The Power of the Pause

Sometimes, a simple gesture can improve the well-being of individuals and a community.

The author, Caitlin Barthelmes, is the director of Dartmouth's Student Wellness Center.

Vox Populi is the Dartmouth News opinion page for commentary written by members of the Dartmouth community that is intended to inform and enrich public conversation. The opinions expressed in these essays are the writers' own.

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Reflection. Connection. Intention. Action.

It starts with a pause. A pause that that can be as fleeting as a moment, a breath, a heartbeat—or as lengthy as a deep conversation with oneself or someone else. The pause allows us to look upward and inward. To observe. To see what is going on around us, to feel what is going on within us, and to decide how we will act in the world around us.

In my work with the Student Wellness Center, I have come to realize how effective the simple act of pausing to check in with ourselves and with each other can be in improving the well-being of individuals and a community.

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Caitlin Barthelmes is director of the Student Wellness Center.
Caitlin Barthelmes is director of the Student Wellness Center.

I've heard many people describe this pandemic as a "pause." A pause from lives that for many of us had become automatic, predictable patterns of interactions, schedules, and expectations. Perhaps the power of this "pause" can be to improve our well-being, to use the challenging circumstances of isolation, division, disease, and loss to grow.

We have already seen evidence of this happening. For example, the energy being put toward enacting social justice across the nation perhaps connects with people's ability to step back from their own lives and be inspired to contribute toward ongoing, sustained change.

Perhaps you have also felt the benefits of the pause in your own life, in the freedom of time previously spent elsewhere re-routed to activities that bring you joy or peace or spending more built-in time with the people in your household. Others, perhaps, have found this "pause" more challenging for a number of reasons.

Regardless of what your pandemic experience has brought you, engaging in the process of reflection, connection, intention, and action (RCIA) can create space for a deeper awareness of how you are experiencing this pause, and provide opportunities for enhancing your well-being. This "recipe for well-being" invites us to cultivate perspective in helpful ways through reflection. It shifts the difficult realities of physical distancing to encourage experimentation with new ways to connect authentically with others. It encourages the redirection of extra time to engage mindfully in the activities that fill our days, resulting in intentional actions that bring more meaning and purpose to our lives.

Reflection

In the act of self-reflection, there is power. The power to connect with ourselves— the strengths we have inside, the voice whispering what we need, the ideas of how we can move forward from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, and joy to joy. When we purposefully ask ourselves "How am I doing? What do I need?" we allow the wisdom we all have within ourselves to emerge—to tell us what to do and how to be in this world.

Connection

Connecting with who we are and understanding how we feel is foundational to our well-being. We also know that human relationships are one of the primary factors influencing a person's well-being. It's not the number of people we have in our lives, but rather the ability to prioritize time to foster relationships in which we can connect with individuals who allow us to be our authentic selves and help us become the best versions of who we want to be.

Intention

Intention is about bringing alignment between our values and our actions. As we pause, we can ask ourselves: How do I want to be in the next moment? The next transition? The next day? The next week? The next year?

The pause allows us to plan ahead and choose how we want respond to a situation. The concept of the connection between reflection and intention has been explored by many authors, including Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, and Stephen Covey, who wrote "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom."

When we are presented with something that brings about an emotion (be it anger, love, fear, contentment), our bodies and brains are quick to react automatically, but not always effectively. However, when we can train our brains to pause, it opens up the possibility of choosing to respond intentionally and effectively, bringing forth the best within us.

Action

The bridge between reflection, connection, and intention into action is captured by the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, "Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?" Intentional action is about bringing the vision we have for ourselves to life. Each day we can choose to act with purpose. Each day we can choose actions that support our own well-being and the well-being of others. Each day we can look for opportunities to model the behaviors we want to see others doing; we can support them in their journeys toward being well.

Practicing this process of Reflection, Connection, Intention, and Action is not limited to improving personal well-being; it also provides a process to help us look outward, beyond ourselves. The well-being of an individual person is inextricably intertwined with that of a collective community. When we effect change on the individual level, it impacts the community, and the reverse is also true. When we alter community norms in positive ways, personal well-being can be elevated.

I hope we can take this pandemic pause to observe what is going on within and around us so that we can move forward as a community, as a society, intentionally acting in ways that supports the well-being of each other so that everyone can thrive.

If you would like help practicing RCIA, please visit the Student Wellness Center website, where we provide a breadth of recorded practice and opportunities for live interactions with members of our team. For many, mindfulness meditation is one tool that builds the muscle memory of using the pause to choose how to respond in a given moment. I hope you find peace, joy, and meaning in the pauses ahead.