Last week I was driving home from a blissful yoga class that focused on being present. I was in my usual post-class state of being: peaceful, calm, enjoying the ride. I carefully changed lanes to avoid a stopped car, using my signal, and as I entered the other lane a car swerved into the lane to quickly scoot around someone who was turning left. I honked to alert the other driver, swerved to avoid them, took a few deep breaths, and peacefully finished my drive home.
Many years ago my experience would have been different. Even today, I am not some super-human yogi that floats through the world at peace with everything. Like we all do, my life has challenges and stressors. For example, my full-time corporate job, a family with two young kids, and a penchant of saying yes too often. What is different now, though is that I also have a skill I’ve been cultivating that Tara Brach (clinical psychologist and meditation teacher) refers to as “The Sacred Pause“.
The term sacred can have different meanings. For me, and in this context, I leverage the Oxford Dictionary definition of “regarded as too valuable to be interfered with”. When we apply that definition of sacred to that moment between an action and our reaction – I believe that the pause in the middle is indeed too valuable to be interfered with.
Pausing before reacting is a combination of being resilient and having emotional balance, two competencies Daniel Goleman cites in a 2015 NY Times article as being components of self-management. It is also the result of having a keen sense of self (or self-awareness) that serves as the foundation of emotional intelligence.
The way I think of self-awareness and self-management is like this: step 1) gather data from the body, mind and emotions (self-awareness) and step 2) thoughtfully choose to do something with that information (self-management). From my experience, the pause is a skill that I must actively choose to take and practice relentlessly. I know I cannot truly master it… I can only become more aware of it.
Here is how I do my best to work through steps 1 & 2 to become mindful of my sacred pause.
- Identify my triggers: When my heart races, palms sweat or my thoughts are sent into a tailspin, I take note of the shifts in my physiology. I pause and simply notice these moments. Our bodies send us signals to let us know something is different. If I listen carefully I can respond to my body letting it know I’m listening… and I do this through a simple breath (or 2 … or 3). Sending a signal to my nervous system to downregulate… to chill out.
- Assess the perceived threat: This is where the full force of the pause kicks in. What has happened? Is it truly something to be afraid of or upset about? If a car is speeding towards me as I cross the street I don’t pause to assess… I let my instinct kick in to save my life. If, however, I receive a pointed and heated email, I can take a pause to assess the situation to determine the most thoughtful course of action. I try and take an outsiders view to assess the situation… thinking of all the many possible causes for the perceived threat. The key in this moment is to remain as neutral as possible and this is where a coach, friend or colleague can be helpful.
- Thoughtfully react: You may have heard of Newton’s 3rd Law that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. In situations where we are triggered however, this law may need to be broken. When I’m reflecting on the best course of action (ie my reaction) I will often ask myself “Will this result in the best possible outcome?”. In the case of getting cut off by another driver I will honk (if appropriate for safety), breath, then, in the words of Taylor Swift, simply shake it off. There is no benefit to anyone if I allow my mind to tailspin into road rage.
Another way to look at this is to use self-management as a way to shift from compulsion to choice. This concept is part of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute’s program, which I am proud to teach within SAP. The sacred pause is the active engagement of the momentary space between our compulsion to react and our thoughtful choice to react.
I challenge you to test your ability to engage in your own sacred pause. The next time you notice your heart racing and head spinning… before you react, press pause. Notice the trigger, take a breath, assess from a neutral perspective… and THEN thoughtfully react. If you can make time stand still for those few precious seconds you might surprise yourself and see how differently you can respond.
It has taken me a very long time to make my sacred pause a habit to create more fruitful outcomes (and I’m still working on it). I truly hope that the other driver who swerved into my lane had their own sacred pause.