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

Releasing the old

There is nothing more precious to us than the breath – without it, we can’t survive for more than a few minutes, and yet we comfortably let it go hundreds of times a day. The breath flows out, there is a pause, it flows back in. Even though the breath is so terribly important to us, we instinctively know we have to release it. There is no point in holding on to the breath, in clinging to the old, stale air, just in case it might come in handy one day. We need to let go of the used-up air, so that fresh, oxygenated air can flow back in and nourish and sustain our body.

It’s a good analogy for our life, where it’s so easy to grasp on to what’s old or outdated, ‘just in case’. We do this with our possessions, of course, but more importantly, we do it with unhelpful behaviour patterns, both in relation to ourselves and with other people. It often takes someone else, a trusted friend or therapist or mentor, to point these patterns out to us. Usually we’re so caught up in them, we’re like a fish which doesn’t know what water is. Even when we do become more aware, it can be surprisingly difficult to let go. Releasing old patterns and memories requires a sense of trust – trust that the void which has been left will be filled by something which is helpful to us. It is the same sense of trust we show every time we release our breath, when we leave our body empty, having faith that the next breath will flow back in and provide us with the life-sustaining oxygen we need.

Sometimes when we’re stressed, it can be wonderfully healing to really release the breath – either with a big sigh, or, if this isn’t possible because of other people around, at least by taking a slightly deeper breath and extending the out-breath, allowing ourselves to relax into it. In a similar way, it can be helpful to consciously release something which no longer serves us. All cultures have rituals for releasing and letting go. Funerals are the most universal of these – we all understand how important it is to formally say good bye to a person who has passed away. Yet many of us live with disenfranchised grief – grief for something we have lost, but which has no public recognition, no ritual or communal coming together to mark it. Next week we will look more deeply at this ‘silent grief’, and explore how mindfulness can help us to work with it in the absence of societal rituals and support.

Weekly practice idea:

A few times a day, take three slightly deeper breaths, releasing them with a sigh. Notice how you feel after-wards.

Anja Tanhane