In the A to Z of Becoming, P is for Pause.
A pause is a break, a temporary stopping. I first encountered the concept of the “bardo” in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, where it was helpfully described as a space where enlightenment could emerge. The meditation teaching in that book is to become aware of the space between two thoughts, and gradually to practice increasing that space. In daily life the suggestion is to become aware of the space (or bardo) which occurs before an emotion arises eg anger or fear.
So, let’s look at two types of pausing.
The “pause of now” and “the long pause”.
The “pause of now”. One way to consider what goes on in our minds is to think of two default brain states – “reactive mode” and “responsive mode”. In reactive mode our minds work almost like reflexes. Someone or something “touches our buttons” and off we go, into a real state of anger, anxiety, fear or some other learned pattern of thought, feeling and behaviour. In this reactive mode we can feel entirely the victim of other people and of circumstances. It can feel as if we have no choices, that our happiness is entirely at the mercy of others. We are on automatic. We are in “zombie” mode. The responsive mode arises as we become aware of the early changes, recognise them, understand what is happening, and then make a choice about how we want to respond. So if we frequently find ourselves becoming angry or anxious when a certain person speaks to us, then if we can become aware of the reaction starting to happen, we can pause, then choose how to respond – sometimes we will choose to respond angrily, or anxiously, but sometimes we won’t. We will be doing the choosing as we open up this “necessary gap” and in the “pause of now” we gain flexibility, confidence, tolerance, autonomy, and move away from a victim or zombie way of living.
One of the easiest practices I know to begin to develop the skill of creating this pause to shift from reactive mode to responsive mode is Heartmath (see a simple introduction here). The first two steps of “quick coherence” in Heartmath are known as “getting neutral”. It’s a variant of “count to ten”, and it works. The more you practice it, the more quickly and powerfully it works.
There’s another kind of pause though, and it’s not the kind of pause which happens just over a few seconds, or at best few minutes. I got this idea from reading about the concept of “the long now“. We hear a lot about “living in the moment”. Maybe you’ve read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle? If not, then maybe you’ve read elsewhere about the idea of being present, instead of spending your time on the past or the future (which might focus your thoughts on grief or anxiety). But when you stop to think about it, “now” hardly exists. This present moment has become the past by the time you’ve said “this present moment”. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher introduced the concept of “duration” to allow us to think differently about time (instead of splitting it up into moments, like frames of a movie), but his work can be quite hard to understand. Here’s a short summary of his duration idea -
Instead, let us imagine an infinitely small piece of elastic, contracted, if that were possible, to a mathematical point. Let us draw it out gradually in such a way as to bring out of the point a line which will grow progressively longer. Let us fix our attention not on the line as line, but on the action which traces it. Let us consider that this action, in spite of its duration, is indivisible if one supposes that it goes on without stopping; that, if we intercalate a stop in it, we make two actions of it instead of one and that each of these actions will then be the indivisible of which we speak; that it is not the moving act itself which is never indivisible, but the motionless line it lays down beneath it like a track in space. Let us take our mind off the space subtending the movement and concentrate solely on the movement itself, on the act of tension or extension, in short, on pure mobility. This time we shall have a more exact image of our development in duration.
One other concept I found easier to grasp was the idea of the “long now” – which, I suppose, in even simpler terms could be thought of as “now-ish” (reminds me of how Italian friends would often use the term “15 minutes” which if you used your watch to measure would produce huge frustration because they didn’t mean a number of minutes, they just meant a “piece of time” (of around 15 minutes in size!).
Drawing on these ideas of time, I think we can usefully propose “the long pause”
The long pause is a space, a few minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. I think a holiday often is a kind of a pause. It lets you step off the treadmill, get some distance between your working life and the rest of your life and provide a vantage point from which to see things more clearly, or a place from which to allow a new pattern of thinking, a new set of decisions, some new habits, or, yes, even enlightenment, to emerge.
So, here’s your verb for this week – pause.
Practice pausing in the moment to move from reactive mode to responsive mode, and build into your life some long pauses, some “time out” – daily, weekly, monthly, annually.