Coming back to our senses

We often don’t realise that we need a break until it’s too late

When we feel pressured to get something done, we rarely allow ourselves to enjoy the process of doing it. It is almost like holding our breath until we are done and can move onto the next thing.

Sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time causes muscle fatigue which exhausts our capacity to stay concentrated. Poor and static postures leads to feelings of overwhelm. When we reach this point, it can take hours to recover. If we don’t know how to recharge effectively, we may spend the whole evening tired and grumpy, resorting to passive TV watching or aimlessly browsing the internet in an attempt to relax or zone out.

“To hold your breath is to lose you breath”

– Alan Watts

Reactivity leaves no room for freedom

When our nervous system is aroused, we are easily agitated and prone to instinctive reactivity. The body is preparing for fight or flight and there is little room for conscious action. Mindfulness is out the window. This state is what I call “the chain of reactivity”, where overlooked somatic sensations in the body leads to subconscious and reactive behavior:

😤 External stimulus –>
⚡ Reaction in the body (often overlooked) –>
💭 Analysis/interpretation/rationalization –>
💢 Judgment (directed toward ourselves or the other person) — >
🔄 Automatic reaction

As an example, let’s say you feel pressured to finish that email before the next meeting starts when your colleague comes with a last minute request. Your flow is interrupted and you feel the irritation as yet another thing is added to your overwhelming to-do list. You feel a contraction around your chest and an inner resentment building up. An inner voice rationalizes the anger through judgments such as “can’t you see I’m busy?!” or “why can you not do your own job?”. You are overtaken by the frustration and react by lashing out at your colleague, or perhaps by swallowing the resentment with a false smile.

The key to understand is that we react to the unpleasant sensation in the body – not to the external trigger. We often mistakenly believe that the other person is the cause of our anger, where in fact this is just the trigger that sets the chain of reactivity in motion. It is the overlooking of the somatic sensation that keeps the chain of reactivity unbroken. If, by contrast, we are able to stop and notice what happens in the body as we get triggered, we are much more likely to be able to cut the chain and act with more awareness. This is the difference between reacting instinctively and responding wisely.

😤 External stimulus –>
🔎 Mindfulness of the reactions in the body –>
⏸️ Pausing and reflecting on the situation –>
🏆 Conscious response

Learning to pause

Learning the art of pausing is a powerful way of breaking the chain and increasing agency in our lives. Taking moments throughout the day to relax and recharge helps us manage our stress levels before we reach the point of exhaustion. We develop a habit of stopping and becoming aware of what is happening internally and externally. We come back to our senses. Over time, this makes us more resilient and less likely to be swept away by the circumstances around us. And whenever we do get triggered, the habit of pausing kicks in and gives us a few seconds before jumping to reaction. It is in these few seconds that freedom lies.

But learning to pause sounds easier than it is. The reactive patterns are deeply ingrained and takes time to re-wire. In order to actually integrate the art of pausing into your daily life, we need to develop a moment-to-moment awareness of our inner experience and bodily reactions so that we can remind ourselves to stop before reacting.

This art is best practiced “on the spot”, when you find yourself in the midst of a triggering situation and you remember to pause. This is where the real benefits are. To start with, try doing the SOAL exercise (see below) and take a few moments to notice the effects of the practice. Let the effects strengthen the intention to develop this habit until it becomes your natural way of responding.

Learning to pause is perhaps the most essential practice on our journey of mindfulness. It provides the foundation of mindful living because it increases our agency and our ability to respond with more intention and compassion. And the good news is that it can easily be applied in our everyday lives.

Get started right away with the resources below!

The essential practice

The SOAL will make wonders by helping you integrate the art of pausing into the daily life.

3 minute meditation

Start with three minutes of mindfulness:

Coming back to our senses

A 6 minute landing meditation to help you connect with your senses:

Move on to the next frame:

Going deeper

My teacher Tara Brach talking about the importance and sacredness of learning to pause:

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