We rightly talk about the pause as being a natural part of the human process – – it is a ‘natural pause’. However, because it is natural does not mean it always comes easily. If we are not aware of how difficult it can be to actually pause, we get painfully surprised when it is difficult to pause. As we better understand the difficulty inherent in taking a pause, we can be better prepared to do it effectively.
So, what is it that can override a natural process that is so important to our ability to integrate experience? In a word, fear. Before describing this process, I will be putting the topic within the larger context of how the brain works.
Fear is not inherently bad. In fact, it is a very powerful feature that has tremendous survival value. It is what happens in fight-or-flight, i.e. when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is a knee-jerk reaction that has developed in all animals to help us survive in case of clear and present danger.
For instance, when an antelope encounters a lion, it is very useful for it to have instant access to flight. For a human being, it is very useful to reflexively remember ‘I’ve been burnt’ in order to avoid touching fire. And it’s also essential to have access to our anger when we need to fight. The parts of our brain that are involved in this reactive mode, such as the amygdala, are evolutionarily very old.
Much more recent evolutionarily are the parts of the human brain that allow for a broader assessment of the situation, beyond the knee-jerk reaction to danger. Neural circuits in the frontal cortex allow us to determine that, even though a given situation feels like a major threat, it is not actually that threatening. This allows us to downgrade from Red Alert to something more appropriate.
What I call the proactive mindset is the human ability to engage the more evolved neural circuits and perform a sort of due diligence to improve the quality of the information that we get through the reactive mindset. I am not talking about ignoring our more primitive reactions, far from that. I am talking about building on these primitive reactions. Instead of reacting impulsively, we use the reactive impulse as a starting point for a more sophisticated process that helps us respond more effectively to a given situation.
The proactive mindset I describe can also be seen as mindfulness. Given how some people think of mindfulness as an esoteric practice, it is important to state that what I am describing here is a natural human ability: The ability to function more effectively, by discriminating more clearly what is a manageable threat from what is not, and adopting more appropriate responses.
Now, how do we do this? Of course, it helps to have an awareness of this process, and the intention to shift from a reactive mode. It helps, but it isn’t nearly enough. Because we are talking about overriding a very powerful mechanism, one that has been reinforced by millions of years of evolution. This mechanism enables us to mobilize enormous amounts of energy in the service of survival when we face what we perceive as a major threat. The bigger the perceived threat, the more impossibly difficult the task will feel. Pushing against the fear will only increase the sense of pressure and danger and make it even more difficult to override the reactive impulses.
When you’re reactive, you may not perceive your reactivity as fear. For instance, you may feel confused. Or feel stuck. Or you may be very angry, even angry to the point of being scary to other people… so that doesn’t sound like you’re afraid, does it? So, let’s not call that fear. Let’s just call it ‘intense emotion, related to a sense of threat’. The point is: It is the very intensity of the emotion that makes it hard to override.
How does one deal with this? I’m going to take a simple example, one where the ‘threat’ can be managed relatively easily. I’m going to talk about what happens when you start wearing contact lenses, how you get accustomed to inserting them into your eyes.
You put the lens on the tip of a finger, and you start moving the index finger toward your eye. You notice that, even though you’re moving your index slowly, and even though you know that this is not an attack on your eye, you automatically close your eyelids as the finger is approaching. So you need to pull down the lower eyelid with one finger of the hand that has the lens, and pull up the upper eyelid with the other hand, to keep the eye open.
Even as you do this, and even though the movement of your finger toward your eye is slow and controlled, you notice that the eye has a tendency to close despite the fingers holding the eyelids open. Fortunately, over time, this operation becomes easier and easier, as your mind learns from experience that there is no risk.
This learning is possible because a lot of conditions are gathered to override the reactive impulse to the perceived attack. For one thing, there is the reassuring knowledge that this procedure is one that has been done by millions of other people, and that the medical profession is behind it. But also, the finger that moves toward your eye is your own, so you can modulate the movement; in other words, there is less of a threat because you have control over the movement. The need for a protective reaction is lessened as you feel safer.
Conversely, you wouldn’t be able to relax enough to keep your eye open if somebody else’s finger was coming at you really fast. It would be impossible to override the perception that this is an attack.
So, in order to override reactivity, you need to feel safer. This doesn’t happen through logic alone. Logic helps, of course, as it does in the case of contact lenses: It helps to know that eye doctors think of this as a safe procedure. But it is not enough. What is necessary is the experience of actually feeling safe, so that the powerful protection circuits of the brain can relax their grip and make change possible. Remember that these protective circuits are those we share with other animals, they’re more primitive than our cortical circuits, they’re not good at the subtleties of complex thought. To overcome reactivity, you need to experience a visceral sense of safety, because the function of reactivity is to protect you.
This visceral sense of safety, and a visceral understanding of the intense emotions that have a grip on you, cannot be fully accessed when we try to get at them by only using words, logical discourse. This is because the brain circuits involved in these emotions are more primitive. So, we need to pay attention to moment-by-moment physical experience. We need to keep coming back to that, as opposed to staying solely at the level of ‘talking about’ what might be happening.
In the example I gave, that of becoming progressively more comfortable inserting a contact lens, comfort with the procedure comes from repeatedly practicing it in a mindful way.
What is that mindful practice? Is it sufficient to just have a ‘mindful practice’, such as mediation, or yoga, or Focusing? It would probably help some, but it wouldn’t be enough to replace the specific practice of inserting the lens. The more intense the potential danger, the more our reactive circuits take over, bypassing the circuits that counterbalance reactivity. In other words: The more intense the potential danger, the more we need to train our mind to recognize that this specific danger is safer than it appears to us.
Why am I calling this a ‘mindful practice’, as opposed to just ‘training’? Let’s pay attention to what happens when we practice inserting the contact lens with our finger. As described earlier in this text, it is something we do slowly, carefully. There are micro-movements forward, interrupted by micro-pauses. The micro-pauses allow us to get a moment-by-moment assessment of the situation.
Think of the images at the beginning of this section, the gates regulating the flow of water. The micro-pauses allow our nervous system to process the advance of the potential threat (the finger), in the context of its ability to control the threat (pausing).
There is no attunement possible without these micro-pauses, because they are what makes it possible to process the potential threat in manageable bites. At a macro level as well as a micro level, the pause gives our nervous system the moment-by-moment realization that we can regulate the flow of experience, that we can make it safe, hence we can open up to it in an optimal way in order to integrate it.
My next article will discuss the pause as a defining moment