As important as it is to keep our well of inspiration filled through Pause practices, there will be times in our relationships when our ability to maintain our equanimity is challenged. At these times, it is critically important that we Pause—right then. But, how do we do this? Even as someone who studies this, there are many times when, in hindsight, I see how I lost my equanimity because I forgot to Pause.
Why is it so hard to Pause? We often respond to scary situations as if they are dangerous (see blog, Scary versus Dangerous) for at least three reasons. First, our physiology is working against us. We evolved to respond to threats through flight or fight. Or if things were especially dire, freeze—when self-defense or escape seemed impossible. Pausing isn’t wise in dangerous situations. So, our bodies try to protect us by enabling quick, focused responses—which disables broad awareness and thoughtful contemplation. Second, our society emphasizes speed, supporting assumptions of an urgency beyond what is optimal for breaking out of habitual responses—and, usually, an urgency beyond the situation’s need for resolution. As I remind myself and my colleagues, we don’t work in an emergency room—we will make a better decision if we take the time to consider our options. And finally, like Pause practices, we fear finding out what truths will be revealed should we Pause.
SPOILER ALERT: You Can’t Get There from Here (and You Will Get There)
I haven’t found a direct path to remembering to Pause when most needed. I think it is similar to enlightenment and wisdom: it’s hard-earned, and it’s also a gift. There are three behaviors that increase the probability of the gift being bestowed:
(1) Set the intention to Pause, recognizing the bravery and merit of pausing (see blog, Pause…Please!)
(2) Regularly engage in Pause practices, so that we have as full a reservoir as possible when challenging moments arise (see blog, Pause Practice: Scary, Transformational, Subversive Stuff)
(3) And, the topic of this blog, simulate in-the-moment pausing so that we are prepared to pause when we most need to do so.
Learning to Pause In-the-Moment
One model of learning is that we progress through four stages of competence: from (1) unconsciously incompetent to (2) consciously incompetent to (3) consciously competent to (4) unconsciously competent. The cycle then repeats, spiraling up at a greater skill level. Applied to pausing in tense relational moments, we start oblivious to when pausing could be helpful (unconsciously incompetent). Then, having become aware of the value of pausing (consciously incompetent), we recognize, “Damn! I did it again—I forgot to Pause.” Next, with reminders, we will recognize an in-the-moment pausing opportunity (consciously competent). And, finally, we will utilize a pause when helpful, maybe even starting to pause before we realize we are doing so (unconsciously competent)—NIRVANA!
Simulated In-the-Moment Pausing
I assume that you have reached consciously incompetence in your in-the-moment pausing—you have recognized missed pausing opportunities. Moving to consciously competent requires training, and lots of practice. Replacing our automatic responses with new, more agentive behaviors is difficult and not easily learned when we are taxed. For this reason, it is helpful to practice the in-the-moment Pause techniques provided below when you aren’t completely stressed out—for example, when you are not in the middle of an argument in a significant relationship.
Practicing when Calm. You can practice with non-emotional interactions, so that you are more likely to utilize a Pause when you most need it. For example, at the beginning of or before a routine work meeting, take some deep breaths. As the meeting starts, scan yourself, your colleagues, and the environment to assess how optimally the meeting appears to support everyone’s safety needs. If you see a way that something could be improved (e.g., a fan turned down to make it easier to hear), try making slight environmental modifications. Similarly, when getting together with a friend, engage in a Pause to help you be more present for your beloved and yourself.
Practicing with Normal Routines. Another way to practice is to use a location as a trigger to try out a new pausing response. If there is somewhere that you go that has resulted in (even slight) tension and disruption to your equanimity, you can practice a pausing technique as you travel to or enter that space. For example, since my concussion, I find grocery stores overly stimulating. Before I go to the grocery store, it helps me to acknowledge that I may find the noise, lights, and packaging overwhelming. After lovingly acknowledging that shopping is difficult for me, I take some deep breaths before I enter. This sets me up to continue to scan my body as I shop, and breath into any tension as needed.
Random Practice. And, finally, the technique that I have found most helpful is to set a random alarm as a trigger to practice pausing. I use a phone app that plays a bell chime randomly each hour. The random reminders help me to notice throughout the day when I am holding my breath, clenching my jaw, or otherwise losing touch with my body. This awareness (slowly) solidifies so that, even without a beautiful bell tone, I am more likely to notice when my equanimity has started to slip. Then, I can restore myself to my body and calm myself with breath.
As you practice pausing, it will become a more automatic part of your repertoire, something you can draw on whenever you start to feel your equanimity slipping. And, you will become increasingly conscious of the first signs in your body that your equanimity is beginning to be taxed. It’s relational potty training: to avoid accidents, we have to learn our early body sensations that warn us of our needs. Pausing is a great gift, as it is always immediately available to us.
