Take 15: Pause (part 2 of 3)

Leo Babauta

This post owes a huge amount to the inspiration – past, present, and future – that Leo Babauta has given me. I don’t want to be exactly like him, but his words have changed a lot in my life. So when he starts a post with “…one little habit that has changed everything else in my life,” I pay attention.

It’s another pause. “The Pause Upon Which All Else Relies,” in fact (no pressure there), and as it happens he also picks fifteen minutes as the arbitrary amount of time that is useful when you’re trying to develop this practice.

In the last post on this subject, I talked about using the fifteen minutes to give yourself a break, center yourself, put the brakes on the whirlwind of life for a bit. This is not that. This fifteen is not a haven, it’s a tool.


For some, 6" is not a fun thought at all (Ian D, Flickr CC)

Here’s a quick test for you: hold up your hands six inches apart.

Now, when some of you stop snickering, go find a ruler and take a look at how far that actually is. Here, I’ll make it easy for you.

I’m betting that while you may have been close, you weren’t spot on. Some of you were probably way off, either generously or far short of the mark. That’s ok; a ruler is just a ruler, an inch is an arbitrarily designated unit of measurement that most of the world doesn’t even use, and there won’t be many moments when your life depends on being able to absolutely hold your hands six inches apart.

But what if it did? What if, in some strange Michael Bay movie, your life, the lives of your loved ones, the FATE OF THE WORLD, DEMOCRACY, AND THE INTERNET depended on your ability to measure six inches reliably with your bare hands?

You might not just hold up your fingers in the air. You might take the time to click on that link above, at least, or track down a tape measure. Some of the more careful of you might find several rulers, making sure they were accurate, just to be sure.

That’s what the pause is. It is the ability to take the time to make sure your calibrations are right before you act.

Brain Bypass

According to Dr. Daniel Goleman, author of the HeartMath Solution, moments of extreme stress can cause all sorts of problems – and solutions. After all, when a firefighter sees a child trapped in a burning building, you don’t want her to sit there and analyze with flowcharts and risk analyses. No, she acts on “gut instinct”, body pumping in all sorts of specialized hormones allowing her to react faster, stronger, without the inconvenience of the forebrain. Prefrontal schmeefrontal! We don’t want no cortex thrusting doubt, we want the limbic system and lizard brain saving her life (and the lives of others).

That’s great, when it works. Keep in mind that the definition of “hero” is basically: “someone who did something stupid and got away with it.”

Most of the time, though, we don’t need to disconnect our reasoning centers. Except it feels like we do. When we get stressed, percieve a loss, register an insult or threat to our reputation, our livelihood, our relationship, the same hormones come pumping out with ferocious intensity.

It’s very, very difficult to make a good decision, a rational decision, a measured decision in those circumstances.

Fifteen Minutes at any time (via flickrCC, cogdogblog)

The Pause That Defines

The fifteen minute pause that Leo talks about is the tool that lets those instant reactive chemicals calm down a little. It lets you see the whole picture, or at least more of it than that initial reaction. It enables you to measure out the true parameters of the situation, the possible outcomes of various actions.

It may not change what the actual action is, mind you. That limbic system is a pretty smart cookie, and often the first gut reaction is the best one. Understanding why it is the best one, though, that’s the mark of a truly enlightened soul.

So try that out this week. See if you can find at least once a day when, before making a decision, you can give yourself fifteen minutes of Pause. Fifteen minutes of reconnaissance on the situation in front of you, and see what that does to your decisions.

I’d like to know.

7 thoughts on “Take 15: Pause (part 2 of 3)”

  1. Wish this had been Friday’s post (wrong subject…I know). If I’d taken those 15 minutes on that day, I wouldn’t have said something very stupid to someone who didn’t deserve it…or at the very least, I’d have found a different way to say it. If the opportunity ever presents itself again, I will definitely try to take those 15 minutes. Live and learn, right?

    1. If you’re learning from living, I’d say your’e doing it right. I hope you can find a way to mend the bridges. Next time I’ll try to make my posts more timely. :-/

  2. An interesting note to the fireman parallel would be that in reality, firemen, police-men, military people and others that need to make snap decisions instinctively, actually spend a great deal of time finetuning their “lizard brains” through vigorous training.
    That may also be a nice subject there, if you haven’t touched that already.

  3. As for the 15 minute pause, I find I actually use it differently depending on the occasion.

    There are those other times that you spend hours thinking over a decision, or an email, or a piece of writing, and the more time you spend on it, the more emotionally attached to it you become.
    That’s when I actually like to also give myself a pause of disconnection from the decision. Just going for a walk, or doing the dishes, to let your subconscious mind machine have a go at the problem while the analytical mind clears itself.

    So I guess the pause can work both ways, and those pauses can even work together. 😉

    1. Wow, that’s a great insight, Nick. As you were talking about the “hours thinking” I can’t help but laugh at myself. “Hours? I should be so lucky as to get it down to hours! I’m still hoping I can stop agonizing before a year!”

      When I find myself in that kind of loop, I do what you suggest – work on a different project that needs my full attention, exercise, etc. However, I often find these “distractions” don’t work so well because when they’re done…the problem or decision is still there. Sometimes it feels like the only way out of a bad headspace is through it.

      It’s hard to tell the difference between what’s going to help give a new perspective and what’s just going to postpone the inevitable.

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