Would you rather have the ability to fly or be invisible? If you want to be a superhero, these might be some of the powers you’d consider. But I’d like to suggest another, less exotic, but far more achievable power: the pause button.
Meditation is pitched as a cure for stress, anxiety and a host of other modern ailments. What underlies all these factors is the ability to see our internal processes with greater clarity. If that sounds simple then that’s because it is. Meditation can help with all of these things, but the awareness it brings is what it’s all about. How you perceive the world is fundamental to your experience of it. And if that perception is clouded by the colour of your emotions, or driven by any random thought, then you’re nothing but a slave to whatever happens to appear in your mind in a given circumstance.
I try to think about the ability that mindfulness gives us as a pause button. When I find myself getting caught up in negative thought patterns, I use this image as a trigger to stop and observe rather than continuing to act. Developing a pause button through increased awareness of our thoughts and emotions is a way to create freedom from the turmoil of our minds. It’s a power worth investing in.
A Walk Down Oxford Street
Walk the through streets of any major city and you have the chance to see this in action. Take a busy area, such as Oxford Street in London, which is full of pedestrians. People are all walking at different paces and many of them are routinely distracted by something in one of the shop windows. They stop suddenly in the middle of the pavement, cutting you off at a moments notice. You, on the other hand, know exactly where you need to be. You hustle along the sidewalk trying to navigate this sea of people, but you have to keep dodging and avoiding others. It’s easy to get angry.
Why can’t people have a better sense of their surroundings? Do they not realise others are behind them when they stop in the middle of the pavement? And how do they expect others to pass when waltzing four abreast on a small strip of tarmac?
I’ve walked through this scene many times and have often felt annoyance and anger bubble up. There was a moment, after coming out of a cinema nearby Oxford Street, that I felt so overwhelmed by all these feelings that the stress of being there was too much. The sheer amount of people and my inability to navigate through them drowned me. I had to leave as quickly as I could and calm down in a nearby park. So I know all too well how these kinds of emotions can becoming debilitating if we’re unable to observe them skilfully.
The same happens in our relationships too. We all have triggers and often, the people closest to us know how to push them. It’s all too easy to lash out and react when something rubs us up the wrong way. I’ve let loose on people in the past and afterwards, instead of feeling smug, I’ve always regretted my reactions. The pay off for getting involved in a screaming match is usually pretty low. Imagine if instead of the quick, sharp response we were able to take stock and allow our reactions to just be before responding more thoughtfully. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all do this? Wouldn’t we all have avoided plenty of unnecessary pain both to ourselves and others?
The pause button is skilful-observation in action. If I give myself the space to watch those emotions and let them be, without feeling the need to act on them, then I’ll also see that they simmer down pretty quick. A deep breath and a moment of focus can provide the distance needed to bring us back to awareness and balance.
The pause button is, in many regards, what we mean when we talk about mindfulness. That space where we observe our own thought patterns is the moment when mindfulness is happening. In what has now become the standard working definition, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as such:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The distance between our reactions and our actions centres on that final word in Kabat-Zinn’s definition: nonjudgmentally. Developing the ability to not pass judgement on our emotions means we’re less likely to get lost in them. And the less we’re lost in thought, the less we’re acting by default. Mindfulness provides a pause button which allows us to observe rather than react to the things that are happening around us. When we do this often enough, an interesting effect emerges whereby we no longer identify with these thoughts. You see these reactions, rather than being them. And so the thought of cursing at someone in the street for some minor offence is no longer something you’re compelled to do. There is a world of difference between ‘I am angry’ and ‘I feel anger’. The former is means we identify with anger, it’s become the force that is now driving our actions and shaping our perception. When you shift to the latter, simply feeling the anger and not passing any judgement on it, you’re able to hit that pause button and take stock before acting.
Despite how strong they may feel at times, there is no contract that requires us to take our thoughts and emotions at face value. It’s important not to ignore your reactions, but recognition and reaction do not have to go hand in hand. Because by separating emotions from the urgency to act, we’re liberating ourselves from a reactionary state of being. This is freedom and, as far as I can tell, one of the most valuable benefits meditation can offer all of us. We don’t need to reach Buddha levels of enlightenment to give ourselves the power to pause and observe more clearly what’s happening in our mind.
Press The Pause Button
Next time you find yourself lost in thought, caught up in a tangle or about to argue back – take a moment to imagine the button in the picture above. Press it and take a deep breath. See if you can take a moment just to watch the feelings. Don’t expect them to disappear or lessen. The idea isn’t that they do what you want them to, but rather that you take a moment to watch how they play out. Can you find the place where they come from? Can you turn them around to observe the different sides of the emotion? This kind of observation isn’t always easy but if we do it often enough, it becomes second nature.
The hurdles we have to overcome to become mindful are not just personal challenges, they are our duty too. How we choose to act in this world has consequences and it seems like we’re in need of skilful observation now more than ever. Because while we might choose to practice meditation to help us with our own problems, we shouldn’t forget the responsibility these new found tools bestow on us. At the beginning of this article, I asked you to consider what superpower you’d like most. The most important part of your answer isn’t the power you choose, but what you’d choose to do with it. Superheroes use their strengths to help others. And once you learn to master the pause button, it will be up to you to do the same.