The Power of the Pause Tara Brach

The Power of the Pause Tara Brach


When a bull stops and finds querencia -- his place of safety -- he becomes truly dangerous. Yet in the arena of human relationships, this pause, this place of safety, is where healing begins.

This article appeared in our August 2003 issue.

A folktale tells of a man so frightened by his own shadow that he tries to run away from it. He believes that if only he could leave it behind, he would be happy. He grows increasingly distressed because no matter how fast he runs, his shadow never once falls behind. Not about to give up, he runs faster and faster until finally he drops dead of exhaustion. It never occurs to him to step into the shade and sit down to rest. If he had paused for even an instant in the shade, his shadow would have vanished.

Knowing Our Shadow

Our own shadow is formed from the parts of our being that we experience as unacceptable. Our families and culture let us know early on which human qualities are valued and which are frowned upon. We want to be accepted and loved, so we try to fashion and present a "self" that will attract others and secure our sense of belonging. But inevitably, our natural aggression, need, or fear -- frequently taboo emotions -- are expressed, and the significant people in our lives react. Whether we are mildly scolded, ignored, or traumatically rejected, on some level we are hurt and pushed away.

The shadow becomes a force in our psyches as we exile the emotions that could elicit rejection. We might bury and forget our childlike excitement, ignore our anger until it becomes knots of tension, or cover our fears by judging and blaming ourselves and others. Our shadows are rooted in shame, bound by our sense of being basically defective.

The more deeply we feel flawed and unlovable, the more desperately we run from the shadow. Yet running from what we fear deepens the inner darkness. Rejecting a part of our being, we confirm our fundamental unworthiness. Underneath "I shouldn't get so angry" lies "There's something wrong with me if I do." Like being stuck in quicksand, our frantic efforts to escape our badness sink us deeper. As we strive to avoid the shadow, we solidify our identity as a fearful, deficient self.

The Shadow in Action

When Laura came to me for psychotherapy, she was what her husband, Phil, called "a land mine rigged to blow at my slightest misstep." If he commented on the way she drove or put away the dishes, she was wounded and humiliated, concluding that she was totally incompetent. Often her anger at being judged would boil up, and without warning she would explode in rage. Lashing out was Laura's primary strategy for running from her shadow of shame.

The intimacy in their marriage had nearly vanished. They scarcely even talked. An attorney, Phil was so good with words that he could make everything seem her fault. When this happened, Laura would end up screaming at him and storming away. She finally concluded, "It's not even worth trying to talk. He's Mr. Rational, and I always get creamed."

The night before our first session was typical of their dynamic. That day, Laura had had a heated argument with her supervisor at the hospital, and had quit on the spot. At dinner, as she told Phil what had happened, he seemed impatient. When the phone rang, he answered it and headed for his office. Laura followed him and stood in the doorway, waiting for him to finish. As soon as he hung up, Phil turned on the television. Laura called out sarcastically, "You're interested in any news but my news." Phil shot back, "That was Nathan, and he said I had to catch something on Fox 5. Why do you have to interpret my every behavior as a personal slight? If that's what you've been doing with your supervisor, she was probably glad to see you go."

Laura shouted, "Why not just say it, Phil? You'd be glad to see me go, right? That's it, isn't it?!" Grabbing a law book from a shelf, she hurled it at the television, screaming, "You just want to get rid of me! Maybe you'll get what you want!" The next book flew closer to his head. That night, they slept in separate rooms yet again.

During our first few sessions, Laura said she was defensive and easily injured in most of her relationships. No matter what the situation, when the raw feeling of not being good enough was triggered, Laura was thrown back to her childhood, when she had felt powerless to do anything but defend herself against a critical, hostile mother. Much the same is true for any of us: When our particular insecurity or wound is touched, we can regress into the fullness of trance, when there seems no choice about what we feel, think, say, or do. We go on automatic and react in our habitual way -- anger, withdrawal, overeating, getting busy -- to defend ourselves, to cover the raw hurt.

The Sacred Pause

As with any addiction, the escape from pain only increases our suffering. Our strategies amplify the feeling that something is wrong with us and stop us from attending to the parts of ourselves that most need our attention to heal. One of Carl Jung's key insights was that the unfelt parts of our psyches are the source of all neuroses and suffering. Laura's lashing out kept her from feeling her shame and hurt, yet this made her more ashamed for losing control. A vicious cycle: the more ashamed she felt, the more she was driven to attack others to protect herself.

