Earlier this year, a friend of mine went to France to hike in a region of the lower Alps little known by Americans. Each day she and a handful of strangers walked up and down mountains, through valleys beside fossil-encrusted rock and riverbeds filled with stones, rarely seeing another person, and amazed that where they walked was once an ocean. Stopping for leisurely picnic lunches, they replenished and walked until reaching the evening's lodgings. Sitting around the table each night, they ate hearty meals and talked before falling into restorative sleep. My friend shared, "We became aware of how natural and important it is to be able to take refuge."
One day when the terrain was steep and rough, my friend struggled to keep up. Her guide hung back and gently advised, "Let the pace of your feet match your heartbeat, not the other way around." Smiling, she urged her to follow as she set a slower, more sustainable pace. For my friend, something shifted; she realized the simple yet transformative power of paying attention to her heartbeat and choosing her pace in life.
In stark contrast, for many people, most days are a grueling race to keep up with ever-increasing demands, personal and professional, that often leave us depleted and unfulfilled. We even hasten the frantic pace as needed, and frankly, we rationalize that it comes with the territory. We have developed a collective hurry sickness -- going everywhere but being nowhere -- and learned to ignore our own heartbeats. Our 24/7 connected, globally-caffeinated culture conspires to diminish rather than strengthen our potential for meaningful contribution. Unconscious, we have let this become the new normal.
The holidays are an exception. We slow things down for caring and kindness, comfort foods, gift exchanges, gatherings around the table. We pause to savor the sweet season, transitioning from one year to the next, nourishing our lives with what feels natural and life-affirming. We even top it off with the socially-encouraged tradition of making resolutions, taking time to reflect on hope and change for the coming year.
But then the sabbatical ends. We barrel head first into the year, resuming the grueling pace that has come to define our lives. Commitments, although made with best intentions, slip away. Permission to slow down pales compared to the stigma of not meeting expectations. We dismiss pause as weakness and reestablish perpetual busyness as strength -- a measure of success. But are speed and action really virtues? Or, are they distractions from what is missing and meaningful?
We have a choice. The urgency, drive and energy we capitalize on for success must be tempered with pause -- a process of intentionally interrupting the hyper-active speed of life to gain the space we need to discern what is important, create our best work, and be our best selves. More pause -- not speed -- is the only sustainable way to cope with today's demands and to take back our lives.
Research shows that slowing down on a regular basis is the better choice for us physically, emotionally, and mentally, and that when we do not, we suffer the consequences. The famous Framingham Heart Study found that women who took the fewest vacations were nearly eight times more likely to develop heart disease or suffer a heart attack than those who took regular time off. In a study that monitored the brain activity of those trying to solve problems, psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman and cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios discovered that in the minutes before they experienced "Aha!" flashes of creative insight, study participants were more likely to be focusing their attention inwardly and silencing irrelevant thoughts. And scientists have found that multitasking -- the holy grail solution to getting more done in our hyper-active workplace culture -- drains our productivity. According to research from Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., both at the University of Michigan, people not only lose time when trying to complete two or more tasks at once, but it increases the likelihood of error as well.
While evidence validates pause, it's challenging to embrace it when our culture scoffs at it, judging time invested in pause as counterculture and threatening our competitive edge. Imagine what might be possible if we extended our pause practice beyond the holiday threshold and carried it with us throughout the year. What ills might we cure in addition to hurry sickness? Anxiety? Depression?
Making pause part of your reality is not so difficult. What if you scheduled a time into your day to slow down -- 10 minutes, 20 -- to close your eyes and breathe deeply or take a walk, leaving your phone behind? What if you created sacred time without electronic devices at dinners with family and friends? What if we had real weekends? Real, unplugged vacations? Or, what if you took a few moments to read inspiring words or to share what is on your mind and in your heart rather than pushing it aside?
What if we made it commonplace to have a moment or longer of silence before meetings or classes to feel centered and grounded instead of rushing headlong into hyper-speed and hyper-activity? What if we had the courage to connect within ourselves and to others and to shift our attention from the clock and "to do" list to what is most important? Instead of picking up your mobile device to plow through a stream of mindless, soul-less transactions, what if you paused to ask yourself, "What could I do that would feed my soul and be more enduring?" What if you took time to reflect on your gifts, passions and dreams? What if you stopped to think: What can I begin today to create what I want in my life? What if you took a break from tension and anxiety and asked, "Where is the pressure coming from? Is it within me, or is it coming from somewhere else?" What might we accomplish if we focused on one thing at a time? How might our world be better if we all paused? What would be different?
In essence, everything. As the countermovement to our culture's reverence for speed, action and reaction, pause is transformative. Pause values significance over speed, so when you choose it, you open yourself up to rediscovering what is important. There are specific moments in life that prompt us to pause -- new beginnings and personal crises, but also horrific tragedies that shatter our world and knock us all, as a culture, off center. In these moments, we reach an incredible state of clarity -- the things that once seemed urgent and stressful are now superficial distractions. We are crystal clear what is truly important, and that clarity can stay with us for some time. But, when the deluge of distractions comes flooding in, often we lose not necessarily the awareness, but the commitment attached to it. With pause, we can stay clear and committed. It's not about stopping, giving up, and doing nothing. It is about doing things differently. When you pause, you reclaim your inherent right to make a choice about when it is appropriate to move quickly, and when it is in your best interest to slow down, take a breath, and reapproach. And in today's world, where we are constantly moving, doing, acting, and reacting, simply because technology makes it possible, pause is more critical than ever. If we do not teach ourselves to slow down to renew, to be mindful and determine what is important, we will continue to suffer from illness, burnout, and loss of purpose in our work and lives. As noted scientist and mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn put it, "The internet is on 24/7; it doesn't mean we have to be."
Despite what is going on around us, we have the power to pause -- we must simply choose to do so. As we pause during this unique time of transition -- the end of the old year with all that has passed, and on the cusp of what is to come -- why not resolve to taking back our lives through intentional choices? In 2013, let's choose to pause deeply, treat ourselves kindly, and include pause as a best practice for creating more connection, meaning, and fulfillment. This year, let's match our pace with our heartbeats. Let's choose a new normal.
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