The Possibilities in a Pause Online

Practicing Right Speech requires a dedication to mindfulness, especially to being aware of the impulse to speak before we actually speak. One approach for doing this is to develop the custom of pausing before speaking, perhaps a pause short enough to go unnoticed by others. This pause may give enough time to realize what we are intending to say. Knowing this may be enough for us to refrain from saying something we would later regret.

~ Gil Fronsdal, Right Speech: The Third Factor in the Noble Eightfold Path

Because pausing seems “easier” to do online, the above quote leapt out at me in the readings for the first week’s Wise Speech class with Oren Jay Sofer. Even for someone like me, who finds it next to impossible to pause before speaking in conversation, I am capable of pausing at least once a day when using the Internet. (Please note: no mindfulness practice is easy. By “easier” what I mean is markedly less difficult.)

Online it can never be seen as awkward or inconsiderate, let alone rude, to pause at least briefly before launching into an email, a social media post, or even a text message. And in that pause the possibilities are astonishing. Consider….

  • As Gil Fronsdal points out, a brief pause gives us time to consider our intentions.
  • It also makes noticing negative emotions more possible.
  • And if there are negative emotions (anger, dislike, resentment, even simple time stress) it makes it more possible to wait longer before “saying” (posting, etc.) anything.
  • We can take several deep breaths.
  • We might do a brief self-compassion exercise.
  • We can return to what matters most to us, for example, remaining connected with others.

Reality Check

The above sounds great — logical even — but how does it hold up in reality? Having landed on this quote early in the week, I decided to test it using my most frequent Internet-based communication tool – email. I committed to pausing frequently when processing email, looking at my intent in particular.

Here are the results, in no particular order.

  • Every day, when opening my inbox, I remembered to pause. During those seconds the software churned and stabilized, I would close my eyes and tune into my mind-state.
    • Several days I noticed I was tense and that this moment of awareness effortlessly provided at least a tiny bit of relief.
    • One day, I noticed a sharp anxiety about a thread from the previous day. Seeing how strong it was, I actually turned away from my inbox and did a few minutes of NVC journaling (a self-compassion exercise). While it didn’t rid me of the anxiety, it clarified my needs and I was able to craft a more skillful response.
  • However, more days than not, as soon as I opened my eyes and saw the press of unopened emails, I forgot my resolve, tumbling into my typical dash to the finish line. Too late, I’d remember and then enter the danger zone of discouragement — with thoughts such as, “I can’t even do this one simple thing.” But then Zen training would kick in. I would recall that this too is a practice. The goal is not perfection, but simply improving my communication skills.
  • And maybe 10% of my emails, I actually remembered, giving myself a chance to respond rather than simply react.
    • It was interesting to see my intents. For example, in my one-and-only news source, emails from the New York Times, I’d remember that my main goal is to know just enough to be a responsible citizen. Ergo my usual practice of racing through them is a match.
    • With more challenging emails I always remembered to pause before replying and, when I chose (the pivotal word) to reply, then I would pause again before sending.
  • Most days I noticed that pausing does indeed slow the processing of email. But noticing even this helps, because it reminded me that my goal is not speed, but living life well and, in the case of email, staying connected.

My natural tendency is to focus on the negative (in particular how often I forgot). To my surprise, however, this exercise in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture makes me see that pausing frequently in email has been a success — so successful that I plan to continue it on most days.

And I wonder if, as I get more accustomed to pausing online, it will start to happen in face-to-face conversations? We’ll see.