I recently was fortunate enough to teach a mindfulness retreat in the outback desert country. A profound experience indeed to meditate in the stillness and expanse of this ancient land. It’s a place that invites the mind and heart to grow more spacious, open, less caught up in the minutiae of daily life.
“Let yourself be open and life will be easier. A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed.”
When we meditate one of the things we cultivate is the ability to experience spaciousness. Thoughts, usually perceived as a constant stream of mental events that accompany every waking moment begin to slow, become distinct and moments of stillness arise in the time when one thought ends and the next begins. You may have heard the analogy that in meditation, thoughts can be compared to clouds in a vast clear, blue sky. Sometimes these thoughts are like wild storm clouds, other times like big, puffy slow moving cumulus and other times like fast moving clouds that chase each other. There are many others of course. With practice, the thought clouds slow, calm, become fewer, less compelling and may even fall into the background altogether. We enter the spaciousness of the big blue sky. Ahhh.
Another place of spaciousness is the breath, our faithful friend in meditation. Here is a quote that describes this very well:
Noticing that inside this very breath is the opportunity to find a spacious freedom. Often it seems so much life is contained inside a small space. There just isn’t that much space to move or breathe. Yet the fact is that this very breath can become a doorway to a spacious, vibrant and beautiful life! No matter what. Whether I am experiencing pain, or pleasure, the fact is that every moment I am breathing, is the very opportunity to open to the alive presence of life. Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/5011659
I call this a sacred pause.
In the Survivorship Group a few nights ago we discussed this idea of a ‘sacred pause’ in everyday living. We talked about how easy it is to become reactive, how quick we often are to say or do something that is perhaps not the most skilful way to respond. It may look something like this:
For example: you walk down the street, see a neighbour come toward you but rather than greet you she crosses the road and walks straight past. There are a number of ways that you might respond to this but one of them might be to get upset, angry and wonder what you might have said or done for her to want to avoid you. In the long run you might distance yourself from her or get into a fight over nothing. You might feel shame or guilt thinking that you have caused this to happen.
But there is a whole lot going on in the background of our being. Perhaps this is a way to represent this:
The trigger/event is to be ignored by the neighbour. Perception is the part that knows the event. Perception is followed in a split second by interpretation. The interpretation then is the crucial part: how do we interpret the situation? All our values, beliefs, morals, experiences, education, personality traits, fears, hopes and so on come together in this split second and give us a ‘reading’ of the trigger/event. So, if you being ignored by the neighbour is interpreted as, for example: ‘I must have said or done something to offend her’, you will ‘read’ the event through this lens.
The interpretation determines the feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations that lead to the reaction. So, say if you are feeling angry and think that she is not worth having as a friend anyway, this will lead to distancing yourself.
If we want to work more consciously and mindfully with emotions and reactions it might be worth considering the following: What if we introduce a pause into this chain of events? Rather than just ‘running’ with emotions and reactivity we could pause and take a moment before reaction. This leads to stepping out of automatic pilot, habitual reactions and ever repeating cycles of unhappiness and offers new choices, a new freedom. A new way of responding to the situation maybe born. Perhaps, in the example above, there are other interpretations for the neighbours behaviour: maybe she didn’t wear her glasses and didn’t see you or maybe she was rushing off to hospital to visit a dying friend and was too preoccupied with her concerns to pay attention to you.
There are a number of moments one could pause, even after the ‘horse has bolted’, so to speak as it is in the reflection on reactivity, that we can learn much about ourselves. Following reaction ‘upstream’ can lead to profound insights and new choices next time round.
There is another important aspect to consider. When feelings arise and our mind and body are in upheaval, we can cultivate compassion toward ourselves rather than adding more pain to an already difficult situation. We can lean in, meet our feelings with kindness, friendliness as best as possible.
When I researched the ‘sacred pause’ I came across a passage in ‘The Wise Heart’, a book by one of my most trusted teachers Jack Kornfield. He writes:
“Because experience happens so quickly, habitual responses can come out of our mouth or from our hands before we know it. It helps to practice skilful responses when things are easy. That way when things are tough, our pattern is already set. It also helps to train ourselves to pause before our response. This is called a sacred pause, a moment where we stop and release our identification with problems and reactions. In a moment of stopping, we break the spell between past result and automatic reaction. When we pause, we can notice the actual experience, the pain or pleasure, fear or excitement. In the stillness before our habits arise, we become free.
In this pause, we can examine our intention. If we have set a long-term intention or dedication for our life, we can remember our vows. Or we can simply check our motivation. Are we trying to get even or win at any cost? Or do we want to act out of respect for ourself and others to sow seeds of understanding and courage?
The power of intention is mostly visible in our speech, in conversation we get immediate feedback, and often the response we get will reflect our intention. Before we speak, we can examine our motivation. Is our motivation one of compassion and concern for everyone? Or do we want to be right? Clarifying our intention is critical in times of difficulty. When there is a difference or conflict, do we genuinely want to hear about the concerns of the other? Are we open to learn, to see?”
So, as Jack says in the above excerpt, this is about training, about cultivating. Meditation offers this training but ultimately it’s what happens off the cushion that matters most. I agree with Jack, practicing when things are easy makes a lot of sense.