The pause button that could save your life

For most of my life, I wasn’t aware I even had one of these buttons. Then I read about it and tried it, but it didn’t seem to work.

Now, after a few years of practice, it works sometimes. It’s given me a glimpse into a calmer, happier life, and I want more.

The Pause Button That Could Save Your Life

When I knew I needed it

It’s over 10 years ago. I’m driving my young son to an appointment. I’m late. I don’t want to go, but we have to go. It’s expensive and we’ve already paid. I’m upset.

I double-park and lead him toward the door. “I’ll be right there!” I need to park the car. There’s traffic - and no place to park. I look at the clock. I’m angry. I see a space but someone else takes it. I can feel myself starting to boil inside. I make a wrong turn.

I punch the steering wheel in frustration. The horn blows. It keeps blowing, loudly. I frantically try to pull on it to make it stop. I’m driving around the upper east side of Manhattan with a blaring horn, furious, frustrated, and ashamed all at the same time.

Something had to change.

The pause button

What happened wasn’t new, and such outbursts weren’t limited to driving. It was a pattern. Something would trigger an emotional response, followed by negative thoughts that would feed the response and make it stronger, quickly spiraling out of control.

The pause button allows you to catch yourself right after that initial response.

“If we catch it when it first arises, when it’s just a tightening, a slight pulling back, a feeling of beginning to get hot under the collar, it’s very workable.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön’s excellent book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. She describes what to do in three seemingly simple steps.

  1. Acknowledge that you’re hooked.
  2. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and examine what you’re feeling.
  3. Relax and move on.

When we’re hooked (Pema uses the Tibetan word shenpa), the older parts of our brain unleash a series of primitive biochemical reactions. The pause helps us engage our more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex so we interrupt that chain of reactions, so we slow down enough to think and plan.

“When we pause and breathe…, we can foresee quite clearly where biting the hook will lead.”

Eleven years later

I’m driving with my daughter. It’s snowing heavily and we’re in the middle of a five-hour drive. Though we’re using a navigation system, we miss a turn. I figure we’ll just take the next exit and make a U-turn, but Google Maps tells us the next exit is 28 miles away. It must be a mistake.

I’m tired, and irritated that I missed the exit. Surely there’s one coming up sooner, but it becomes clear that's not the case. I can’t believe I’ve just made an error that will cost us an additional hour in this terrible weather! I want to speed up and make up for lost time. I consider making an illegal turn on the highway. I grip the wheel as tightly as I can, feeling anger and frustration welling up. I’m hooked.

And I pause.

It’s difficult to interrupt my roiling emotions, but I take a few deep, conscious breaths. I try to think. Is it really that bad? Will being angry at the distances between exits make it better? It’s difficult driving and your daughter’s in the car. Better to be careful and not make it worse.

Very slowly, I start to calm down. I stop berating myself and just focus on driving. Once we find the exit and are headed in the right direction, my daughter and I make a game of it, counting down the minutes. She resumes playing deejay and picks some music for us. We even laugh at our mistake.

The practice

In the decade since that first car story, I’ve read dozens of books about the pause button, and they all same pretty much the same thing.

I quote Pema Chödrön’s book in particular because she relates her own embarrassing stories and offers gentle encouragement. Her writing made me understand that the pause button isn’t a button as much as a practice. It takes effort over time. You make gradual progress and experience setbacks. You keep working at it.

Missing parking spaces and exits are trivial examples, I know. But for me, the progress I made in dealing with them gives me confidence I can do more.

“By ‘putting up with little cares,’ with minor annoyances, when the shenpa is lightweight, ‘we train ourselves to work with great adversity.’”

You don’t have to wait till you're hooked. You can practice hitting the pause button throughout the day - walking to work, washing the dishes, eating. I’ve come to think of it as a way to train myself.

“Punctuate your life with these moments,” Pema writes. “If we keep a sense of humor and stay with it for the long haul, the ability to be present just naturally evolves. Gradually, we lose our appetite for biting the hook.”