From mindless to mindful: How to practice a mindful pause
Ordinarily, what we call "pause" is a moment where activity is suspended. We associate such a pause with a blank. This is the case when we listen to music, or stream a movie. If we put it on pause for a moment, then restart it, we are not changing the content in any way. So we tend to think of a pause as essentially innocuous.
But things are different when it is not a machine, but a human being, that pauses. Take, for instance, moments where it seems at first glance that a pause is just a moment of no activity:
- While on a hike in the mountains, we take a moment to rest.
- Or, to take a more universal example: At the end of the day, we go to sleep.
Is that actually just a moment of no activity, a neutral break after which activity resumes as if nothing had happened? Not really:
- After a rest, we feel re-energized and go back to hiking with renewed vigor.
- After a good night’s sleep, we wake up refreshed: Things that felt daunting the night before, when we were so tired, may now feel very obvious and easy.
In other words, the ‘pause that refreshes’ is a fundamental part of our biological experience of life. Taking a pause is an opportunity to stop being on automatic pilot (i.e. being mindless). To make space for the possibility of seeing things differently. To be surprised by what we now see or how we feel about it. To re-orient, to renegotiate our relationship with our environment. It is Beginner’s Mind, in a good way, in the sense that Shunryu Suzuki talked about: Being open to what really is, as opposed to being prisoner of our preconceptions.
So, the pause we're talking about here may look and feel gentle... But, under its deceptively mild appearance, it is not just a blank, but an intentional rupture from the flow of things as they currently are. What makes it work is that it is a major disruptor. It is a shock to the system, very much akin to what happens when you take a wrong turn and your GPS has to recompute the road.
There is no reason for the GPS to recompute the road unless there is a disruption. Similarly, there is no reason for the human mind to get off "automatic pilot" unless something drastic happens.
Remember that the vast majority of our mental processes happen below awareness. We simply could not function if we had to consciously monitor everything. So the "mindless" mode is highly functional. This is why it takes a jolt to step out of mindless mode and shift to mindful mode.
It takes the experience of disorientation to get our internal GPS to kick in. This is an internal navigation system, a natural process that was honed by millions of years of evolution. We instinctively do it, but it needs to be activated by the experience of temporary disorientation: The pause, during which we intentionally stop going by our "autopilot" assumptions.
How can we get off the beaten track if we don’t see any side roads?
How can we think out of the box if we don’t even know we are in a box?
Taking a pause is an opportunity to notice what is new, and to deal with it. It's like being on a bicycle trip on a small road, where you can stop and visit any place that interests you… vs speeding through the landscape on a fast train, and everything whizzes by you, in a blur. It's like chewing on food to help the digestive process, instead of swallowing it whole. In other words, taking a mindful pause makes it easier to integrate experience.
Given how useful and natural it is to pause, how come we sometimes have such difficulty taking a pause?
It can be that we are in a "driven" mode, i.e. a sense of pressure, sometimes even panic. Our system is in fight-or-flight mode: any distraction feels wasteful or even downright dangerous.
It can also be that we are not aware that we are at a 'fork in the road', that another option might be possible. We have so internalized the status quo that we do not see any alternative to it (for instance, social pressure).
So there needs to be intentionality: While the pause is an integral part of our nature, there are powerful forces at play that prevent us at times from accessing this natural ability of ours. Hence, it is important to develop our awareness of these limitations, and our ability to pause.
One way to counteract the intense pressure that stop us from pausing is to pay attention to our bodily experience as we do so. See a specific approach, literally getting a grip in a one-minute mindful pause.