When I completed my Masters Degree, nearly all of my professors and colleagues posed the same question: “What next?” Though I was often tempted to express my frustration with the obsessive focus on “what next” among middle-class North Americans, I bit my tongue. I did not share my belief that this fixation is one of the very roots of human unhappiness. I figured it was best not to get into those sorts of discussions in the mail room. Instead, I explained, “I’m not sure of my long-term plans yet, but I’m going to travel for a few months and will take things one step at a time after I return.” Some people seemed intrigued by my response, others simply confused. They wanted more information. “Are you planning to stay in Vancouver or are you going to return to the U.S.,” they would ask. “Are you going to apply to Ph.D. programs?” Again, I explained, “I’m not sure yet; I’m going to see how things go. I’m open to many possibilities.”
It was striking to me that so many people were surprised by my decision to travel for several months after completing my Master’s without any solid “plan” about what I would do upon my return. Their confusion makes sense, though. Many, if not most, North Americans find uncertainty extremely aversive. We’re big planners. We mark calendars, create to-do lists, follow schedules. We’re uncomfortable with uncertainty because we’re accustomed to living in a world that is deceptively predictable: we turn on the faucet and hot water comes out; wait at the bus stop for a short time and our bus arrives; enter a Starbucks and order a beverage that is precisely the way we like it. In this cultural climate, we’re socialized and conditioned to expect certainty. There are countless benefits to living in a culture that functions in this way: it is efficient, to be sure, and most of all, it is comfortable. There are downsides, however, and these downsides are quite visible if we only pay attention.
The main consequence of living in a culture that’s so focused on planning and certainty is that it breeds human beings who have absolutely no idea what to do when plans fall through. When the job you thought you would love turns out to be a disaster. When your romantic relationship falls apart. When you realize that everything you’ve worked so hard for… doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make you happy at all. Then what?
Our response to life’s inevitable twists and turns determines our happiness and well-being. The ability to take strategic action rather than fall to pieces when things don’t go according to “plan” is an essential skill. It’s also a core tenet of mindfulness practice. It’s called acceptance. Acceptance of things just as they are. Right here. Right now. In this moment. Acceptance is what enables us to enjoy our lives in the present without leaping to answer the question, “What next?” It is what enables us to “go with the flow” when circumstances change. It is also what enables us to reflect on our inner experience and make thoughtful decisions, rather than allowing our fears and our wants to control us.
In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach devotes an entire chapter to the topic of what she calls “the sacred pause.” She explains:
Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. 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. We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on a retreat or to spend time in nature or to take a sabbatical. We may pause in a conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart. In a pause we simply discontinue whatever we are doing—thinking, talking, walking, writing, planning, worrying, eating—and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and, often, physically still. Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.
Brach’s concept of “the sacred pause” has had a profound impact on me, and I’ve repeatedly found myself quoting her in discussions with friends and family. I’ve seen the impact that “learning to pause” has had in my life and in the lives of other students of mindfulness. I also firmly believe that the practice of pausing has truly revolutionary potential. What if we integrated the practice of the sacred pause into our schools, teaching children the importance of reflection and the acceptance of what is? What if we incorporated the sacred pause into our relationships with family and friends, expanding our capacity to be attentive, loving, and compassionate?
Each and every one of us can benefit from learning to pause. Try it for yourself! Pausing mindfully when you transition from one activity to another, before you take a habitual action, or at any other moment in your day, will allow you to notice the moment in its entirety; to experience what’s really there. Feelings that you didn’t know you had may arise. And alternative ways of responding to those feelings will open up. This might be exhilarating for you, or it might be terrifying (Most likely, it will be both!). Whatever the case, learning to pause is a powerful tool that we can all use to bring greater awareness into our lives. And this is a wonderful gift to behold!