The Clearing by Rev. Martha Postlethwaite
Do not try to save the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.
A Reflection by Rev. Jessica Steward
When I was growing up, my father could generate one of the most uncomfortable silences I’ve ever experienced in my whole life. Occasionally it was coupled with the frowning of a lifetime, but usually, it was just this seemingly interminable pause between my question and his answer, where entire novels could be written or entire worlds could be created.
It is the Way of the Extreme Introvert. I know that now. But I, as an eager-to-please, overly curious and often loquacious child, did not understand it and could not tolerate it. Instead, I would fill the silence between us with additional details or elaborate justifications for my schemes, only prolonging the pause further—and subsequently my suffering—as he took in and processed this new information for what felt like a week.
For some reason, I took his care and thoughtfulness personally and it unnerved me. As a result, these kinds of prolonged pauses have always made me profoundly uncomfortable. In many ways, they still do. Because for me, there is an almost unbearable tension that lies between an invitation and a response. A query and reply. A point and counterpoint. For some reason, not knowing what is next and whether it will contain pleasure or pain, delight or awkwardness, fear or awe—it doesn’t matter which—makes me itch and sweat. Afterall, I am the child who would find her Christmas presents early and carefully unwrap them to find out what they were simply because the tension of waiting was so unbearable for me. And while I like to think I’ve grown considerably, I am still the person who sometimes jumps to the end of the book or movie to see how it ends to make sure I can stand the pay-off.
It’s only in the last decade or so that I’ve begun to grow more comfortable with the liminality that comes with waiting—by learning to cultivate patience and create a spaciousness between moments to try and enjoy the fertile ground of what I call “the in-between.” I have learned with deep practice and lots of frustrating moments of impatience, there is incredible power in a pause.
One of my greatest teachers on the power of pausing—besides my father— is the Tibetan Buddhist teacher and nun Pema Chödrön. She teaches that many of us operate throughout our daily lives with a fundamental sense of groundlessness. We are sleepwalking through life, engaging in impulsivity and habitual behaviors without awareness or presence to what is actually happening around us and within us. Our emotional life, when left unexamined, runs us in circles, unfolding in a series of chain reactions that leave us stressed and ungrounded. We get hooked by life and without thought, we react immediately and let our karmic patterns take over.
We fight back or flee. Freeze or fawn. We shout or swear. Overeat. Numb out. Overwork. Overthink. Become obsessed. Dissociate. Avoid. Confront. Whatever our unconscious patterns are, they take over and we are left groundless and detached from the present moment. What’s happening within us becomes completely detached from what’s actually happening around us.
But if we learn to recognize that we are hooked—that something has triggered us to move into a series of constricting, ungrounded, and unconscious behaviors and energies—then we can shift into a place of awareness, grounded expansion, and learn how to respond to life mindfully instead of unconsciously react.
But how? How do we begin to create that shift from unconsciousness to mindfulness?
We pause, of course.
Ani Pema shares, “Because of mindfulness, we see things when they arise. Because of our understanding, we don’t buy into the chain reaction that makes things grow from minute to expansive… It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.”
Through the discomfort of the restlessness and spaciousness that pausing affords us, we learn to become present. To listen. To ourself and to others. It helps us open a door to spirit. It gives us the chance to listen to our life and let it speak to us so we can hear what is actually being called for in this moment instead of what our habitual behaviors or the pressures from our society tell us. When we pause, we learn to befriend our emotions and partner with them as messengers rather than let them rule us mindlessly as managers. We learn to find the gift in our presence in the current moment and to take time to evaluate what we need, right here, right now, instead of unleashing a series of thoughts, actions, and behaviors that keep us ungrounded, unsettled, and living in worry of the future that will never happen or in our regret of the past. We enter into the space between stimulus and response and, as it has been said, within that space we find the freedom to choose something different than what we have unconsciously chosen before.
This is the power of the pause.
This liminality—this threshold—that is created when we pause is pregnant with possibility, rife with choice. This space contains the gestational power of creation. And the tension of pausing gives us the patience and time needed to make a leap of innovation—a choice we do not have when we are unconsciously reacting instead of mindfully engaging with the world.
In music and poetry, there’s a name for this pause. It’s called a caesura. It’s used to create a break between meter or composition, by either creating tension or releasing it. This forced pause provokes a sense of vulnerability and wonder. What will happen next? How will it resolve? It captures our attention and offers us a moment of uncertainty and unknowing that allows us to drop all pretenses and drop fully and completely back into the current moment so we can re-engage with the music or poetry of life.
Our culture loves the surprise of caesuras and yet it hates pausing.
Because our culture also loves money. And in American Capitalism—a form of low-road capitalism that was built through slavery and continues to rely on plantation-style management models—money is power. So much so that we value money over people, incentivizing and manipulating workers through punishment versus promotion to keep productivity high and margins higher. This punishing grind of productivity through intimidation relies on keeping us tired and afraid so we slip into groundlessness and the numbness of habit in order to survive.
This way of life is ingrained in us. In our culture. In our society. We have been manipulated for decades by a privatized, consumerist economy that encourages us to stay busy busy busy, always holding us on the edge of exhaustion, lulling us into valuing consumption, productivity, and the immediacy of American Capitalism over everything else—including our families, our health, and our natural world.
There is no room for resting in American Capitalism. There is no room for more than one 15-minute break per 4-hour shift in American Capitalism. There is no time for illness or self-care in American Capitalism. And there is certainly no time for pausing and making an aware and informed choice in American Capitalism.
Or at least that’s what they want us to believe. And for a very long time, we did.
Until March 2020 when the entire world was forced to pause. Placed into suspended animation—a global liminality—as we grappled with the realities of our collective mortality and interdependence.
Millions of lives lost, eradicated by an unforgiving virus and the stupor of unprepared leadership.
Global supply chains, completely interrupted.
Essential goods and supplies, gone.
Entire economies shifted, along with the landscape of work and worker availability.
Disaster after disaster arose.
And citizen after citizen was thrust into a universal pause—given only the promise of the present moment, capable of dealing only with what’s immediately at hand.
And in the 29 months since our collective wreckoning, as the great machine of our global economy chugs back to life, trying in vain to resume its previous pace, the grinding and stuttering gears of American Capitalism no longer seem to have the bite, the teeth, they once did.
Because in the wake of our global pause, an awakening has begun.
A quiet revolution. A personal resolution to not fall back asleep. We have learned we can pause. We have learned we can be patient. We have learned we can slow down. We have learned we can take time to determine what we really want and need.
We have learned that our salvation does not lie in our economy.
It does not lie with our political leaders. Certainly not.
It does not lie in mushroom teas, quantum fields, or TikTok influencers.
It does not lie in electric vehicles or rockets to the moon.
Our salvation lies in our timeless presence, in that the pause between our in-breath and our out-breath. It lies in our groundedness. In our open minds, our clear vision, our fresh perspectives, and our rested bodies.
Our freedom, our salvation, lies in our ability to pause, to take stock of what is important, and to stop loving something that will never love us back: clout, money, power, fame.
So go ahead.
Take that breath. Give yourself that moment to pause and regroup. Go on that vacation. Stop working the moment they stop paying you. Stare in wonder at the swaying branches of that maple tree. Watch the swoop and listen to the twitter of the birds. Wander aimlessly. Sit and be with Mother Earth.
Give yourself the gift of awe.
Give yourself the gift of wonder.
Create that clearing in the dense forest of your life and let your joy of this present moment be your salvation.
This reflection was offered live in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging—on Sunday, August 14, 2022.