“The art of living consists in knowing which impulses to obey, and which must be made to obey.” ~ Sydney Harris
The number one tool in my kit for dealing with life, and for dealing with being bipolar, is Pausing. It is a discipline which, time and again, has rescued me from making horrible decisions, and turned me into someone who deliberately acts, instead of merely reacts, to the world around him.
Pausing is about letting the first impulse pass- that natural, or conditioned, response to various types of stimuli- and engaging my heart and mind fully in deciding which direction I will go. It enables me to choose the higher ground, and invest my time and effort where my life will see the greatest returns. This ‘thinking twice’, in my opinion, is the difference between a human being and a human doing.
I’ve learned that our brains are made up of different areas that evolved at different times, each with different levels of activity and consciousness. What we have upstairs is a reptile brain, wrapped in a mammal brain, wrapped in a primate brain, and topped off with a human brain. Whatever we are faced with in life, it is the lower, less-evolved, areas of the brain that get the information first.
This primitive part of our brain is concerned with our immediate survival and safety, and with immediate gratification from fulfilling our needs. It assesses information coming in from our senses and very quickly decides ‘is this something I can eat, do I have to fight or flee, or is this a mating opportunity?’ Based on recognized stimuli and patterns, the less-evolved parts of our brain deliver the impulse to ‘act now!’ to our consciousness in order to help us survive here and now.
What Makes Us Human
This doesn’t mean that we automatically act like animals no matter what we face. Just because new stimuli pass through the primitive parts of our psyche first, it doesn’t mean that part of ourselves has final say in what we do.We have evolved the ability to halt the primitive brain’s impulse to act, and employ our capacity to reason out the best course for satisfying our needs in the long run. Indeed, without this ability to halt that first impulse, and carefully deliberate before acting, human civilization couldn’t exist.
Although we have the capacity, as humans, to halt the subconscious’ impulse to act, often times people don’t. People may be preoccupied, distracted, or even lazy- any number of things can keep us from the conscious effort it takes to think twice before acting. That doesn’t mean these people don’t employ their ability to reason in their decision making processes. It just means that they employ their ability to reason after-the-fact, in the form of rationalizing.
How Pausing Helps Me
As someone who is bipolar, my moods can make the impulses from my unconscious frighteningly intense, and almost overwhelming. By conditioning myself to wait even just a few seconds before deciding or acting on anything, it keeps me from acting in ways I’ll then have to rationalize away later on. It also means I can address what my heart wants (that unconscious impulse) while engaging my reasoning mind in the best, most productive, way to follow it.
As a business person, the discipline of pausing helps me to carefully consider and tailor everything I say and do to maximize results. It gives me a brief moment to step out of myself and respond to the bigger picture. It even helps me to maintain my own professionalism in the face of others who have no sense of it themselves.
Everyday, Pausing helps me to live the life I want to live- a deliberate, productive, and healthy life. I keeps me on top of what’s going on around me, instead of always reacting to a world that’s ever trying to crowd in on me, and push me this way or that.
I, too, grab the pause button when my biochemistry swings to irritability or anxiety, so I don’t bite someone’s head off, or make rash decisions…or, at least, that’s my intent. I pause, and wait for the swing to settle out.
Thanks for sharing this. I really like what you say about choosing to act, rather than being acted on, and how pausing gives way to this. I really truly believe that this level of mindfulness not only allows people (me included, hopefully) to act more reasonably, but also promotes a sense of self-agency and overtime might help with deeper issues like self-esteem.
Once again, you’re right on the money.