‘It was a warm Sunday evening in mid-September. I was sitting on the terrace, looking up at the Sierra de Gredos, enjoying dinner and a glass (or two) of red wine with my good friend Chris Riley. We had spent the weekend on the other side of the mountains, hidden away in an ancient house in Avila, with eight other people and dozens of books, reading and talking about what we had read.
‘I could do that every year,’ said Chris.
So we did.
‘Since I live in central Spain and Chris is in Oregon, it is hardly convenient. Yet every year, he travels over five thousand miles, for a couple of days, to do very little. Others travel considerable distances too. What is this about? It is about the power of a pause.’
Robert Poynton, opening paragraphs of DO/PAUSE/You are not a To Do list.*
On my way up to lead my third retreat of the year on the Isle of Iona last month, I stop as I usually do at the end of the first afternoon’s driving at Tebay near Appleby-in-Westmorland, a service station unlike any other (except its sister services in Gloucestershire).
I wander around stretching my legs, and of course find myself in the book section. A little and beautifully-produced book practically leaps into my hands. Poynton's PAUSE has gorgeous natural-world photography by Jim Marsden.
The rather sound-bitey title notwithstanding, I know I need this book (after all, it’s much easier to read about something than to make deep changes!).
That evening in my B&B I immerse myself in the book’s quiet and intelligent discourse.
In the last six months, even my 40-year daily meditation practice has almost gone by the board. I don’t stop – not even properly to eat lunch – from 6.30 in the morning till 9 at night, at which point all I’m fit for is sleeping; this has happened this year generally 7 days a week. My own precious quiet solo time has been completely absent. We’ve had a couple of instances of serious family illnesses, and our two gorgeous dog-brothers, now 9-month-old adolescents with too much testosterone and while individually amazing are together a small gang, are hard work, and I’ve been occupied with fulltime work coupled with caring duties and tending our large veg plot since the spring.
I’m not saying this for sympathy, only to tease out the state of mind I was in before the journey to Iona which is advertised as, and intended to be, a deep restorative and insightful retreat week for the participants.
Each time, I think I will arrange work etc so that I can take two days off before I leave for the long drive and intensive retreat. Each time, as this time, I’m working flat-out up until and including late into the evening before, attending to emails and deadlines barely met. I know this is not healthy, and hardly the state of mind to bring presence to a retreat which is rooted in presence.
The book jolted me back onto my axis. There wasn’t within it anything I don’t already know (though he expresses it with grace and elegance), but as a reminder it couldn’t have been more timely. It is essential to a healthy life – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – to pause, whether that pause is a moment of bringing ourselves back into our bodies and the present, between tasks; whether it is regular time out in a day or a week; or whether it’s total time out to be alone for a few days – something which I happen to believe not only revitalises oneself but also all one’s relationships. I can’t speak for men, but for women I believe it’s utterly crucial to take this longer pause, annually at least. Touching the depths, peeling the inessentials away, finding spaciousness.
I had a meditation teacher who spoke of every interruption offering that moment of presence, mindfulness: the doorbell, a dog barking, the phone ringing. Pause. Take three breaths. Bring yourself back, and then choose your response. I have continued to do that much of the time, though it too goes by the board when I’m in harried and frantic mode, which exemplifies this summer for me.
Before I drive on the next day, I take time to meditate – as I also do when I find that my ferry, and the next, are cancelled, leaving me with the distinct possibility that I might not get to my destination that night. How good it feels simply to stop, and not to worry about what ifs; to see the delays as a chance to really pause.
And more, I decided that I would introduce PAUSE into the week, frequently and regularly. I spoke to the (lovely) group, all women as it happens, of pause, spaciousness, the idea of a retreat within a retreat during the activities I set up. I spoke of resting: in the moment, and also in doing nothing at all. I cancelled in advance some of the sessions and activities I’d planned. We incorporated loosening bodywork and a lot of laughter. We incorporated, as always, silent time together – being silent together is a wonderful form of intimacy, once people settle into it. And we incorporated times of solitude.
Just as importantly, I challenged my own semi-conscious sense that for people to ‘get their money’s worth’ I needed to fill each day.
And it worked. All of it worked for – as far as the feedback suggests – all of us. Some people have written to me since to say they’ve incorporated some of the pauses and ritual-rhythms into their daily life. Several have written to say how deeply restorative and refreshing the week was.
And me? I’ve stripped down my working life to its deep-core essentials, so that I can focus on the aspects that are my central passions, as detailed in the last post.
And on practising this art of THE PAUSE.
* I personally no longer fly – haven’t done except for a family funeral – since 2007, so can’t condone that. However, that’s individual choice. Having said that, I’m thinking of introducing such a week into my core programme, with a few – limited – resting, walking, writing and reflection add-ons, in Europe. Be in touch if it appeals to you.
But NB I'm taking a slightly longer pause myself, just now, so it might be a little while before I respond.