17. Giving Pause for Thought

It was the tape-recorder (audio-there was nothing else) that brought the pause button and the pause most universally into our language and our doings.  There it has a neutrality born of mechanism: in other situations it suggests a variety of feelings, ranging from hesitation and uncertainty to the dramatic emphasis of the performer holding his audience – either with words or music.  It can be an interruption or an intermission – more or less under control – but it is a break in the flow, the flow of action, of thought, of the moving tape.

I want to look at the uses we can make of pauses – they are a tool in the Alexander Technique, and, more widely, in our use of freedom and consciousness.  In a short series of lectures which Rudolf Steiner gave in December 1920 he ends with an image I find very stimulating.  He suggests that we can give reality to our thoughts by imbuing them with our own personal will.  This is the activity of freedom, like seeds for the future.  But these seeds need to find light, air, soil – something in which to grow and the growing medium for our free thoughts are the deeds we perform which are permeated with conscious attention and love.  Our thoughts and deeds, both originating in our organism, meet out there in the world.  Reality is made when thought and deed finally find each other.  I think  “the  pause” is a potential help to this cultivation of reality.

In complete contrast, you might think, are those descriptions of Mozart, as he improvised at the piano suddenly jumping up and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, leaping over tables and chairs, miaowing like a cat, and turning somersaults like an unruly boy.  I introduce this picture of Mozart not because I subscribe to the characterisation of Mozart as the disturbed, immature genius.  I see him as a man of intellect and imagination, a man who worked at the craft of his talent, a man channelling all the forces of his will and creative thinking into music, into precisely formed movement, into intense order.  As David Cairns says in his recent study of Mozart, “Is it any wonder that such a mind needed to let off steam from time to time and play the fool?”  (Cairns p 13)  This extreme example opens up the interaction between thought and deed.

To go to a completely different mood, I am very fond of a short book called Pilgrims which recounts what the author calls an unlikely friendship between himself, Paul, in this thirties, and a woman, Val, who is dying of cancer, and in her seventies.  I won’t go into the circumstances of their meeting: a breakthrough occurs when Paul has to act to help Val through a dramatic angina attack and they find a new intimacy: “All her defences were blown, and also mine.  There was just she and I sitting there, exposed.  Nothing needed to be said or done…” (Pilgrims p 49).  Some time later Paul arrives at her house and finds Val excited and eager to tell him of an experience.  She found that she had, just, stopped “the kitchen knife was in my hand, in mid-air… It was wonderful. So peaceful.  I said ‘ I’m not Val.  I’m not an old woman.  I’m not this and I’m not that.  I’m just me.  I’M ME!  And I love it’”.  And at that she managed with a sharp upward celebratory thrust of her arms to momentarily free herself from the gravitational pull of the black hole that was the sofa, before falling back down into it” [Pilgrims p 123-4)  Some months later, in the hospice, close to death, Val and Paul have wonderful conversations, structured by her pauses:  “I would sit beside Val as she lay back against her pillows, her head at the level of my heart.  She said little since she tired easily and seemed to flit in and out of life itself.  Sometimes in mid-sentence she would leave, only to continue that same sentence two or twenty minutes later.  I would sit here, no longer waiting, no longer thinking, but just sitting here, listening, being with her”.  A few days later, very close to her death, there is moment of estrangement between them but Val is able to overcome it.  “There was a short pause, only three or four minutes.  We were both feeling bad.  We both knew how much we cared about each other by how dire this rift felt.” [Pilgrims p 194].  Then, but not through analysis or apology, Val leads them through it and Paul recognises what the new sense of time makes possible: “There was nothing Val could hang onto now, neither resentment nor disappointment.  And I was learning how rapidly things can move, when you’re travelling so very slowly” [ibid p 195].  That last sentence is a constant inspiration to me.  The gaps, the pauses, become gifts, whereas we usually think of gaps as deprivations or absences.  What we can’t grasp becomes a gap, a threat, but both for the growing child and the mature adult the ability to tolerate and, indeed, enjoy gaps is essential for health and well-being.  Breaks and discontinuities in the presence and attention of those who love us, our memory, our awareness, knowledge or experience – we need to be able to integrate them, to make sense of them.

Val and Paul become close through accepting the presence of death.  This is the commonly recognised paradox of people feeling their lives enhanced as they face death.  It’s there in Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and in Ivan Illyich in Tolstoy’s short story.  It is usual to refer to “boundary experiences” of which the confrontation with one’s own death is the most intense, which alter our perspective towards life.  The alteration is one which, typically, moves our attention away from the normal everyday sense of how things are rigidly connected and caused, and enhances the possibility for personal change.  This is another way of expressing the realisation of Paul about things moving rapidly when you’re travelling so slowly.  Death and mortality are there in the background of so many events in life.

