The Art of the Pause…

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl

Much of my own personal work over the years as well as the work I do as a therapist has been helping to cultivate the art of the pause. What does that even mean to pause? I found it helpful to look at some common definitions of the word pause which included:

A temporary stop in action or speech

Interrupt action or speech briefly

The phrase “To give someone pause” is defined as causing someone to think carefully or hesitate before doing something.

So, why craft the ability to pause? Why is this such a valuable life skill? Perhaps first we should explore some of the reasons we may find it difficult to implement the pause in our daily lives to begin with. Do you find yourself feeling frequently overwhelmed and/or enraged when stuck in traffic, or being cut off? Maybe you find yourself easily irritated and frustrated with your kids or being reactive with your significant other. Or, perhaps, you are becoming aware of how quickly you rush through your days without ever taking a moment for yourself to breathe or relax even just a little.

Speeding through life and frequent reactive, impulsive knee-jerk reactions are often the norm for those of us who grew up with early trauma and adversity. This can occur because of adaptive changes the brain makes in response to the chronic stress in the environment. Chronic or toxic stress happens when a child experiences frequent and/or prolonged adversity- such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness or substance abuse, exposure to violence and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship- without adequate adult support.

Chronic or toxic stress in early childhood mobilizes the “fight, flight” hormonal system. When this happens too frequently or for too long it changes the architecture of the brain. Cortisol levels remain elevated which can affect several neural systems, impair our immune response and set us up for long-term deleterious effects on our physical and emotional health.

Toxic stress early on can result in a lifetime of struggle and difficulty controlling our stress response system and it can become overly reactive and/or slow to shut down when faced with challenges and threats. We become adults who have difficulty making accurate assessments and often feel threatened and respond impulsively to situations where this is no real threat and remain activated well after the threat has passed.

So, you can see, for many of us, we have experienced those brain adaptations that make pausing more difficult, especially when faced with challenging circumstances. One of the ways I have found incredibly helpful on my journey to slow down and create more spaciousness has been to develop more mindfulness in my life. Mindfulness is simply bringing our complete attention to our present moment awareness (thoughts, feelings, bodily awareness) without judgment and with gentleness and compassion. Another interesting definition for mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance.

So, what does mindfulness have to do with the brain changes that can happen with early adversity and our ability to cultivate the art of the pause in our everyday life? Well, here is where it gets interesting. Research has shown that mindfulness improves emotional regulation, not by eliminating or reducing emotional experience, but instead, it is the present-moment awareness and acceptance of emotional experience that develops are capacity to soothe a dysregulated nervous system. 

The research supports the idea that this kind of attentive and open stance toward our own emotions and thoughts allow us to notice these emotions earlier on and take necessary steps to help them from spiraling out of control.

I was first introduced to mindfulness in my twenties when I completed extensive training in a therapeutic modality called Hakomi, which is a mindfulness, somatic and experiential based approach to change based on the tenets of curiosity, gentleness and non-violence. I went into my career as a therapist and this training as someone who had struggled personally with the changes that result from trauma and I often felt like I was on fire inside. 

My response to most things that had any overlap with my early childhood trauma or were personally triggering to me were at once highly reactive and lightning quick. It felt to me like there was no space at all between the trigger and my reaction- I often felt like an open wound living in the world.

As I began to slowly change my language around my emotional experience to one that was less shaming and more nurturing and compassionate, I realized I had this new ability to witness myself from a more neutral framework. Where I was once had to utilize my limited resources to defend against the onslaught of the trauma laden narratives that had been passed down to me, I found an emergent witness within myself, compassionate, patient, and capable of infinite kindness. It was from this that I found the courage to slow down and become curious about my own process, the trauma I carried in my body and the ways I engaged with the world around me.

The art of the pause happens when we learn to embrace, comfort and soothe the internal fires. Just as an ideal mother might do with her hurting child, we offer to ourselves a safe place, kind words, and a sweetness we may have lived a lifetime without to the places we hold that suffer. 

The pause will always have difficulty co-existing in an internal environment of judgment, shame and harshness. It is just too difficult to do the kind of self-reflection required for growth and change under those circumstances. The art of the pause is cultivated in gentleness and kindness, in love and 

encouragement. The art of the pause is the natural by-product of our fierce commitment to bring our attention to our present moment experience with openness, curiosity and acceptance. It is in cultivating the art of the pause where change is possible and hope lives.

Hurry up and slow down!

I wish for a life that moved at a much slower pace. Most mornings my mind churns out my to-do list long before my feet ever touch the floor. I often think to myself, take a deep breath, try not to rush, the day will unfold soon enough. I want time to stop, just for a moment, to generate the stillness required to reflect on my gratitude for another day on this crazy journey, one not afforded to everyone. A prayerful plea to live this day with more reverence, to witness the awe-inspiring moments that show up in the day to day busyness of our lives. A chance today to slip gently into my body, stretch fully into my skin and feel the steadfast beating of my heart as it toils tirelessly, selflessly, offering me more time to contemplate the meaning of it all.
An appeal to the Gods that today my words will not open more quickly than my heart and that I may leave a trail of kindness to help light the way for others in what can so often feel like a dark and frightening world. May I stretch into more moments where I may find the pause, create a brief refuge from my daily chaos long enough to cultivate enough mindfulness to notice where I may find a sprinkle of joy or a hint of sadness. It is in these quiet moments I remember the simple truths I so often overlook. How my neglected and courageous body waits ever so patiently for my attention. Leaning into the extraordinary privilege of being human and all it entails, tragedy and triumph, love and loss. I wonder sometimes if I can have a heart big enough to hold all of what I may find in the space that my stillness leaves open.
But most days I am far more likely to get caught in the constant grind of the world, dimmed and colorless in its mindless monotony. Exhausted by the repetitive taunting to do more and be more, so much that my head spins, feeling dizzy and rushed, intent on being anywhere but here. Surely, I must believe that if I am moving fast enough I can outrun whatever feels uncomfortable and alien in my body. So, I support this unconscious agenda with a few more cups of coffee, a glass of wine, a chocolate chip cookie, whatever it takes to return to the familiar numbness that coats my frayed nerve endings. Close it down, shut it up, keep it buried another day, my apathy has slipped back almost unnoticed.
Before I rise to meet this day, please let me find a chink in my armor, a small opening that I may hear the call to come back to this life. Wake Up! Wake up! One day, I promise, you will wish you stopped to feel the soft wet kisses of your little one as their body melts into your own, begging for just one more story before sleep takes them from you. At the end of this life, when you face the inevitable slowness that comes with aging, you will remember fondly all the silly arguments with your beloved that you had at least a million times and you will wish to go back once more to taste the tender sweetness of forgiveness.
Please, hurry up and slow down dear one, before your time has all but run out. You are moving far to fast to witness this journey. Put down the coffee, quiet your mind, see, hear, and feel the world around you. Soak it up, drink it in, hold it close, because we don’t have forever.