The Sacred Pause Between Stimulus and Response

Man's Search for Meaning

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

A quote from a book that made me cry and change my life forever – “A Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. The author talks about his horrific experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Victor Frankl survived the most gruesome experiences a human can endure.  Everything that makes us human was taken away from him.  It was not what happened to Victor Frankl (stimulus) but how he responded to it (pause). Even when everything was taken from him, Viktor Frankl found freedom and power in his ability to choose his response.

It is a challenging concept for most of us to pause, breathe, and stay with our joy or pain. We are constantly driven by our senses, media, social pressures, and other stimuli. Yet, the faster we go, the less we notice, and the less time we have to be present with life. 

One of my favorite mediation teachers, Tarah Brach, defines the state between stimulus and response as a “Sacred Pause.” In one of her books, Radical Acceptance, she wrote:

“Pausing as a technique may feel unfamiliar, awkward, or at odds with our usual way of living. But actually there are many moments—showering, walking, driving—when we release our preoccupations and are simply aware and letting life be.”

On reflection, I found myself in the most trouble when I rushed and pushed: quickly reaching out for the cookie jar when my stomach was full, falling and busting my knee skiing just so that I could get one more run in, saying things that I regretted and clicking that cursed send button a little too fast. So, how can we get better at pausing?

How Can We Practice A Sacred Pause?

Pausing is an ongoing discipline – the easiest place to start is with our bodies. Linking breath and movement is free and available to all of us. As we link our minds with our breaths during a simple five-minute yoga practice, we enter into stillness, focusing on the movement. We become friends with ourselves. The stimulus may interrupt us as we wonder what’s in the fridge, our endless to-do lists, emails – to name a few. We can kindly bring it back to our breathing, we continue to focus on the body and breath, and as we become aware, we pause. 

I often think of impulses as popup ads; as they pop into my mind, I label it “thought” and mentally press the delete button.  If a strong call for action comes up, I write it down and put it on my might-do list.

Ideally, we start each daily with a short meditation, learning how to stay in that sacred pause. However, there are other ways to stop and smell the roses. Here is the list of some easy-to-implement pauses. 

Five Easy Ways to Learn How to Use Sacred Pause

 

1) When in doubt, Roll It Out!

 

It’s been an awful week. The deadline for my work project was approaching like an arrow that wounded Genghis Khan in the neck. I had a call with a long-term student to help her with her practice. I also scheduled a doggie physical therapy for 4:00 pm (the worst time for me). Yes, I should not over-book my calendar. But I did. And I messed everything up. We drove for over an hour with my dog barking only to find out that the session was scheduled for the next week. As a result, my husband and I fought. As I held my tears back, driving through the evening traffic, all I wanted was to come home and have a jar full of cookies. Instead, I paused. Wallowing in my misery was not an option. Instead, I rolled my belly with Lauren Roxburgh and did some tapping.  Slowly, I softened my angry attitude and forgave myself for messing up, forgetting about messing up. The next day, my husband and I made up, and I cleaned up my schedule.  

2) Let Your Eyes Wander 

I was pulling my hair out, trying to find an error in my code. In case if you didn’t know, I worked in the Software business in addition to my wellness gig. So, it was like looking for a needle in a stack of hey. My solution before yoga was to drink more coffee, smoke a cigarette, or eat some really fatty food. It was a pause. But 40 pounds fatter and full of disease is not the ideal way for a healthy life. After a few decades of practice, I trained myself to look away from the computer into the distance, pause, take about six to 12 deep breaths. 

Andrew Huberman, a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine and a pioneer in modern neuroscience, explained in one of his articles:

Interestingly, when we see something stressful – a headline, a huge credit-card charge, an email from your manager that you screwed up – heart rate increases, and breathing increases. One of the most powerful changes is with vision. The pupils dilate, and there’s a change in the position of the lens in the eye. Your visual system goes into the equivalent of portrait mode on a smartphone. Your field of vision narrows. You see one thing in sharper relief, and everything else becomes blurry. Your eyeballs rotate just slightly toward your nose, which sets your depth of field and focuses on a single location. This is a primitive and ancient mechanism by which stress controls the visual field.

This focal vision activates the sympathetic nervous system. All the neurons from your neck to the top of your pelvis get activated at once and deploy a bunch of transmitters and chemicals that make you feel agitated and want to move.

I was shocked to learn that the eyes are actually two pieces of the brain.

