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The Mindful Pause

by Matthew Daniell

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on December 7, 2019)

When you were a child were you taught to "stop, look and listen" before you crossed a busy street?  That lesson is an obvious one to avoid the danger of passing cars and bad conditions on the road. It is also an inner training in being able to monitor our impulses, to pause, and to act based on the clear seeing that comes from the inner space that is created by the pause.

This pause is a simple natural human skill that we all have.  It is not as though a child necessarily needs to go to a special mindfulness class to learn to cross the street safely.  But as adults how many roads do we cross or travel on without pausing, and gathering our attention?  How often, because of this lack of a pause, do our impulses and outer conditions go unnoticed?  How often do we end up reacting unwisely and causing unintended harm?

At the core of mindfulness practice is the ability to move from unexamined reactivity to wise responsiveness in our inner and outer lives. The Buddha instructed: "Do not chase after the past or place expectations on the future but see clearly in the present moment exactly how things are." Cultivating the ‘mindful pause’ is a simple and powerful tool to move us in this direction. Let’s explore how this works, and various ways it can be applied.

The first form of pausing is where we set aside time to calm and steady attention in formal meditation by focusing on a selected object like the breath. I teach online at eMindful where I lead 14 to 30 minute mindfulness sessions. Often feedback is positive, with statements such as: "Great way to start the day, I feel relaxed and refreshed and ready to go to work."

A second way to practice is by taking mindful pauses within the natural flow of a day. One student in a beginners class recently said that she had been "taking 15 mindful breaths" in her car after she had driven to work, before going into school to teach. She also practiced mindful walking into the school. She reported that she felt more relaxed and engaged with the students, and that they seemed more responsive and connected to her as well.

This student noticed that there was a natural space between one engaged activity (driving) and another (teaching at school), and decided to take advantage of it.  We can apply this same principle in the unique condition of our life.  One of my favorite mindfulness practices is just to tune in to a few consecutive breaths from time to time spontaneously or when I feel I need a little space in any given situation. Another is to feel my hand touching the door knob or door as I pass through it. For me these kinds of mini pauses have become habitual, refreshing my attention as I move through my day.

Mindful pauses can be longer or shorter in duration depending on the circumstances. Some years ago a student who was a nurse in a local hospital had been suffering from feeling mechanical and burned out in her work. One of the exercises presented in class was to bring mindful awareness of walking into daily life. Since she walked the hospital halls on her normal rounds she decided to try it there. She walked naturally but instead of getting caught up in the latest gossip, or anxiously planning she grounded her attention in her body, while being open to the environment around her. She almost had tears in her eyes of gratitude explaining how her work had changed dramatically from this inner shift in attention. She had clearly felt the nourishing effect of this natural opportunity for many mindful pauses in her day.

A final story comes from a student recently who experienced anxiety while driving. She decided to experiment by bringing more attention to her body, seeing, and the feel of the wheel on her hands as she drove. Instead of turning on the music, she was turning on a quality of relaxed present moment awareness in activity. She was sensitive to outer and inner conditions without being thrown off balance. She discovered after doing this for some weeks an inner change in response to some "bad driving around me."  She continued, "I distinctly recall a car pulling out in front of me, nearly hitting me and I did not feel any reaction.  My breath stayed calm, my hands loose… I was quite happy to maintain my calmness and not react with anger."

This kind of pausing does not separate us from our daily lives. We just naturally bring full care and attention into activity or inactivity. Pause and action are then not divided. For most of us, this practice is much easier to access if we have cultivated the various kinds of pause over time.

So what is happening in the mindful pause? We are touching an intelligence in the mind and heart that can respond or wait. This intelligence is not based on thinking, it is based on clear present moment awareness. It coexists harmoniously with thought but has its own integrity; we need both.

If you would like to explore what cultivating this powerful attentional skill could do for the quality of your life please come and join us at the Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport. We offer a wide range of mindfulness practice opportunities in a beautiful and supportive environment.