slowing down the reactive impulse

The Art of the Pause

12:12 PM

I am more than a little red faced as I share this true story from my recent travels to Puerto Vallarta during which I morphed into a pool of frothing entitlement, alienating myself from fellow travelers as I clawed my way to an unnecessary front-of-the-line position.

I really do try to be a nice person.

More to the point, I hope to grow spiritually and become more aware of of the influence I have on the planet, and on others. I often wonder, what will be my legacy?

A current tool I am working with is something I refer to as the art of the pause, and although I know that there is a lot of philosophical discovery floating out there on the interweb, I didn't read this on someone else's blog although I have found the term literally all over the place online since starting this post; this concept came to me in a daily journal. I was recently reflecting on an impulsive quality woven into my personality (my Mama will back me up on this one!) and as it has created some occasional turbulence, I decided that I would practice an impossible 30 seconds of breathing and just...pause...before reacting to a trigger, whatever may push my buttons. That window of time, that moment, affords me the opportunity to make a choice, to think and then act, rather than act and then think, forcing myself to later lament a dumb decision.

In this case, this act-then-think incident took place while boarding the plane on my return home to Denver after a perfectly wonderful vacation with my husband Aaron. We had very desirable flights coming and going this year, early enough upon arriving in Mexico to put on bathing suits and run around on the beach before our travel day had concluded with a stunning but typical sundown. As we prepared to reluctantly leave the country and return home to Colorado a week later, we enjoyed a pretty full day at the beach before catching a cab at 2:30. That was the plan, anyway.

Not one to jam a lot in on a travel day, I prefer to get ready and wait; this travel style, however, has very little appeal for my husband who is most content when jamming the maximum productivity into his days, including vacation days.

Typically, Aaron gets a bit backed up in the evening when enjoying our Paradise Village vacations. He wants those last few minutes of reading. He also wants to squeeze in the sunset walk, the hour at the spa in a steam room and shower, and a lovely dinner. All of these together make for a busily luxurious routine at Aaron's end-of-day, but this pattern caused a bit of a traffic jam as we were leaving PV this last Saturday afternoon.

Not messing around, I was dressed and waiting in the lobby an hour before we were to leave. This largely had to do with a craving for coffee, a welcome boost to get me through the travel push that would include cab rides and customs. I thought I would have a latte and read a bit, and we would still have plenty of time to grab a bite to eat at the airport, which we usually squeeze in as planes don't serve real food anymore, just chips and over-priced jerky.

Our 2:30 pm meeting time came and went, and when Aaron arrived after steaming and showering that one-last-time, it was 10 minutes to 3:00, and we were already cramped for a 4:15 flight. Oddly, there had been a bit of a hangup at the spa and he still had to go back to present an ID which would slow us down even more. I was quickly losing my ability to "be a nice person."

I tried to relax in the cab, but I was feeling the stress (and carrying a bit extra as Aaron didn't seem to be carrying any of his own.) How does he manage?

He finally felt a little squeezed when we arrived at the airlines only to be informed that we were too late to check our bags; fortunately, our slightly disgruntled airline servicewoman harumphed her way through a 3-minute-late check in, but not without communicating that this was in no way ok. Bag checked, boarding passes and passports in hand, we started to run.

There would be no coffee or food for the next three hours on our flight, and therefore, no lunch or dinner. We ran the fairly long yardage to the terminal where, finally, we would spot our airline to the sounds of urgent announcements that our flight was in its final boarding. At the gate, we got to the back of the line to wait our turn. All of this time, I hadn't said a word to my sweet husband. I was talking to him in my head, but not very nicely. Frankly, I was pissed; this was not the experience I wanted to be having.

It was in this state that I noticed that the gate attendants were announcing the boarding call for Zone 4 passengers, and I thought, Uh-oh! We were supposed to board with the people who had Zone 2 boarding passes!

Forgetting all about the art of the pause, I left Aaron in the dust, and ran to the front of the line.

I lifted my boarding pass up to show the attendant, urgently claiming, "I was supposed to board with Zone 2!" 

He looked awkwardly at the people who had been waiting in line for the Zone 4 announcement, but reluctantly motioned me forward. Clearly, the folks at the front of the line were none too happy.

The blond, recently tanned couple reminded me that we already had assigned seats for this flight, so "it really doesn't matter."

Well, it apparently mattered to me.

Nothing had gone the way I had expected so far on this outing today, so I had high hopes at this point to join my earlier boarding Zone 2 crew. I had, after all, logged into my computer last night in order to get on the plane as quickly as we could to avoid waiting in this long line (with everyone else.)

As if I was some other loud-mouthed woman, I heard myself say, "We were supposed to board already, and he, pointing at the flight attendant, said I could go." 

I heard the aggravated but restrained female traveler say, "Be our guest. Go right ahead."I sensed their critical gazes burning like a heat lamp directed at the back of my head as I boarded the plane. I remember thinking, "what are they so mad about?" as I located my seat and settled down. Aaron eventually made his way to the seat next to mine, and I took a chance, asking him what he thought about the kerfuffle at the front of the line.

He had the gaul to suggest that it had been inappropriate of me to shove into the line in front of that couple. Oddly, I wasn't upset with him; truthfully, I already knew, although not in time to stop myself from being the jerk that butted into the front of the line on a technicality. What on earth had brought me to this moment?

I want to start by saying that even though I try to be a nice person, I can still be selfish. Clearly, I had expectations at the start of the day that included Aaron being on time, opening up room in the schedule for the little comforts I feel entitled to when I travel. Expectations and entitlement are yellow flags...if you want to be a nice person.