If a Pause is sufficient to restore equanimity is personally determined—it is accomplished when we feel prepared to move forward in the discussion with our beloved(s), our love at the fore, aware of and informed by our fear. A Pause may last just an instant, for a few hours, or for decades. Psychotherapist David Richo advises,
It is an act of love for others to work on handling what can be handled in as timely a manner as possible. It is an act of love for ourselves to take all the time we need. Somewhere between those two is the middle path of mutuality in relationships.
As we Pause, we are providing both (1) the means to (re)establish our equanimity and (2) a scan of ourselves, the beloved(s), and the environment to determine if it is currently possible to engage in this discussion productively.
(Re)Establishing Our Equanimity
Assuming that we are safe (scared, maybe, but not in danger), pausing when we feel agitated in a relationship can open up new possibilities in how we respond. We can (re)establish our equanimity by paying attention to our bodies, most especially our breathing. It is most productive to breathe through your nose to restore calm; however, if this is not comfortable or possible for you, awareness of the breath is the most critical element. Following are some practices that you can use to Pause:
· Slowing your breathing: research shows that rapid breathing increases anxiety, whereas slow breathing leads to relaxation. The optimal pace is about 5 ½ seconds inhaling and 5 ½ seconds exhaling. For most of us, this is slower than we typically breathe, and definitely slower than we breathe when we feel threatened. So, just focusing on slowing the breath is useful. When other thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge and gently release them, bringing your attention back to your breath.
· Abdominal breathing: When we are ruled by fear (which may present as anger or other strong emotions), we can restore our sense of safety and calm by grounding ourselves in the solidness of our bodies. When we are emotionally aroused, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh advises that
To stay on the level of the intellect is not safe. Strong emotions are like a storm, and to stand in the middle of a storm is very dangerous.”
Focusing on breathing fully into our abdomen will ground ourselves in the solidness of our bodies, expediting our return to calm. Using slow, steady breaths, focus on expanding the stomach with each inhale and feeling the stomach contract with each exhale.
· Box Breathing: A variation of slowing the breath, Box Breathing includes a break between both the inhalation and exhalation. With Box Breathing, you inhale to a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale to a count of 4, and wait before inhaling for a count of 4. If a count of 4 is difficult, you can use 3; if 4 is comfortable, you can work up to longer counts.
· Increasing either the inhale or exhale: Extending our inhaling relative to our exhaling activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing our energy and arousal levels. Conversely, extending our exhaling relative to our inhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system, increasing our sense of calm and peace. We can choose to increase either our inhale or exhale lengths to control our arousal levels, depending on what we wish to bring to the situation. If you find counting helpful, start with breaths to a count of 4 for both inhales and exhales, gradually extend either the inhale or exhale up to a count of 8. Or, just attend to lengthening and shortening the two parts of the cycle to accomplish your goal. For example, when I am riding up a chair lift to do a difficult ski run, I lengthen my inhales and shorten my exhales so that I jump off the chair ready to give my all to my skiing. Conversely, as I am walking to a department meeting, I think about extending my exhales so that I may be a calm presence in the group.
· Stretching: Movement is a very powerful means to reset and prepare ourselves to be fully present, especially if we have been sitting or inactive prior. Stretching can occur seated or standing. Do what feels good to your body, trying (if possible) to stretch all large muscle groups. Stretching should be gentle and smooth, rather than forced. Many people store tension in their necks and shoulders—so you may want to start with shrugging and releasing your shoulders down your back, or tucking your chin and gently rolling your neck from side to side.
· Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is the process of tensing and then relaxing one muscle group at a time. Muscle relaxation enhances mental calmness, and prepares you to notice any body tension in your subsequent conversation. Generally, people start at their feet and move through the legs, then start with their hands and move through their arms, then work up through the torso, and finally work through the face and head; however, you can also do this in the reverse order, starting at the head and ending at the feet. After working each small part of a body section (e.g., feet, calves, thighs), you can tense and relax that whole body portion (e.g., the legs) before moving to the next section, ending with tensing and relaxing the whole body. This is often most effective when done lying down, but can also be done seated or standing.
