Ep. 44: The Power of the Pause

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When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was in graduate school, living in a friend’s basement. Suddenly, I was overcome with nausea, and I felt…awful. Instead of being with that, my brain went into planning mode. I started researching the web for answers and networking about creating an action plan. There was no pause, just diving into control mode. 


Thankfully, my years meditation practice kicked in and reminded me to pause. I noticed a big void. Then big emotion. I started crying. I went to talk to my friends upstairs. I curled up in their bed and told them I had cancer. They hugged me as I cried. 


I’ll never forget that. The intensity of letting myself pause, the tidal wave of emotions, the relief of finally BEING with what was happening at the moment… being with it fully and authentically. 


Later in my life, I was a new nurse in a Level 1 Trauma Center at a busy urban hospital in California. I remember so clearly seeing my first death – an older man who had a heart attack at home came in by ambulance, and whose wife was still en route. After I completed my assigned duties, I went to the head of the bed while the busy resuscitation attempts were going on, and held his head in my hands, “It’s OK. I’m here. Everyone is doing everything they can. I am here for you. You are in the best hands possible. You just do what you need to do.” I told him he was loved, and it would be OK. 


The time of death was called. I did a fast debrief with the team, then stayed behind for a moment as others left to deal with pressing cases. 


I paused. I prayed. And then I left the room.  


This pause allowed me to feel in my body and my soul that he was a being, a fellow human being. Just like me. 


I also recall pausing during joyful events, like when I gave the blessing of food at a friend’s wedding. I felt what was needed was a pause for reflection on the reason for the event: a sacred union, a commitment, a community bearing witness, and an honoring… and a coming together on a beautiful day with an abundance of food made by everyone in attendance. 


We all sense these moments and the need to pause when we encounter them. We really touch into kind of a natural lightness, presence, intelligence, creativity… 


Today I wanted to talk about pausing and learning to pause, especially in times of stress, because that’s when we most need to pause. 


There are two large reasons it’s hard to pause: 


  1. We are part of a culture of DOING. Staying busy is a habit —human doing vs. human being
  2. Doing is driven by the primitive brain. “Something is wrong… something is missing.” “I need to DO something to get ready/get it.” These thoughts permeate our days 

If you’re like me and enjoy trips out into nature, you know that piling logs onto a fire doesn’t make it bigger. It instead becomes too much; there is no room for oxygen to get in. The fire may never catch, even with an abundance of wood. Instead, we should pay attention to the spaces in between. Give fire this space, and it will grow. 


The limbic brain controls our primitive instincts. It is hard to pause before those “doings.” We need to control and manage threats. Of course, there ARE threats that we should act on/avoid. But we get hooked on that action. We think there is ALWAYS SOMETHING – locked into incessant doing. Just the way the fire needs air and space to burn brightly, for our lives to burn brightly, we also need some space, right? 


We sleep as a physical pause. We also need to pause mentally. 


The challenge is that when stopping goal-oriented activity, we feel the vulnerability there. It doesn’t always feel good. 


I’ve noticed that as I pause more and open to what IS – to the vulnerability of caring so damn much and seeing the suffering of all beings and having heartache… and to the light dancing on the water, the softness of my kid’s skin, and the sweetness of her voice… I cry a lot more. It can be achingly beautiful. We should be willing to sit and be present in the discomfort of the pause. 




It’s part of American culture that being busy often equals importance. Or constantly doing equals adventure. And being stressed/busy triggers feeling threatened, which leads to aggression. This is a hijacking of the limbic system. It can create distance between loved ones and us. 


The same goes for addictive behaviors. We give in to cravings and bad habits. We also see it in spiritual life. We want to find a specific feeling or meditative state instead of just feeling now. Or in today’s “busyness,” texting, checking emails, always being “on.” We fear the void that the pause brings. What if people judge me? It creates more distance. 


So, when we don’t pause – to see what REALLY is happening either inside us or outside of us and in others – we don’t show up in a way we are proud of. 


Viktor Frankl said, “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.” That freedom includes love and wisdom. 


So then… HOW do we pause? 


There is the archetypal pause: The Buddha rested under the Bodhi Tree and was enlightened. He saw WHO we all are in our essence: our compassion, loving hearts, inner radiance. 


While all of meditation is a pause as we intentionally step out of our habitual doing, continuing meditation involves being distracted by thoughts, becoming aware we have gotten distracted, and then sinking back into non-doing. It’s a cycle. It’s how we practice pausing—getting better in meditation = getting better at the moment, at the pause. 


It is the same when we feel triggered and when we get hooked and want to react. Meditation helps us notice the space between a stimulus and a response – and allow us to pause in that moment. 


The gift of mindfulness is with what is here, with recognizing the connection between our identity and the world. It allows us to respond to the world with wisdom and see suffering in others, ourselves, and also to see beauty. We find Ziji – radiant inner confidence – within us. We are with what IS. We have opened ourselves to choice, creativity instead of reactivity. That is the power of the pause. 


Experiment now and take this moment to pause. Bring it to a situation where you get hooked. Remember the situation as an observer, like someone watching a movie. See what triggers you. Then pause right before you would normally react. 


In that pause, breathe. Notice your body. Experience the vulnerability when you observe this moment.. Bring kindness and attention to the pause – let go of judgment. And let it include attending to the other person too. 


What do you notice about their vulnerability, insecurities, unmet needs? 


How would you like  to respond during this triggering event in the future? How can you show up in true mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom?  


Doing this in real life is a lot harder than visualizing an event. Continue to practice on your own, and you’ll be more ready when people become involved. The pauses will give you access to those qualities that are part of your true nature – that deep intelligence and love and creativity that is our nature – in all of us. 


This also helps us create some space to let what needs to happen, happen. 


The same process also unfolds on a more societal and global scale. When people from diverse backgrounds pause together and deepen being present with one another, we have more possibility to see past the fear and the surface words and actions and remember: Oh, just like me, you too want to love and be loved. This so greatly needed in the world right now. 


It’s a radical thing – a rebellious act… to have that intention not to keep doing anything, not controlling anything… to say YES to experiencing life completely awake, senses wide open with a non-doing presence. And to create sacred moments throughout your day to consciously cultivate this. 


For you rebels, set the intention for more pauses. Throughout the day, pause, and breathe. 20 seconds. 


See what happens in your life when you pause like this. It could change… everything. 



Topics in this week’s podcast:

// Two HUGE reasons it’s so hard to pause

// The power pausing has in your life and society 

// The dangers of not pausing 

// How to practice pausing daily 


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