to accomplish. However, learning to effectively pause can, in fact, take a lifetime.
We often find ourselves in situations that we can’t control. These range from small things, such as someone cutting in front of us in traffic, all the way to death (unexpected or otherwise) of a loved one. In these cases, we often find ourselves reacting to the situation. These reactions are automatic and a direct result of our socialization, and our habitual patterns. We might yell at the person who cut us off in traffic, lashing out because of their inconsiderate and potentially dangerous behavior. Often these situations are highly emotionally charged and we tend to strike back. Our days can be filled with these moments, and one wonders: How do we control the uncontrollable? How do we correct the behavior that we perceive as bad in another? People have varied responses to that which cannot be controlled, ranging from over planning, to eating disorders, and various other strategies to cope with the uncontrollable.
This is where the art of the pause takes over. Consider what it would be like to give up this perceived need to control the uncontrollable? What if we could stop and assess in those moments where we would otherwise react? To pause for a moment or two before acting to notice and acknowledge our inner experience?
In Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, she discusses the importance of the pause as the first step towards radical acceptance. As a clinical psychologist, Buddhist, and yogi, her approach is to provide individuals with assessable tools to free ourselves from suffering (the intention of radical acceptance). She discusses the neuroscience behind emotions: in reality our emotional response lasts for 90 seconds. Anything you experience beyond this 90 second period is a manifestation of our attachment to the event, our emotional response, and our sense of self. Armed with this knowledge we can see that the pause is a way of allowing our emotions to arise, to sit with them, and then to make a decision on how to move forward not based on our reaction, but rather based on knowledge.
The pause is a moment in time where we stop engaging, and start feeling and listening. Once we are armed with the ability to do this, we can see that how we want to react may lead us down the road of future pain. In a situation at work where a co-worker takes credit for our work, this may lead to a confrontation based on reaction, causing a lasting friction between ourselves and a co-worker which may never diminish. When we pause and give ourselves space we can then act from a non-emotional stance and perhaps learn that we were wrong. Perhaps the co-worker didn’t realize they had taken credit. Reactivity could have created an enemy where pausing could have created an ally. The pause doesn’t have to be a long seated meditation - it can happen anytime and anywhere. The power of this practice comes into play when we have practiced (or thought about) it enough to begin adding it into our decision making process, beginning with the question: “Am I reacting?” or “Am I deciding?” In the action of pausing, we stop our activity and allow ourselves to be completely present with whatever happens to be going on in that moment.
Learning to get in touch with what we think and feel becomes a powerful tool for negotiating the difficult and uncontrollable moments in life. Once we have completed the pause, we can move forward with our daily activities with a greater sense of “why,” and so make decisions that serve our greater good. It becomes a way of disrupting our habitual activities and opens up new possibilities and new ways of approaching life. It can teach us the motivations behind our actions, allowing us to come up with new and potentially creative ways of going about our day to day activities. Since the only thing we can control in our lives boils down to our response, the art of the pause allows us to live our lives the way we want to live them. Instead of reacting to every situation, we become skilled actors in creating our own destiny. Through the act of pausing we allow ourselves to stop hiding from our experiences and learn to trust in our natural intelligence and wisdom. Utilizing this tools to engage more fully in the world as we want to be, rather than a repetition of the habitual patterns that keep us trapped in the endless cycles of reaction and consequence.
Often when we begin a new practice we have an even greater need to pause. As we approach the art of arm balances one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is the pause. Before we try and hoist ourselves into an unfamiliar shape we can pause. In this moment of pausing the objectives become much clearer. We can then approach our asana with a calm sense of being and find our way floating into the shape effortlessly in a balanced and sustainable way.