“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”—Jack Benny, American comedian who died in 1974
What is a pause? Generally, it’s an interlude or gap between two things. Some pauses are long and others brief. Some may seem pregnant with meaning, especially when someone pauses while speaking. If you’re taking a class or attending a speech or presentation and the teacher or speaker stops talking, you probably become intensely aware of the sudden empty space waiting to be filled. Your mind may try to fill in the space with what you assume is coming next, or you may also relish the uncertainty—remaining open to something unanticipated. During that notable pause, you may feel a special connection with the speaker, as well as with everyone else in the room. Had your mind wandered prior to the pause, you may suddenly find yourself very much in the present moment.
In written works, periods, commas, dashes, and colons force the reader to pause and better grasp what he or she is reading. Pauses can help you transition from one activity to another, and even shift your mood. And, pauses can help you experience moments of deep presence—nothing lacking and everything just as it is. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.”
Beneath the surface
Human beings present themselves to the world much like the tip of an iceberg floating in the ocean. Beneath the surface of the myriad of distractions and busyness of life there is an enormous depth of being. Pauses can help you drop the facade and access this depth so you can listen to your own inner voice and connect with your true views and desires and even your intrinsic value system.
Author Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “…it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” Our body, brain, and spirit need periods of idleness, of non-doing. That’s how ancient hunters and gatherers lived. When they weren’t acquiring food for sustenance, they played, groomed, rested, and gazed at the heavens contemplating their existence in nature and the universe.
One can take pause in prayer, meditation, or simply a deep breath. Longer pauses might be spent in nature, on vacation, or on a sabbatical—from work or even a relationship. When a relationship grows sour, or an impasse ensues following an argument, it can be helpful for each partner to take a time out for inner inquiry and reflection. This creates space to examine beliefs and feelings related to the situation.
In his beloved classic The Prophet Kahil Gibran says this about marriage: “let there be spaces in your togetherness…” A healthy relationship needs spaces for separateness—space to grow individually as well as together. Knowing when to pause, as Jack Benny said, is at the heart of every person’s life. Gibran ends with: “And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Like trees, we all need space in order to thrive.
When feeling stuck or blocked in trying to solve a problem or finish a project, shifting one’s attention to something else—taking a walk or breathing deeply—interrupts the brain circuits. You may recall times when you fail to remember a person’s name; the harder you try, the more it eludes you. But when you back away for a moment, it quickly pops into mind. I often take breaks when writing to move my body; I tend to have my most creative insights while walking or even driving. Not surprisingly yoga and meditation foster physical and spiritual opening up.
Practice pausing by noticing your feelings, thoughts, and actions in the moment. Don’t analyze, criticize, or try to fix anything. Simply ask questions like “What do I believe right now?” “Are these beliefs really true?” “How would my life change if I letgo of this belief?” Notice how such pauses foster shifts in your thinking and feeling when you are experiencing a challenge, impasse, or even fatigue.
Selah is a Hebrew word that is used extensively in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, which is often interpreted as “stop and listen.” A national organization, Selah Freedom, is dedicated to ending sex trafficking and bring freedom to the exploited. They interpret Selah as to pause, rest, reflect. Psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response to throw our weight.”
Selah Freedom has a residential program for victims of trafficking that provides needed therapy and life coaching to help the young women overcome the damage of past trauma and find new life paths. The program offers personalized educational plans, job placement, trauma therapy (including equine therapy), education in life skills, medical and legal assistance, and holistic restorative care.
I have the honor of facilitating iRest Yoga Nidra meditation programs at Selah Freedom’s Chicago residential facility. During iRest, the women, mostly in their late teens and twenties, set aside their dark past and whatever has gone on in their day. They lie down on blankets and pillows and slip into deep relaxation and even dreamless sleep as I guide them in mindfulness practices aimed at helping them feel safe. The practice teaches them to welcome emotions and self-limiting beliefs, which ultimately lose their potency. This clears the way to uncover their wholeness and worthiness.
Pausing: make it a habit
You may not have a staff of coaches and therapists focused on helping you achieve your life goals, but you can do much of this work on your own by finding your own way to pause.
Pausing provides space to discover your deepest desires. When you do this regularly and intentionally, those desires become a motivating force, like an inner compass reminding you to stay on your path and sort out what’s right for you and what’s not…not this, not that, YES this!
Getting in the habit of taking regular pauses can help you recharge and become more connected to life. What you do for yourself, you do for others. What you do for others, you do for yourself.
Your most healing pauses may be simply resting and being. You might start by taking a deep breath, expanding the whole rib cage and belly, then resting and letting go. Use this simple acronym as a reminder: TAP RIB—Take a Pause, Rest in Being.
I would like to leave you with a few words from a poem by William Stafford titled “You Reading This, Be Ready”: “…carry into evening all that you want from this day. The interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life.”
I hope you regularly take pause to note what you wish to carry forward in this day and in your life.