How are you reading this?
Are you on your phone?
On a laptop in front of the TV?
Would you mind taking a moment to focus just on this screen?
Just notice your breathing.
Is it fast? Slow?
Just take a moment to slow it down. Take a nice long deep breath in through your nose, and breathe a long sigh out of your mouth. Do it again. Make sure every last bit of breath has left your body, so all the stress and tension that you might have been carrying in it gets breathed out into the air.
Is there any stress or tension anywhere in your body? Just take another little moment to relax every muscle in your body. Let your hands fall loose. Let your shoulders sink down away from your ears. Rotate your head a few times, loosen up your neck. And the other way. Make sure your jaw is loose, not clenched.
How are you sitting? Are you comfy? Do you have a plump, soft cushion supporting your back? Do you have a fresh cup of tea, or a nice cold glass of water? Is there anything else bothering you? Do what you need to do to get perfectly comfortable.
In fact, put this down. Close your eyes if you want to, and just stop. For as long as you want to. Just pause.
How does that feel?
There are moments when things might just all fall into place. The emails have been answered, the laundry has been folded and put away, the kids have fallen asleep on time. Everything is quiet, and still, and you can feel your mind quiet down too. The trouble is that those moments might not happen very often, maybe once a day if you’re lucky. Sometimes weeks might go by in a frazzled haze, and the very idea of a moment like that is a total fantasy.
Have you noticed that? That in that frazzled state, the potential to pause gets further and further from reality? And pausing actually gets harder. Because when you’re replying to emails, you get more emails back. And you get clumsy, because you’re frazzled, and spill your coffee down yourself, so then you have more laundry. And you leave the folded up laundry on the bed, and then the kids knock it over, so you’ve got to do it again. And then you shout at the kids, and they’re upset and unsettled, and then refuse to go to bed. And then you fall asleep during the bedtime story and wake up at 10pm, and crawl into bed yourself, and then wake up the next day and do it all over again. So there just isn’t a chance to breathe, let alone stop and listen to your breath. In that state of mind, the very idea of stopping to focus on your breathing, in fact, sounds like hippy trip bullshit that you just don’t have time for.
But there is a movement – a growing movement – to pause. I know of the slow movement, which promotes a mindful approach to everyday activities. And there’s slow parenting, which questions the over-scheduled mainstream parenting practices of the day. And there is an increasing questioning of the impact on our physical and mental health of the overworked, over informed, over-busy and overwhelmed culture that we find ourselves living in. Where the busyness leads to franticness leads to chaos and burnout.
It seems that all around me people are getting off social media, getting off the career ladder, leaving the city and taking a pause. Or, even, making the pause lifelong.
But it is possible to just pause where you are. You don’t need to leave the city, you just need to bring the fresh air to you.
I read ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying‘ by Marie Kondo recently (yes, I know I’m late to the party!) My drawers are a bit more organised after that, it’s true, but the part I found most compelling was this. I’m writing it in full because it’s too carefully written to do it the disservice of chopping it up:
This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, ‘I’m home!’ Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the hall, I say ‘Thank you very much for your hard work,’ and put them away in the show cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the hall. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gentle on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say ‘Good job!’ and hang them temporarily from the wardrobe doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my cupboard, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing indoors and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves.
My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag on the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my purse in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I saw, ‘Thanks for all you did for me today’.
Next, I return to the hall and put away the books and notebooks I carried around all day (I have converted a shelf of my shoe cupboard into a bookshelf). From the shelf below it I take out my ‘receipt pouch’ and put my receipts in it. Then I put my digital camera that I use for work in the space beside it, which is reserved for electrical things. Papers that I’ve finished with go in the recycling box beneath the kitchen range. In the kitchen, I make a pot of tea while checking the mail, throwing the letters I’ve finished with away.
I return to my bedroom, put my empty handbag in a bag and put it on the top shelf of the wardrobe, saying ‘You did well. Have a good rest.’ From the time I get in the door to the moment I close the wardrobe, a total of only five minutes has passed. Now I can go back to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of tea and relax.
When I have told friends about this, their first response is usually ‘She doesn’t have kids, does she?’ (Actually, she does, although she didn’t when she wrote this). But what I found so beautiful about this passage is the serenity in it. It’s not so much about putting things away properly, it’s about taking time – not very much time – to bring peace to every day experience.
Even if we don’t have a designated spot for a business card holder (or, in fact, a business card holder), we can start to treat the objects in our lives with care. Marie Kondo treats her plant with more respect than I see actual human beings treat other actual human beings on the Tube.
If we allow ourselves to take tiny moments in our day to day tasks, those mundane acts could potentially be transformed into beautiful, serene pauses. My home may still be as cluttered as ever, there may still be Lego sticking my feet when I try and walk across a room, but as I reach down to dislodge that small yet incredibly painful block, I can either swear, while thinking of my shopping list, the phone calls I’ve got to return, and rush to the next task. Or I can pause, take a breath, dislodge the block, put it away and then carry on. One task at a time.
It reminds me also of the practice of ‘Soji‘ in Buddhist temples – a period of time when a cleaning task is undertaken, but with no expectation that the task will be finished, it is just carried out for the set time. Rather than hurry to finish, there is a pleasure in just doing.
In the busyness of modern life, we are so focused on the end result – the achievement – that we completely forget about the passage to get there. Daily life can be dull, it can be repetitive, and it can be frantic. If we can take every opportunity to pause, breathe and reset, maybe we can find real peace and pleasure in the mundanity.
Now where did I put my keys?…..