Resting in the pause

In the past few weeks we have been looking at the breath – in particular releasing the old breath, letting go of what is no longer needed in our lives. At the end of the out-breath, before the air flows back in, there is a pause. In the breath, the pause between the out-breath and the new air flowing in is usually quite short – most of the time we’re not even aware of it. In life, however, the pause between letting go of something, and allowing something new to enter in, might be very long indeed. And this in-between period can be quite difficult to live with. There is no longer the drama and effort associated with letting go, but nothing new has appeared to take its place. We can feel quite bereft, at sea. People around us may be telling us it’s time to ‘move on’. Perhaps they’re right, perhaps they’re wrong. Sometimes this can be very difficult to discern.

We all have a sense of giving people some space after a bereavement, not expecting them to fill up their lives with new diversions immediately. It would be a little insensitive to say to someone at the funeral of their beloved life-partner – ‘never mind, there’s plenty of other fish in the sea, how about I set you up with an Internet dating site?’ However, there is a wide range of opinions about how long this pause should be. How long does someone need before their natural grief becomes a clinical depression, before they’re stuck in a bitterness which could ruin the rest of their lives? Sometimes the pause becomes a habit, as if our pause button has become permanently stuck, and we’d really benefit from some diversion, from finding a new interest to focus our attention on. My experience at work has been that families often want someone to move on more quickly than they’re ready for, out of a natural concern for the wellbeing of their loved one. This can be more about the need of the family members to feel comfortable, than what the person actually needs. As a society, we’re often not that good at allowing people to withdraw for periods of time to lick their wounds.

On the other hand, I’ve also met people who are stuck in something which happened ten years ago, who talk with the same anger and emotion as if this incident had occurred just then. Needless to say, the sympathy of their family members and friends has worn a bit thin after ten years of listening to the same unchanging anger and bitterness. We do need to let old wounds heal and make the best of the life we have, even if it turned out different to what we’d hoped for. However, there is no formula for how long it should take someone to ‘move on’, before their natural and healthy grief becomes a dysfunctional trap. It is helpful, in our own meditation, to rest consciously in the pause between the breath, to allow ourselves to feel comfortable with this in-between space, where nothing much is happening, where we simply rest in the present moment without the usual diversion and stimulation we enjoy so much.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, think about an area in your life where you might be in between letting go and moving on. There is a natural discomfort in this state, but perhaps also a sense of healing. Notice how it feels, and come back to this sensation from time to time.

Anja Tanhane

Pausing

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

 

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.

(Attributed to Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor)

I can clearly remember the first time I became conscious of that space and having a choice. I was feeling very annoyed with a relative who had left a hostile message on the answering machine. When I saw her a few days later, I recognised my own hostility and automatic impulse to blame and behave in a withdrawn and cold manner, an old defensive pattern. Pausing, I was also aware of an alternative – I had a moment of choice. Although the pull was to go down the old familiar way, I recognised that this would lead to further hurt, disempowerment and rupture of our relationship. I consciously chose to try and stay openhearted. In what felt figuratively like a big step, I walked up to her and approached her with affection, and the response I received with one of friendliness.

We can all remember times when we reacted in the heat of the moment, only to regret our words and behaviour, and not only that, find that the interaction has escalated the conflict, leaving us and the other person feeling more defensive and distant.

There is a Zen story about a man riding on a galloping horse. Somebody watching him yells out, “where are you going?” The man on the horse turns and shouts, “I don’t know, ask the horse.”

The horse can be likened to our habitual energy pattern that drives us into doing or saying things that not only hurt others but ourselves as well. Thich Nhat Hanh writes “if we learn the art of stopping, we can calm things down within and around us. The purpose of stopping is to become calm and solid and see clearly.” When we are calm we can look deeply within and recognise our underlying needs, and express them in ways that don’t alarm the other person and lead them to react defensively. We can also be more receptive to the other person’s needs.

Mindfulness practice helps us to calm ourselves and extend the time between the stimulus and the response, so we are not hijacked by our more primitive survival brain, leading to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. With this reaction to threat we angrily attack, withdraw in fear, or feel paralysed to do anything. The child within us is closer to our more primitive survival brain mode, so sometimes when we are challenged we implement younger coping strategies. Through mindfulness we can more readily reengage our neo- cortex, and can have thought-through responses. We can become aware we have choices and feel more empowered.

What mindfulness helps us to do is to be aware of what we are experiencing and catch the first bubblings of an emotion before it takes us over– it is much easier to manage at this point. When emotions do arise intensely, we can ride the wave, maintaining balance. Maintaining our centre and responding rather than reacting. This of course does take time and regular meditation practice. But, as Jon Kabat Zinn notes “Our relationships with other people provide us with unending opportunities for practising mindfulness and thereby reducing “people stress.”

He beautifully describes the fruitfulness of mindfulness for our relationships:

“The patience, wisdom, and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation yield fruit almost immediately because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will in all likelihood be drawn toward it because it embodies inner peace”.

Weekly practice idea:

When you notice reactivity in relationships, pause. Take a breath. With kindness and compassion towards yourself, be mindful of your thoughts, beliefs or images. Bring an attitude of friendliness and allowing to any feelings and sensations in your body. What is your underlying need? What may be the other persons underlying need? Be aware of having a choice.

Michelle Morris