Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Press Pause

by Gabi Pinto-Coelho

America: the land of the free and the home of the stressed. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly proud and grateful to be an American, and stress is not a uniquely American experience. But let’s face it, our workplaces promote a culture of more-is-more, dog-eat-dog, do-it-all, and by the way, your request for vacation has been denied. This doesn’t even take into account our often equally over scheduled home lives with household chores and errands, care giving responsibilities, and the ever-growing “wish I could get to” list. It can easily feel as if we are living in the middle of a hurricane, and the only thing we can do to stay in the eye of the storm is to keep doing more, and faster, and more efficiently. Gotta be one step ahead.

As a Type A person, this is how I have lived the majority of my life. To-do lists are my bread and butter, and for me, there is nothing quite as rewarding as crossing off tasks. And while this can certainly be a virtuous quality, I have begun to notice how it is a shortcoming. The constant need to “do” and “get things done” can leave me with a feeling of hyper-vigilance - Have I done everything I need to today? Can I get ahead on anything for tomorrow? Did I forget something? What if I forgot something? Living in this state of heightened stress can lead to a host of problems, which is why I am grateful for the practices of yoga and meditation. If the idea of sitting still on a cushion for 20 minutes or bending and twisting in a 90-minute yoga class makes you cringe, fear not. There is a simple and quick way to practice that peaceful feeling that follows a meditation or yoga session.

Whether it feels like it or not, you have the opportunity to “press pause” on your life whenever you would like to do so. No, I am not talking about literally stopping the passage of time, a la Hiro Nakamura in the TV show Heroes. Instead, I am talking about taking a moment in the day to notice the swirl of activity, thoughts, and emotions, and choose to intentionally pay attention. Notice that this practice is about attention - not about judging, storytelling, wishing things were different, grasping onto something, or pushing something away. It is just about arriving where you are, exactly as you are. So how exactly do you “arrive,” especially when you feel like you are on a high-speed carousel that you cannot escape? 

Well, you have some options:
  • ·      Pause by noticing the physical sensations in your body. You can do this seated, standing, laying down, walking, doing whatever.
  • ·      Pause by noticing the movement of the breath in and out of the body.
  • ·      Pause by noticing the thoughts and emotions as they pass across the mind. This one is a little trickier, so I recommend working with the body and the breath first. Especially when working with the mind, imagine that you are cloud watching - sit on the sidelines and observe as the thoughts and emotions arise and dissipate on their own.

The key to pressing pause is to just observe and bring the mind back to your focus (body, breath, or mind) each time your mind wanders. The practice is not about having an empty mind or only positive experiences - the practice is about returning to this moment without judgment over and over again. If your mind wanders 100 times while you are watching the breath, bring the attention back 100 times. That’s it. This practice might last 2 minutes or 5 minutes... it’s entirely up to you. Simple, but definitely not easy. You might be surprised how it makes you feel.

You might be thinking: well, who is going to get all this stuff done when I am “pressing pause”? What if something urgent comes up? First of all, it is important to trust that world will not devolve into pure chaos if you take a few minutes to arrive in the present. Second, the act of pressing pause is equivalent to a mental “reset” button, and it allows you to return to your tasks more focused and more productive than before. 

We are so focused on getting things done that we convince ourselves that “just another hour of work will really make a difference.” In reality, your push to be productive slows you down and gradually smothers your intellectual and creative capacities. Third, pausing is important not only in those routine moments of stress, but perhaps even more important in times of crisis. 

Research has documented how stress affects our decision-making abilities, and, unsurprisingly, when we are stressed out, we don’t always take the best action. In crises, our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and we tend to react rather than respond intelligently. Pressing pause actually helps us respond well in those high-stakes situations.

The next time you feel that “swirl” in your life - of activity, of thoughts, of emotions - take a moment and press pause. See what happens.

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