Ph.D. Andrew Huberman,  explaining that eyes are not connected to the brain; they are the brain. During development, the eyes are part of the embryonic forebrain.

Your eyes get extruded from the skull during the first trimester, and then they reconnect to the rest of the brain. So they’re part of the central nervous system. Having the eyes outside the skull orients the organism to the time of day. But it also means that you’ve got two pieces of brain that can register events in the environment at a distance in order to adjust the overall state of alertness in the rest of the brain and body. It would be terrible if we had to wait until things were in contact with us before we could prepare to react to them.

So, when you pause with your eyes, you can change the state of your brain!

 The panoramic vision, or optic flow. When [you] look at a horizon or at a broad vista, you don’t look at one thing for very long. If you keep your head still, you can dilate your gaze so you can see far into the periphery—above, below and to the sides of you. That mode of vision releases a mechanism in the brain stem involved in vigilance and arousal.

We can actually turn off the stress response by changing the way that we are viewing our environment, regardless of what’s in that environment.

3) Go For a Walk

There is absolutely nothing a good walk can’t heal. I try not to take walking for granted. I turn my phone off and focus on trees, smells, staying very present with life. How my feet touch the rocks, I take deep breaths to inhale the world and feel my body and mind as a part of divine nature. Mostly, I love walking my pup. Mind you; he is not the easiest to handle. But it amazing to watch him sniff the world. I smell and hug trees as Rocky (my pup) explores all the doggie trails to tell you a secret.  

Interesting fact, one of the calf muscles: the soleus also known as the peripheral heart-acts as a pump to push blood from the legs back to the heart. So, anytime I venture out on a walk, I think of it as my soul walk. 

I always try to walk within an hour of sunshine. As Andrew Huberman notes,

First, that morning walk calms me through something called optic flow. Self-generated optic flow  –  by walking, running, or cycling — shifts the brain into a state of relaxation that’s not seen when you’re stationary … When you move through a space and you’re active, there’s a natural calming of the brain circuits involved in threat and threat detection.

4) Listen 

There was a very dark time in my life when I was not able to walk. At the same time, my father passed away, and I had a blood clot. At the same time, I discovered Audible. As I listen to Douglas Adam’s tales, I traveled with Arthur Dent through the galaxy, and the world got a little brighter. 

A good story helps us to feel a greater sense of connection. It can increase our empathy and help us to cultivate compassion and kindness. As we connect with the characters in a story, our brain releases oxytocin, a bonding or “love” hormone

To listen to a story is another great way to practice the sacred pause.

5)  Move: Dance, Jump, Strech

Jump with Puppies

After another long day full of calls and computer time, all I feel like doing is spacing out in front of a Tele with a bag of kale chips. Okay, I say, Anna, let’s reach your arms up, inhale as I reach my arms up, and exhale as I lower. 

Remember, I say to myself out loud, that food will not make you less tired or numb the pain. Correction, food will numb the pain instantly but will not resolve anything. What am I not willing to feel right now? I reach towards my toes, breathing out. Tiredness, anxiety, the voice answers. Is it real, I ask? No, the inner voice answers. All that happens within a minute or so. And, that’s enough for a sacred pause to break my mind chatter.

Recently, I invested in a good trampoline, and let me tell you; it is impossible to stay grumpy as I bounce high towards the sky. Alternatively, I turn on my favorite tunes and do a little shaking-dancing routine. Any moves that get you of your head and into your body will do the trick.

So, my friends, here some of the tools that work for someone like me, with tendencies for addictions and self-destruction. I have to be honest with you; I still occasionally binge, freak out and rush through life. But more and more, I can catch myself, pause, breathe, and dwell in the mystery of the moment. And I hope it will help you to find your sacred pause.

Eventually, this pause translates into our everyday life. Each day, we become a little more present with ourselves, our children, and our loved ones. We notice the beauty and tranquility of the natural world, and life feels just a little bit more full and exciting. Of course, not all experiences are pleasant. Life can be painful, and things can break. We lose our health and loved ones, but we can endure because we always have the choice to pause and respond! 

Remember, stimulus does not control your reaction. And it is not what happens to us but how we respond. With the sacred pause, we can become better listeners, friends, lovers, enjoy life to the fullest, and deal with pain.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite sayings:

Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Please share your thoughts and comments on what worked for you.

Disclaimer:
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. The entire contents of this website are based upon the opinions of Anna Sheinman. They are not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional, and they are not intended as medical advice. They are intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from my own research and experience. I encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.

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