I remember walking down a path in the woods at the first Bedlam Farm eight or nine years ago, I was struck by a wave of terror and confusion so great that it took my breath away and almost knocked me to the ground.
I started to reach for some pills I had been given to calm me, I had broken down.
But something told me to put them back in my pocket. I didn’t want to take any more pills.
I thought of the Sacred Pause, and stopped and, and closed my eyes and took some deep breaths, and as I had been taught, exhaled my panic and disconnection and loss of perspective.
I don’t recall how long I paused, but I do remember that when I opened my eyes, I was calm, even confident that I could survive another day and live to find the life I was meant to live.
It was a moment of wonder, an awakening, a miracle to me.
I remember that I had just read an essay, it might have been by Thomas Merton, about what he called the Sacred Pause.
I first encountered this idea in St. Augustine’s the City Of God, and then again, in the Kabbalah. The mystics embraced the idea of pausing and important times all through the day.
It was a timeless idea. It slowed and deepened the chaotic world.
When he was frightened or angry or frantic or lost, Merton said, he would simply pause and turn inward, and stand in the present, leaving the past and the future behind.
He would pause for a minute or two, or an hour, or even much longer, and then return to the issue pre-occupying him and taking over his consciousness. He found that he always felt differently afterward.
Less frightened, less angry, less spent, clearer of mind. At peace.
The Sacred Pause, I had learned, was a spiritual as well as a clinical psychological term for pausing at different points and times of life. It came up in my therapy a number of times. It sparked my long trek towards acceptance, of me, of my life.
“Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance,” said an article in Psychology Today in 2012, ” a pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.”
Tara Brach, the author of the book Radical Acceptance, wrote that pausing is the gateway to Radical Acceptance. “In the midst of a pause, we are giving room and attention to the life that is always streaming through us, the life that is habitually overlooked….rather than running away, we need only commit ourselves to arriving, here and now, with wholehearted presence.”
My animals have always shown me the Sacred Pause and taught it to me. It is one of the things animals can give us if we pay attention to them. I often see the donkeys, dogs, even the chickens, pausing in their pursuit of food or shelter, they seem to stop and turn inward and ground themselves.
To me, they are reminding themselves of who they are and what is important to them. I rarely took the time to do that.
This is what I have learned and am learning to do, and the Sacred Pause has become one of the most powerful and important tools that I have learned to use.
The other morning, I woke up in a panic about my $4,000 dental bill, I just couldn’t imagine how I might pay it.
These night demons are a legacy of my childhood bedwetting is panicked awakenings in the middle night, where my worst fears bubble up like so seething volcano and cover me in sweat and fear and shivers.
I sat up and I paused, I took a deep breath and left the future alone, and the past behind me, and simply reconnected with the qualities of presence, wisdom, and love inside of me, as monks and priests have done for centuries.
When I came back to myself, I was no longer frightened, I understood that I would pay this debt over time and live my life as I am doing and wish to do. I was calm. Out of the pause, I had confidence and clarity, I have handled much worse, and many times.
Some months ago, I was carrying a grudge against a long-time friend who had lied to me, again and again, and betrayed our friendship. I felt this anger rising in me and focused on the sensations in my body and mind, and stepped out of myself and paused.
I just allowed, just for the moment, what was happening inside of me. I accepted it rather than fight it and considered it from a distance as I might consider a hawk soaring in the sky.
When I find myself angry or discouraged or overwhelmed or disconnected, I pause.
Mostly, I pause for a few seconds, I observe the flow of my breath. Every time, I become aware of a silent but powerful sense of presence, and I am reminded that my worries and preoccupations are a speck, a splatter on the windshield of the universe.
I pause while sitting, standing, driving, taking a walk, even writing, certainly while taking a photograph or shoveling manure out of the barn. Sometimes I pause at night, in bed.
I paused just before writing this essay.
Tara Brach calls this process “beginning your life fresh at that moment by pausing, relaxing and paying attention to your immediate experience.”
One writer described the Sacred Pause as a simple way to step into daily magic, I find that is close to my experience.
The sacred pause is the time when I remember my humble and very small place in life. I notice the wonder of the world and get back in touch with myself, set myself straight. In the sacred pause, I encounter moments of wonder, and I feel my fear and anger shrink almost to invisibility, dwarfed by the far greater awareness of the world around me.
But I think the most beautiful description of the Sacred Pause came from the Irish Poet John O’Donohue, during an interview:
“Wisdom is the art of living in rhythm with your soul, your life, and with the Divine…Wisdom is the way you learn to decipher the unknown, which is our closest companion.”