Looking back from a safe distance, which is a good spot from which to gain some perspective, I am remembering why I first started practicing the art of the pause.

Clearly, acting on impulse breeds an environment where bad decisions can thrive, where the few seconds it takes to respond and not react are tougher to come by. What might have been my assessment had I stopped to think in that moment, to ask myself do I really need to board faster than the 4s? What difference will it make? How might my decision to butt in affect the others in the line? Will this act build a bridge between me and the other human beings around me right now, or will it create unnecessary tension?

I have, in any given moment, the potential for kind awareness of others, as well as the potential to be a drooling blob of selfish me-centered grabbiness. Leaving out those few seconds to assess the negative impulse, read the room, and check in with my own heart on the matter allowed me to trip and stumble into a really embarrassing plane ride and, BTW, an awkward airport shuttle to our car during which I managed to also talk myself out of making a sincere apology to the poor couple I elbowed out of the way. I missed that chance.

But I can still allow myself to learn what I can about my potential for being "that woman," and about how the moments of that day stacked up to create a memory I would exchange for a different one if I still could. I guess for now, I 'll have to settle for the lesson, and keep an eye out for similar opportunities to practice the art of the pause.

                                                    Copyright © 2017 Laury Boone Browning


humility and enlarging perspective

Describing an elephant

8:27 PM

A story is told about a group of blind men who happen to cross paths with an elephant, and of course, they attempt to answer the question, what is it? Appropriately engaging the senses they possess, the men begin a scratch-n-sniff research style, essentially feeling their way to a definition for "elephant." It isn't a surprise when they come up with entirely different ideas about their subject because they are each bound by a limited and unique perspective. While the truth of the elephant exists, the definitions given by each of these men are subjective and limited by their proximity to a specific element of the animal's physical composition. In other words, alone, each man's version of the elephant can only be partly true. Combined, the men would surely get closer to the whole truth as they discuss and compile their findings.

No one has to be lying, ignorant or unenlightened for everyone in the room to see the world from a completely different perspective. In fact, this is inevitable. We are, every one of us, human information processors, each with our own inner workings, and data that is specialized. If I have always lived in a desert environment surrounded by a variety of snakes, and if I have never seen an elephant before, then it stands to reason that touching an elephant's tail would bring up images of the snakes with which I am familiar. I can only make inferences based on available information and experience. If I have no awareness or background that would allow me to imagine an elephant, then describing an elephant as it truly is would be out of reach.

I used to believe that I was responsible to know and impart absolute objective spiritual truth, feeling guilty for having faith that seemed to wax, wane and differ from others within my faith tradition. I've loosened my grip on that idea, happily. Don't get me wrong, I do believe that absolute objective truth exists. I just don't believe that I am able to see it, understand it or digest it...much less teach it to others. In fact, even though there are teachers I respect and trust, I remain unconvinced that anyone can see the whole picture. The parable depicted above conveys this idea perfectly.

Another study on spiritual perspective can be found in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye, a poor milkman and student of the "good book" listens to acquaintances arguing in his village. One man makes his point, and Tevye admits he may be right. But when another man challenges the first with an equally sound argument, Tevye agrees with the second man, too. A neutral observer asserts that they can't both be right, at which point the frustratingly flexible Tevye finishes his commentary with, "You are also right."

As I approach sixty, I have come to believe that I am only capable of seeing part of the truth from the perspective I have, given my experience and viewpoint. The Bible puts it beautifully: "For now we see through a glass, darkly (like blind men describing an elephant), I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known" 1 Corinthians 13:12. Given this scriptural analysis, how could I possibly believe that I fully understand God or even myself?

We have to accept, and this is terrifying, that we don't know everything. Why is this so uncomfortable especially for those of us who grew up in the framework of spiritual dogma? When we realize that we don't have the whole map in our hands, we can't really continue believing that we're still in control of the journey.

Seriously. I don't believe truth is relative. I believe that from where I sit, and with the limited ability I have to interpret what I see, universal truth is like one of those 5000 piece puzzles, and I'm holding only one or two pieces. In my world, if two people are disagreeing or experiencing conflict over anything, but especially religion or politics, it can't automatically be assumed that one of us is fully wrong, and one of us is fully right. 

Most importantly, how does this belief make a difference in the way I live my life?

  • First, I am released from the notion that fully defining right and wrong is a thing in terms of my access to truth. This acceptance frees me from self-judgement and fear, and and builds faith and surrender into my spiritual practice. If I simply don't know all of the possible answers and outcomes, I have no recourse but to ask for help, and trust in the God I believe in, the one who loves creation at least as much as I love those in my inner circle. 
  • Furthermore, I choose to be skeptical of my own assumptions (conceptual credit to Don Miguel Ruiz and his Fifth Agreement.) I see only in part, like those blind men feeling their way around an elephant. I am experiencing my way through this life, and the only way I can get smarter than my own experience is to talk to others and listen deeply about what they are discovering on their journey. 
  • Finally, my acceptance that I can only see "through a glass darkly" builds openness and empathy into the conversations I have with others, allowing me to lighten my grip on confrontational arrogance and instead, shoot for a stance of humility and respect for the specialized data I can only receive from those outside of my limited perspective

The weird thing about truth is that you just don't see it 'till you see it. In the meantime, humility, faith and cooperation may help. 

                                                   Copyright © 2017 Laury Boone Browning

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