· Visualization: Visualization is a term that covers a wide range of relaxation techniques. Visualizations can improve wellbeing, enhance creativity, and increase our insights into ourselves. It can be as simple as a mantra (e.g., I use the word, ‘Everything!’ to help myself during significant athletic moments), or as complex as a guided visual journey (for example, a guided forest walk). In between these two extremes, you can visualize being in a calm, safe environment (for many people this is somewhere in nature, such as a beach, the mountains, or a meadow)—your place of refuge can also include individuals and teachings for which you are grateful, and which bring you refueling and inspiration. Alternately, you can visualize yourself and your beloved feeling safe, happy, at peace and ease, healthy, and free from pain. Similarly, you can visualize yourself behaving in the manner you wish in an upcoming conversation. If you are feeling anxious or stressed, as you exhale, you can visualize releasing the tension resulting from your fear; and, as you inhale, visualize love and tranquility filling the space that tension had occupied. For all visualizations, engaging as many senses as possible increases the potency (What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel on your skin? What do you smell? And, possibly, what do you taste?).
· Leave: Sometimes, it is easiest to reset by literally changing location. This can be moving the discussion to a new location or getting yourself out prior to the conversation. You can go for a brief walk, sit outside for a couple of minutes, or even move your location in the same room. If you do go for a walk, focus on your feet contacting the solid ground. When you lose your focus, gently bring your attention back to what you are doing and feeling at that moment.
· Reschedule: If none of the above provide you with a sense of equilibrium, this is not the time for an important conversation. More often than not, what feels so urgent can actually wait. If you realize that this is a suboptimal time for a conversation, reschedule if at all possible. It is important for both people that your commitment to having the conversation is conveyed, so try to be as specific as possible about when would be a better time.
Scanning Self, Beloved, and Environment
As the last in-the-moment Pause, Reschedule, stated, there are more and less optimal times for an important discussion. Optimal conditions are dependent on you, your beloved(s), and the environment. Utilizing the above Pauses may make you aware that you don’t have the resources, at this time, for the task—I have learned to recognize when the physical cost of going to the grocery store is going to be higher than the benefit. Similarly, sometimes I am not resourced enough to bring my best self to an important interaction. Your beloved may also not be in a place of equanimity. Or, the environment may not be conducive to a productive conversation.
Some of the biggest impediments are environmental. If there is a time pressure, this can heighten anxiety and make it harder to focus on what is being discussed. I like to know that an important conversation can run its natural course, and not be constricted by one or both parties needing to dash off to another commitment. So, I try to check in with the person/people I am talking with to see if anyone has an upcoming commitment.
Along with time for the conversation is time to absorb the conversation—ideally, I schedule time for reflection or self-care, as needed, rather than being required to be ‘on’ in some fashion shortly after the conversation. If the conversation has been potentially difficult or impactful for others, you can also inquire how they are going to take care of themselves as you end the conversation.
Other environmental considerations have to do with physical comfort and the ability to interpret each other. It’s not good to be too cold or hot, in rigid positions, etc.—often slight activity, such as walking or driving, can allow for natural breaks, which can help moderate intensity. At other times, sitting without any distractions or interruptions is best. Of great importance is that you be able to hear and see each other, and have the level of privacy (and protection) that you need to feel safe and comfortable while self-disclosing and listening.
This brings us to your safety needs—you and your beloved need to know that your survival is assured. For me, my spouse, and my child, we all get ‘hangry’—often at the same moment. We should never go into an important conversation hungry. Family therapist Justin Coulson has developed the acronym HALTS for some of the main reasons that we lose our equanimity: we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Stressed. I get antsy and impatient if I need to pee—I have realized it is much better to interrupt the conversation and go to the bathroom, than to not.
It is useful to do a quick scan of yourself and the beloved. If either of you are not feeling that your safety needs are assured, it will be most productive to address your safety needs first. After doing that, you may be able to continue into the conversation or it may be best to save it for a different time. For my family, after a satisfying dinner can be an ideal time to have an important conversation. You know yourself and your beloved. When you have Paused, you are able to determine if this is an optimal time for an important conversation.
Summary: Pausing to Find Ourselves
In total, pausing provides the opportunity for us to bring our best selves forward in our relationships and lives. Scheduling Pause practices into our routines builds our equanimity stores and allows us to hear our inner voice. Practicing in-the-moment pausing builds our skills to utilize a Pause when it matters most. Engaging in a Pause immediately prior to and during significant moments in our relationships sets us up to creatively engage with our beloveds and bring our best selves into important conversations. As Psychotherapist Tara Brach says, “Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experiences.”
Pausing is not for the faint of heart. For lots of reasons, remembering to Pause is really hard. It is understandable why we often “forget” to Pause. A meaningful, important first step is to set the intention to Pause. When we notice that we didn’t Pause, this also is progress—congratulate yourself for noticing that you didn’t Pause. Determine what in-the-moment Pause would be useful to you, and schedule practice to help the behavior become more automatic. And, when the gift of in-the-moment pausing arrives (and I promise it will be bestowed upon you, but I can’t tell you when)—notice and celebrate the heck out of this!