Stopping: The Power of the Pause
The Power of the Pause And How It Can Make A Difference In Your life
Look away from the computer for a moment, and take a slow and gentle in and out breath.
Did you do it?
I’m guessing there’s a good chance you didn’t. When I did an informal test to find out who would actually stop, the numbers were pretty low. Most people had already read on to the next paragraph before their minds have even registered that there was a choice to make.
Momentum is a very powerful force. We tend to just zoom on, continuing in whatever direction we are headed, without really noticing much around us. We all know this phenomenon. We experience it when we are driving or walking somewhere and we look up thinking, “Whoa! How did I get here?”
We have a tendency to get stuck in whatever process we’re in, even if it’s not what we really want to do. Especially if we aremulti-tasking, the action of switching back and forth from one thing to another occupies so much of our attention that it pretty much cancels out any ability we have to evaluate whether what we are doing is what we actually WANT to do. So we can find ourselves at the end of the day frustrated and confused by how the day disappeared, and feeling disconnected from ourselves and our lives.
Our hopes, commitments, dreams, passions, just never seem to make it to the top of the to do list. And as Annie Dillard points out:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Her sobering, “of course,” is our call to action.
If we want to begin to change our days (and therefor our lives), one of the most important tools in our mindfulness toolbox is stopping. Stopping is an antidote to long term habits that limit us. It provides an essential and deliberate gap in the rolling momentum we are caught in.
In his book, 18 Minutes, Peter Bregman writes about a feature Google introduced to Gmail a few years back. It was the Send Undo. Basically what they did is introduce a five second pause, so that after you hit send they hold the email for five seconds before they actually send it and during that time a link appears on the page saying “Your message has been sent. Undo”.
I remember very well when they introduced this feature, because it saved me so many times. I cannot count the number of times before that when I had to send us a second email saying “Sorry, here’s the attachment I forgot to add.” Or even a third saying “Oops, here’s the correct attachment! Please ignore what I just sent you.” That little button gave me an opportunity to stop the forward momentum just enough to catch myself and ask, Did you do what you think you did? And I could reach up and click undo! The number of times it saved me from embarrassment more than made up for any wasted time double-checking. And that’s not even to mention the number of times it stopped me from damaging a relationship by shooting off an irritated response to an email that frustrated or annoyed me.
And here’s an interesting and unexpected consequence: I noticed that after a while, I started stopping and thinking before I hit send. The undo button trained me. It let me the practice the art of pausing. It turns out that’s what I needed to do to learn HOW to pause.
The Power of the Pause
An essential point is this: The power of the pause lies in its simplicity. All we have to do is stop. That’s it. And not for very long. Bregman points out that for many people in many situations five seconds is all it takes to prevent you from doing something you will regret later.
So how about this, let’s try again. Let me up the ante a little bit. Let’s look away from the computer and take two slow and gentle breaths.
Did you do it? If you did, how was it? Did you notice anything – any shift in how you were feeling/thinking? You can use the comments section below if you’d like to tell us what happened.
Years ago, when I still had an office job, I worked frequently in dark editing rooms with a colleague and friend, Eliz, and she and I often commiserated about the frustrating and unreasonable demands of the people we worked for. In truth, it really was a very difficult work environment that left us in with our heads on the desk on a bad day and even brought us to tears at times. We were often overwhelmed and felt defeated. I remember on one project though, I had recently heard a talk by Thich Nhat Hahn about setting an alarm for stopping at work. We decided to do this, and we set an alarm on my computer to beep every 15 minutes. Every time it went off, we would stop and stretch, and take three conscious breaths. This practice allowed us to make practical choices, like evaluate if we had been stuck on one step for too long, whether perfectionism was taking over our work and we needed to move on, or if we even thought this particular thing we were working on was worth keeping. More importantly though, it allowed us to connect with ourselves as people, as bodies and hearts and minds in a room, in a city, where there was a whole world outside, and to remember that we were not cogs in a machine, or trapped animals, but beings who had the capacity to notice how we were feeling, to shake off a little bit of the stress, smile at one another, and make choices about how we wanted our lives to be.
Eliz and I found this so beneficial that even though there might be months and even years between working together on projects, when we did meet again, we often resurrected this practice. What it did for us is at the heart of the healing power of pause.
The power of the pause lies in its simplicity.
Because it is in fact…
It is a moment of nothing inserted into the middle of the day. And nothing is such a powerful antidote to the vast overwhelm of the countless somethings of our modern experience. I was listening to Barbara Kingsolver reading her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, talking about the great delight of walking down a row of tomato plants, smelling the earth and hearing the great vast spaciousness of the quiet of the moment.
Human life used to be filled with these kinds of moments in the millennia before the Industrial Revolution. Yes, we can recall backbreaking labor and look at the advantage of our modern appliances, but we can also know that with every increase in efficiency and time saving, there tends to come the corresponding new thing to fill the saved time.
Things expands to fill the available space and time. This just seems to be a rule of life, and so we don’t tend to reap the benefits of the efficient system we have devised. As one friend memorably put it — we were walking in Paris and he stopped to shake his head at the two enormous bags we had flung over our shoulders, full of guidebooks and notepads, and more — “If we lived on the moon where there is less gravity, we would carry around more stuff!”
We seem to be limited only by the extent of the space available. We work until we drop (what Brene Brown refers to as “exhaustion as a status symbol”). We fill our suitcase to bursting. We acquire more belongings, join more listserves, get caught in more online social networking sites. We don’t seem to be wired for leaving space. If there is space, we know we should fill it.
And this is why we don’t reap the benefits of our new and efficient systems and tools and toys.
And so this reveals the point of the pause.
It creates a boundary — a limit which we set on ourselves. We stop and say, “Wait. Let me check where I am. Let me notice what I’m doing. Let me check if I want to continue in this direction. Let me consider what might be the best choice for my well being in this moment. And perhaps even more importantly, let me create a gap of nothing in this day. A gap that will allow my soul to breath for just a moment.”
You can reap the benefits of The Power of the Pause by using your own personal pause button. There’s a wonderful stopping exercise that we use in the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy classes that I teach. Participants really love it once they get the hang of it, and if they really practice it, they find it transformative.