by Jessica Graham
How many times have you reacted in the same old way to your partner, resulting in a few hours of distance instead of solution and connection? How many times have you responded with defensiveness at work, leading to more tension about the project instead of less? How many times have you made the decision not to have the third drink, or smoke that cigarette and then found yourself doing it anyway? These repeated patterns can be so habitual and feel totally out of your control.
But you can change even the most hard-wired, repetitive, reactive pattern with some time, patience, and hard work. Just as a new habit can be learned, an old habit can be unlearned. In my experience, a great way you can create new neural pathways around your old tricks is by practicing stillness before action, or what I call “the Pause.” The Pause means simply taking a moment to notice the impulse to move before actually doing so.
Practicing the pause during meditation is extremely powerful, because sitting still during meditation is something we’ve all struggled with. Your desire to be comfortable outweighs your resolve to remain unmoving, causing you to make unconscious and compulsive movements. You feel an itch on your cheek and automatically scratch it. Your legs ache and you uncross them and stretch. Your hands feel a bit cold without a second thought you pull them into your sleeves. Maybe you just feel a little antsy, a tickly feeling in your gut, and you just have to move. Basically you feel uncomfortable and you try to get comfortable.
The funny things is there is always another itch, ache, or seemingly good reason to move. It sometimes seems that it actually gets worse once you move the first time. It’s an endless cycle. Rather than fighting the movements, I recommend practicing the Pause. Notice what it feels like in the body to want to move. Notice what story the mind spins about needing to move. Really take the time to meditate on the desire to move before allowing yourself to do it.
I find that I react in the same old way, or do the same old behavior, because it is uncomfortable to change. But, just like during meditation, there is always another discomfort to avoid and running from the discomfort doesn’t really work. It’s just a bandaid, at best.
If instead you pause when feeling uncomfortable, you begin to get comfortable with discomfort. After the Pause you can mindfully speak or not speak, act or not act, scratch the itch, or perhaps not scratch the itch. The point is you are now acting from a conscious, non-impulsive place, rather than from the old unconscious impulsivity. This ability can translate into an psychological superpower in your daily life.
Early in my practice I got really into “strong determination” sitting. That’s when you don’t move at all, sometimes for many hours. Talk about uncomfortable. During these sits I experienced some of the most intense pain I have ever felt. Some of it physical, some of it emotional. (Interestingly, I also experienced some of the most intense pleasure I’ve ever felt.) Sitting still through all of that changed me and informed my practice and my life in important ways.
I’m not saying you have to put yourself through this, though you might consider giving it a try. You can incorporate the Pause into your regular daily sit. That will spill over into your life and change your relationship with discomfort.
Simply commit to pausing before adjusting or moving in any way. During the Pause, notice what comes up. Are there emotional sensations arising in the stomach, chest, throat, or face? Is your mind spinning at full speed, telling you to move? Is the discomfort mounting to an unbelievable height? Just notice that. Allow the experience to occur and witness it.
If, after a few moments of pausing and witnessing, you decide to move, do it slowly, intentionally, and without judgement. After you move, notice what happens emotionally and mentally. You may find that when you witness the discomfort it begins to dissolve or lose its ability to hook you. You may not need to move at all.
Try this same practice in your daily life. When your partner says that thing that makes you want to scream, try pausing, feeling your body and noticing the thoughts that are arising. Then respond mindfully, or maybe realize that there’s nothing you need to say. I find that kindness and openness is the best response, but I sometimes need to pause to remember that. Practice pausing at work, with family, while driving, and any time you feel that need to avoid discomfort.
I have countless examples of times I utilized this pause, and times I did not. The pause is always the better option. The good news is the more you practicing pausing when uncomfortable, in meditation or otherwise, the easier it becomes. Pausing becomes the new normal.
photo by Dennis Skley