I’m participating in Sharon Salzberg’s 28-Day Real Happiness Meditation Challenge again this year, and my plan for this blog series is to write a poem or reflection on each day’s practice. You can find all the responses on the landing page.
Today’s meditation reminded me of the benefits of pausing — of pausing between feeling, thinking, or sensing and immediately reacting; of pausing to notice and be curious about what we’re feeling, thinking, sensing, before we act on it by judging it, creating stories about it, grasping at it or pushing it away.
In this meditation, we keep our attention on the breath, and then,
“if something arises that is predominant, that takes over our awareness — sensation, sound, image, emotion, thinking — see if you can make a quiet mental note of just what that experience is in the moment without judgment, just as an act of recognition. … Many things will arise and pass away, some very pleasant, some unpleasant, some neutral, but our job is just to note them, to recognize them, to see them for what they are, to see the truth of this very moment, and then breathe.”
This is practice not only in being aware of what we’re thinking, feeling, and sensing, but also in not reacting to it. By noting what we’re experiencing, we’re making space for it to exist, giving ourselves a moment to undergo it or metabolise it without doing anything about it.
Sharon’s inspirational quote today speaks to this more directly:
I often see a benefit in not reacting immediately to my own thoughts, feelings, and sensations. When I can remember to step back for a second, just a second, and experience and allow my thoughts and feelings to exist, without trying to change them, I make space for what I’m experiencing, and there’s an opportunity to notice that what on the surface seems like anger or frustration, for example, may, after a moment’s exploration, turn out to be more a mixture of grief, betrayal, hurt, loneliness, anxiety, disappointment. That awareness can help me address my feeling differently, respond to it more skillfully both in my own psyche and in interactions with someone else.
Another benefit to pausing, especially relating to physical sensations, such as hearing a sound that’s annoying or seeing something aggravating, for instance, is that it makes me aware that I don’t have to react habitually to that sound, that sight.
In winter here, I tend to say “brr” all day long because I’m often cold, even in the house (in fact, more so in the house; outside, I’m dressed very warmly but dressing more warmly than I do in the house inhibits my ability to type, cook, clean, and perform other fine motor activities). I could choose to notice when I say “brr” and to gradually notice the moment before I say “brr” and perhaps stop automatically saying it — because, really, what’s the use? And maybe also saying “brr” reinforces a negative response in myself to being cold, when being cold is not a negative thing in itself (people long for some degree of it in summer and seek out air-conditioned spaces just to feel cold); in fact, maybe I could make this an opportunity to just feel cold — feel what feeling cold feels like — without judging it, rejecting it, seeking to change it. Or, another idea, I could see “brr” as a mental notation for “cold, oh so cold,” recognise that that’s my experience at that moment, and then return to my breath. Or, I could say “brr” and laugh at how habituated I am, responding to the same sensation the same way every time. The point is that once we notice, and pause, we open up our options for response.
Sidenote: Simply saying “brr” is not helpful in physically reducing cold, but shivering while saying “brr” (or not saying “brr”) is actually helpful in reducing cold, the body’s way of creating a little warmth by tightening and loosening muscles quickly. According to Princeton University’s OutdoorAction website (under “thermoregulation”), “visible shivering can boost your body’s surface heat production by about 500 percent.” Can that be right? In any case, I find that a 3-mile walk on the treadmill goes a long way toward warming me up, but unfortunately it takes an hour, whereas shivering fits more easily into my schedule.
This practice of mental notation reminds me of Pema Chödrön’s pause practice. As a short essay by her at Lion’s Roar (in 2017) puts it, “Our habits are strong, so a certain discipline is required to step outside our cocoon and receive the magic of our surroundings.”
The pause practice is to take “three conscious breaths at any moment when we notice that we are stuck. … If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience. When you are washing up, or making your coffee or tea, or brushing your teeth,” stop, breathe, create a gap in your digressive, thinking mind for just a moment before returning to thinking again. It’s the “pause that refreshes” (as Coca-Cola company said of its product in 1929), a restorative hiatus from stimulation.
She adds, fancifully almost: “Let it be like popping a bubble.” We note a moment in time — a moment we’re living in now, here — and then move on to the next moment.