Learning to pause
“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”.
Frankl’s powerful words remind us of the choices and potential we have when we take a pause. When we create a space between what is going on ‘out there’ - the ‘stimulus’ - whether that be another person, a high pressure project, meeting number 5 for the day or a tempting bar of chocolate - and our response to it.
If in those moments we can remember to pause, to make space for the expansiveness that it offers, then we can better respond with wisdom rather than our habitual automatic ways.
In the modern world, the desire for efficiency – the need to plough on ahead and get things done – seems to be stronger than ever. It can be a powerful and positive force – but it can also mean we find ourselves in a constant state of agitation, sacrificing quality for quantity in all that we do. “Hurry sickness” as it has been recently termed, is our need to do more, faster, even when there’s no objective reason to be in such a rush. This obsession can have adverse effects on our health, relationships and work.
In a recent UK survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 81% of people agreed that “the fast pace of life and the number of things we have to do and worry about these days is a major cause of stress, unhappiness and illness in UK society” and 86% of people agreed that “people would be much happier and healthier if they knew how to slow down and live in the moment”
In this fast paced world, our ability to remember to take a pause and our skill to do it are, therefore, precious. As the author DH Lawrence once said “One’s action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be a mere rushing on”.
The ancient practice of meditation can help us. It offers us that potential to not only ‘catch’ our breath, but to sit with it.
Meditation can help us achieve a stillness that lowers stress, focuses the mind, alleviates ‘hurry sickness’, and increases our productivity.
Although it has its roots in ancient religions, it has only been since the 1970s that the scientific community has been truly interested in the clinical applications of meditation, an interest which has now spurred its more recent surge in popularity.
Meditation can serve to train the mind, deepen concentration, promote relaxation and foster compassion. It can help to enhance your ability to notice more, to bounce back and to find your ‘centre’ when you ‘wobble’. It can expand your cognitive agility and you may feel and be more resourceful as a result.
So, this all sounds great, but where should you begin?
There are different types of meditation and different techniques work for different people. Generally, it comes down to two types: concentration meditation and insight meditation.
Concentration meditation is the learned control of the focus of one’s attention, leading to a calming of the mind. In practice, one fixes one’s attention on a single object, to help the mind deepen and steady the attention. The object may be the breath, a mantra, a visualisation, a part of the body or an external object
Insight meditation (sometimes referred to as awareness or mindfulness meditation) uses a different approach, with the aim of cultivating wisdom. Instead of keeping the mind fixed on one thing exclusively, the meditator observes different objects as they appear and pass away with an equanimous mind.
One form of meditation is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other; much depends on the outcome of interest but generally concentration meditation is taught first, in order to help to the meditator quieten their mind.
Developing a formal meditation practice equips us to respond more mindfully to ‘informal’ day to day happenings. We find ourselves able to access the here and now, rather than be stuck thinking about what we have done or are about to do. It can also prevent us from reacting to what has happened in the past or speculating what might be around the corner. Wouldn’t it feel good if, in the midst of a difficult conversation, you found yourself able to pause, to collect your thoughts, and be able to offer a more compassionate response rather than a defensive reaction? By practicing meditation in a disciplined way, you can ‘remember’ to pause more, and the quality of your pause will be enhanced.
Ready to get started? Here are some top tips to help you:
5 Meditation tips
Do it! - Meditation has to be experienced. You can’t just read about it. Experiment with what works for you. Start by simply removing your hands from the keyboard – go on, right now. Pause for 2 minutes and focus on your breath, only your breath for two minutes.
Create the time and space for it - whether it’s 2 minutes a day or 30, work to create a habit of your meditation. Put time in your diary, protect that space and build that habit.
Experiment - see what works for you. Try out different seated or prone positions. Find your favourite physical space. Try walking or activity meditation. When meditating experiment with different focal points - your breath, your body or a visualisation.
Leverage Social Support - meditate together – with a friend, a spouse, a colleague. Support and hold each other accountable in developing your practice.
Make it easy and accessible - listen to instructional audio or videos. Join a local yoga or meditation studio. Use a mobile app - one of our favourites is https://www.headspace.com.
For more advice, read part 2 here.