When we learn to face the fear and shame we habitually avoid, we begin to awaken from a trance. By pausing and accepting our experience, we free ourselves to respond to our circumstances in ways that bring genuine peace and happiness.

A pause is a suspension of activity, a temporary disengagement when we no longer move toward any goal. It can occur during almost any activity and last for an instant, for hours, or for seasons of life. We may pause from our responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause during meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life for a retreat, to spend time in nature, or to take a sabbatical. We may pause in conversation, letting go of what we're about to say to genuinely listen to and be with the other person. We may pause when we are suddenly delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our hearts.

In a pause, we simply discontinue whatever we are doing. We become wholly present, attentive and, often, physically still. Try it now: Stop reading and sit there, doing "no thing," and simply notice what you experience.

A pause is by definition limited. We resume our activities, but with increased presence and more ability to choose. In the pause before sinking our teeth into a chocolate bar, we might recognize the tingle of anticipation, and perhaps a background cloud of guilt and self-judgment. We may then choose to savor the chocolate, or we might decide to skip the chocolate and go out for a run. By disrupting our habits, we open ourselves to new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears.

Taking our hands off the controls and pausing lets us clearly see the wants and fears that drive us. We become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future. We can continue our futile attempt to manage our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of what I call "radical acceptance."

Using the Pause to Heal

For Laura, the turning point was one evening when Phil told her he couldn't take a full week off for their vacation. They launched into a typical argument, but Laura remembered to pause. Speaking slowly and quietly, she said, "I'm feeling that same fear again -- that you don't really want to be around me. When I feel this way, I need a sign that you really do care."

Phil was annoyed. "You know, Laura, I feel like if I don't bend over backwards to treat your fragile self just so, you'll blow up. I don't want to be held hostage by your anger." His words hung in the air, and when Laura didn't jump in to defend herself, something shifted in Phil. In a softer voice he added, "It's hard for me to be affectionate on demand. When you need me to reassure you, to take back a critical comment, well... I feel manipulated. But, honest to God, Laura, I just hate myself for being so mean to you."

Wow. This last part was not something Laura had even imagined. She managed to tell him how humiliated she felt when she exploded at him. After a long silence, she added, "Phil, I can't believe how hard this has been ... being so far apart." By the end of the evening they had decided to see a marriage counselor.

Over time, Phil and Laura recaptured a warm and playful affection. Laura attributed this renewal of their marriage to the power of the pause. As Phil slowed his reactions, he began to notice and accept what he really felt. For both, the words and actions that emerged revealed a growing tenderness and trust.Even if only one person in a relationship practices pausing, it can lead both partners out of a painful impasse. When the downward spiral of judgment and misunderstanding is stopped, even briefly, one can recognize the beliefs and feelings behind the problem, which naturally leads to wiser choices. While pausing might not salvage a crippled relationship, it invariably helps move it toward resolution.

Excerpted and adapted from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D.


Discovering Our Place of Stillness and Power 

In bullfighting there is an interesting parallel to the pause as a refuge and renewal. It is believed that in the midst of a fight, a bull can find his own area of safety in the arena. There he can reclaim his strength and power. This place and inner state are called his querencia. As long as the bull remains enraged and reactive, the matador is in charge. Yet when he finds querencia, he gathers his strength and loses his fear. From the matador's perspective, at this point the bull is truly dangerous, for he has tapped into his power.

Each time we feel provoked and charge madly against the enemy, we become more off-balance, further ensnared in our shadow. As we learn to find querencia by pausing, we can respond to difficult situations in more balanced and effective ways.

Pausing as a technique may feel unfamiliar, awkward, or at odds with our usual way of living. But actually there are many moments — showering, walking, driving — when we release our preoccupations and are simply aware and letting life be. We may pause at seeing the new green in spring; or in the supermarket we may pause to gaze at the freshness of an infant's face. When we finally understand a problem we've been grappling with, our pause may be a sigh as our body and mind relax. At the end of a long day, we may experience a natural pause when we lie down in bed and let everything go.

The pauses in our life make our experience full and meaningful. When celebrated pianist Arthur Rubinstein was asked how he handled the notes so well, he replied, "I handle notes no better than many others, but the pauses — ah! That is where the art resides." Like a rest in a musical score, the pure stillness of a pause forms the background that lets the foreground take shape with clarity and freshness. The moment that arises can, like the well-sounded note, reflect the genuineness, the wholeness, the truth of who we are.

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