When you were a child, were you taught to "Stop, look and listen" before crossing the street?
That lesson is to avoid the danger of traffic. It is also a training in monitoring our impulses, teaching us to pause, and to act based on the clear seeing that can arise in the pause.
This pause is a simple natural human skill. It is not as though a child needs to go to a special mindfulness class to learn to cross the street safely.
But, as adults, how many "roads" do we cross without pausing and gathering our attention? How often do our impulses and outer conditions go unnoticed? How often do we end up reacting unwisely and causing unintended harm.
At the core of mindfulness practice is the ability to move from unexamined reactivity to wise responsiveness in our lives.
The Buddha instructed: “Do not chase after the past or place expectations on the future but see clearly in the present moment exactly how things are.” Cultivating the "mindful pause" is a simple and powerful tool to do this. Let’s explore how this works and various ways it can be applied.
One way of pausing is where we set aside time to calm and steady attention in formal meditation by focusing on a selected object like the breath. I teach online in the mornings and get feedback such as: “Great way to start the day, I feel relaxed and refreshed and ready to go.”
Another way to practice is by taking mindful pauses within the flow of a day. One student recently said that she had been “taking 15 mindful breaths” in her car before going into school to teach. She reported that she felt more relaxed and engaged with the students.
This meditator noticed that there was a natural space between one engaged activity (driving) and another (teaching), and took advantage of it. We can experiment with taking a few mindful breaths throughout the day and notice the effects.
Mindful walking can also be a powerful tool and is regularly taught at our meditation center.
Some years ago, a nurse in a local hospital had been suffering from feeling burned out in her work and applied this as she walked the hospital halls on her rounds. She walked naturally but instead of getting caught up in the latest gossip, or anxiously planning, she brought attention into her body.
With deep gratitude, she shared how her work experience had improved from this simple shift in attention.
A final story comes from a student who experienced anxiety while driving. She decided to experiment by bringing more attention to her body, seeing, and the feel of the wheel as she drove.
Instead of turning on the music, she turned on a quality of relaxed present moment awareness. One time, she reported, “I distinctly recall a car pulling out in front of me, nearly hitting me.”
She remained mindful and “was quite happy to maintain my calmness and not react with anger."
This kind of pausing does not separate us from our daily lives. We just naturally bring full care and attention into activity or inactivity. Pause and action are then not divided.
So what is happening in the mindful pause? We are touching an intelligence in the mind and heart that can respond or wait.
This intelligence is not based on thinking, it is based on clear present moment awareness. It co-exists harmoniously with thought but has its own integrity.
If you would like to learn more, please come and join us at The Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport.
Matthew Daniell is a co-founder and guiding teacher of The Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport. He is also a member of the religious services department at Phillips Exeter Academy.