A Reflective Pause

October 28, 2022 by Sharon Conley Cottingham

It’s two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and I am clad in yoga pants, T-shirt, and an old sweater. I clutch a mug of green tea. I am puttering around the house doing exactly what I set out to do today—absolutely nothing but ponder. A check-in with my breath reminds me that I still forget to breathe deeply and fully as I have too long trained myself in the shallow breathing of push and rush and hurry. Several months ago, I committed to claiming at least one afternoon a week in which to do as little as possible to allow time and space to reflect. (I think somewhere it’s called Sabbath keeping!) Ideally, I’ll claim a day. More realistically, I’ll take an afternoon. The commitment came out of a desperate need for inner spaciousness—my body, mind, and soul ground down from relentless stress. My brain and limbic system had experienced such continuous stimuli overload that they shouted for my attention. For once, I listened. It was more than rest for which they clamored—a deeper reorientation was needed. A new way of doing and being was in order. My usual pushing through, finding a quick solution, and hurried attention in order to move on to the next task simply weren’t working.

The past several years of Covid fear, economic uncertainty, racial unrest, evidence of climate change, and the regular challenges of our everyday lives have left all of us with some sense of overload. We’ve experienced seismic shifts and one upon another. Our collective energies are overloaded with change, trauma, disorientation, and newness. Spaces as innocuous as the Kroger parking lot offer evidence of our collective irritability, strain, and heightened alarm as we push and shove and snap. My usual response to overload is characteristically Western—push harder, work more, figure out a solution, find the way. In times of disorientation and stress, I become laser focused on getting through it and making it to the other side. The perceived other side is that place of freedom and ease where habituated patterns of living generate a sense of normalcy. But these days, we know that the proverbial other side is a long way off. We’re living into a new normal, and we’re not yet sure what that normal is. The path ahead feels fraught with uncertainty. Truth told, it always has been. (And for some more so than others, this feeling of disorientation has been the felt reality since long before Covid.) The collection of events over the last few years has simply left us more keenly aware of human inability to control outcomes. So, how are we to respond in this season of overload? I propose that rather than blindly pushing harder, doing more, making efforts to fix or to quickly build the new, now is the time for a deep pause for reflection. It’s the right time to stop, take deep breaths, and carve out ample and spacious time to ponder.

In their book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William and Susan Bridges offer a model for reflecting on change that includes three parts—endings, a neutral zone, and new beginnings.1 While I’m not a fan of the terminology “neutral zone,” I am intrigued by the concept. The Bridges describe the neutral zone as the time between an ending and a new beginning, and endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings are all elements of an overarching transition. Change is an event that happens—a divorce, a death, a corporate takeover, a job loss. Transition is the process of adapting to that change. In transition, we are invited to identify endings (every new beginning includes one), navigate a neutral zone, and finally embark on a new beginning. The neutral zone is a season of uncertainty, grief, the absence of familiar routine and rhythms. It’s an uncomfortable time and one most people would prefer to skip over or avoid in favor of the fresh air of a new beginning. The experience of any change in life whether a profound change (like Covid quarantine, the birth of a child, the death of a spouse, retirement from a long career) or a less significant change (a shift in work schedule or the kids returning to school after break) demands an inner reorientation of habituated patterns.

Habituated patterns are those things we do without thinking—the habits that feel so normal we don’t recognize them. Consider a time when you moved into a new home. You awaken in the night with a rumble in your belly and head to the kitchen for a midnight snack. On your move toward the kitchen, you trip over the ottoman in your path—the ottoman that wasn’t there in your old home. Your habituated pattern included a well-worn path to the kitchen. But there is a new path now, and your brain hasn’t quite yet registered that path. Some internal rewiring is necessary for that new path to become a norm. Without significant internal rewiring of our habituated patterns, following profound change we simply begin doing new things rather than exercising the inner reorientation essential for real transformation. And without deeper rewiring, it’s quite likely we’ll continue to trip over the same metaphorical ottomans as we did pre-change. After a profound change, pausing to reflect on where we’ve been and where we long to be is essential for much-needed internal rewiring. Naming our losses, grieving, listening for the Spirit, clarifying our longings—this is the work of reflection.

I’ve been watching the evolution of the radio program, On Being, hosted by Krista Tippet. The program, a 20-year staple in the world of public broadcasting, took a hiatus this summer. Attuned to the season of shift in which we are living and led by Tippet, the production team ceased new production and opted for a summer of reflection. The reflection was not navel-gazing complacency, but rather sacred, designated time set aside for active evaluation and assessment. It carved out space for a pause from habituated patterns, maintenance of systems, and daily duties—a worthy response to what the Bridges would name a neutral zone. Out of this season of pause, a new vision for the future of On Being has evolved—one that heralds the past but is not confined by it. In a July 2022 New York Times interview focused on the evolution of On Being, Tippet reflects, “Power for any media project is being on as many platforms as possible, . . . but does it have to be that way? What if growth means that you step away from the powerful platforms and go deeper into the quieter things? That’s a risk, but it’s one we needed to take.”2 During their pause for reflection, On Being reoriented their direction and allowed the energy and vision for a new beginning to emerge. Internal reorientation, rewiring of our habituated patterns, takes time and intention.

We’re in a liminal space these days. Old ways of being and doing are not working. Plans for the future feel tentative and untrustworthy. Carving out intentional time for reflection may appear counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t we be working quickly to affect real change? Pushing harder than ever to save, fix, find solutions? Perhaps reflecting is what is most needed now. Reviewing what has been, naming change, grieving losses, and watching and waiting for what newness is arising—newness born of the Spirit of God. Those of us following the Christian calendar are soon to enter Advent, a season of expectant waiting. What is it that you are waiting for? What changes have you experienced this year and what message do those changes bring? What inner reorientation is needed for you to move into newness? I hope you’ll make time in this season to putter around in your equivalent of yoga pants, with a mug of something hot and welcoming in hand, and allow yourself sacred space for the essential work of reflection.

Spiritual Practice: Reflecting on Change

Pause for a moment and try this practice of reflecting on the changes you’ve experienced recently. Click here to continue reading.

Sharon Conley Cottingham has worked with The Upper Room in a variety of capacities (Companions in Christ, Weavings, SOULfeast) since 2005. Currently as Director of Formational Learning, she leads a team in designing events and online learning opportunities that feature The Upper Room’s resources. Sharon’s spiritual journey has consistently taken her to new and surprising places and has been energized through mindfulness-based compassion practices. She holds a master's degree in theology from Regent College (Vancouver, BC), is a graduate of Shalem's Soul of Leadership program, and is currently pursuing a DMin in Spiritual Direction from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Originally from Philadelphia, Sharon now calls Nashville home.

Photography by Andrik Langfield / Unsplash

1 Bridges, William, and Bridges, Susan. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. New York: Lifelong Books, 2019.

2 Marchese, David, “Krista Tippet Wants You to See All the Hope That’s Being Hidden,” The New York Times Magazine, July 7, 2022.

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