Every decision-making situation we find ourselves in has the potential to be a boundary experience, pregnant with the confrontation with death.  This opens up, for me, what pausing can contribute to the act of deciding.  Irvin Yalom, the psychotherapist, recognises every decision as an action reminding us, principally, that alternatives exclude (The Gift of Therapy, Ch 49).  Decisions “confront us with the degree to which we create ourselves but also to limits of possibilities.  Making a decision cuts us off from other possibilities”.  We face our limits and experience, implicitly, what we will not do, or be – and hidden in there is death, as Yelom describes it, as “the impossibility of further possibility”.  Robert Frost’s well-known poem ‘The Road not Taken’ reveals the poignancy of regret in daily decisions.  Highlighted by being an isolated traveller, and by the clear alternatives of two paths, the storyteller looking back to the moment of self-deception, forward to the unknown limitation.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

One way to understand what the pause can bring to the meaning inherent in decision-making itself is by looking at positivity, our capacity to seek out what is of value, to be positive, optimistic, look for the good.  I do not mean cultivating the spurious power of ‘positive thinking’, but something deeper and quieter, a basic trust and orientation towards what satisfies.  When I listen, for example, to the Octet which the sixteen-year old Felix Mendelssohn composed, then I hear this affirmation.  When we find what is pleasing or beautiful or satisfying in some way, then we willingly pay attention to it.  Rudolf Steiner, in describing a set of basic soul exercises to help our development, includes at the fourth in the series, an exercise to do with positivity.  It is my experience with this exercise that it is not only that what is valued attracts our attention but that attention allows the positive to flourish, to appear, to be revealed.

But it doesn’t work if the attention is forced, if it is not already committed to beauty.  Michael Lipson, a clinical psychologist with a deep insight into Rudolf Steiner’s work, suggests that this virtuous circle between appreciation and attention can be reached, in difficult situations especially, by pausing: “In the pause that follows an inward act of restraint – a pause that may take no clock time at all – there is the possibility of invention and generosity.  My teacher, Richard Fulmer PhD, used to say that in treating couples he always looked for “the generous offer”.  This is the moment when husband or wife will argue for a split second on the other person’s side, make an offer or suggest a perspective that is outside the role of antagonist.”  [Stairway of Surprise, p 86]  Karl König gives a description of the state of mind which can develop from exercises in positivity, likening it to discovering a new world.  What is kindled in our hearts can “stream into our eyes and through them out into the surrounding space, we will acquire a new relationship to the space within which we live.  This feeling will give us the first experience of the ego, for such as experience of bliss is the substance of our own ego-consciousness”. [The inner path, p 19].  The sense of positivity is founded in the inner joy and tolerance of the person practising it, in the order that permeates their feelings, the sense of heart and head enhancing each other.      Michael Lipson, to illustrate the depth and power of the kind of positivity he is describing (and he would see it best described, simply, as loving) used the personality and work of the biologist, Barbara McClintock.  She was honoured principally for her work on so-called jumping genes, which upset the idea of the cell’s genetic information being fixed and static, and isolated from its products.  Her discoveries emerged from trying to understand development in an organism (she used maize), the genetic regulation of timing in growth and morphogenesis.  So, although she was working with the components of the cell, including chromosomes and genes, her interest was in the development of form, the development of the organism.  She is famous, as Michael Lipson notes, for using a different kind of reasoning and insight to that to which most scientists are committed.  The common scientific method is one of reducing processes and systems to the simplest components and exploring the logic and sequencing of cause and effect.  She developed a “feeling for the organism” as her biography is called, which involves both an intuitive insight involving seeing a question all in one go, seeing it, knowing it without having to think about it (remember this is no crank, but a Nobel Laureate), and a loving knowledge of each plant she worked with.  She speaks about maize plants as others might speak about children, “No two plants are exactly alike… I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it.  I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along.  So I know every plant in the field.  I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them”.  This is the attention of positivity, combining the detail and the whole, the observation and the intuition.  And it is fitting that this mode of research first revealed how mobile and interactive the life of the organism is, right down to the level of the gene.

The pause allows the integration of the specific into the universal.  You might notice how in the recollection of the moment of decision in the Robert Frost poem we have the repeated I, the emphasis on the active I:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,

In the pause at the end of the line between the two ‘I’s’, we reach the same depth of experience which can be expressed in the generous offer.  In the practice of the Alexander Technique we value the pause, as we value the reaching out to the space around in awareness and movement.  The pause is, perhaps, more to do with freedom, freedom which finds completion in our loving attention and action.  But the detail needs the insight which the pause makes possible, the connection to something beyond ourselves which yet belongs to ourself.  This is the joyous ego-consciousness Karl König describes as the fruit of practice in positivity.

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