The Sacred Pause

Radical Acceptance:  Enhancing your Life with the Heart of the Buddha (pp 49-72)

Taking your hands off the controls

When we feel stress and tense about a situation, our primal tendencies are to react by fight or flight.  When we choose fight (taking immediate action), we often act in the heat of the moment.  This type of reaction often makes the situation worse.

If we choose flight, we are running away from the situation which still remains unresolved.  As Tara notes, “Yet by running away from what we fear, we feed the inner darkness.”  When we run away, where do we hide?  We hide in the trance of delusion and suffer.

We get into trouble because we think we are in control.  We are not aware of what is really happening.  The Buddha explained this in the first step of the Eightfold Path:  Skillful Understanding.

This process is shown in the diagram below: Distorted Perception The Trance

The process works as follows.  We experience life through the five aggregates of clinging:  form, feeling, perception, mental objects (ideas, fantasies, memories, fears, emotional responses), and consciousness.  These factors come into play in this order:

  • The sense base makes contact with the sense object, the first factor (form).
  • We become aware of the sense object when we pay attention through the fifth factor, consciousness.
  • Then the second factor, feeling, about the object arises (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).
  • Then the third factor, perception (identification), arises
  • After perception, the fourth factor, mental objects, arises (ideas, fantasies, memories, fears, emotional responses).
  • At this point, if we are not aware, we become attached to these mental formations and enter the trance.  We cycle back through the process over and over again without new input causing proliferation of the arisen mental objects.  With awareness, we can pause and then use mindfulness, investigation with effort/energy to see what really is and stop the cycle.

As an example, you are having a conversation with a person (your ear is in contact with the sounds of words).  You become aware of these sounds through consciousness.  Then a feeling arises about these sounds which is unpleasant.  Perception then arises as the identification of harsh words.  Perception is next followed by the arising of mental object such as thoughts and emotions such as anger and fear.  If you are not aware of this process, mental proliferation begins by recycling these mental formations through feelings, perception and more mental formations.   As a result of this, the fight or flight reaction can occur.

However, if you are aware of this, you can pause and apply Radical Acceptance (Mindfulness and Compassion). This may, in and of itself, stop the cycle.

Surgeons have discovered that taking a timeout before starting a difficult and long surgery, actually improves the patients’ survival.  During the brief timeout, the proposed surgery is reviewed and new information might be discovered which might have been overlooked.  Likewise, pausing to just notice what we are experiencing in a stressful situation can lead to more beneficial (skillful) results.  “We resume our activities, but we do so with increased presence and more ability to make choices.”  In some instance, it may not be possible to pause but the majority of time it is.

Pausing is applying mindfulness:  paying attention moment to moment to what is. So with fight we need to pause and with flight we need to pause.  The sacred pause allows us to take stock of the situation and apply Radical Acceptance.  It allows us, in the word of Thich Naht Hahn to “keep our appointment with life.”

Practicing the Sacred Pause

Purposely pause during regular activities and times of stress.  “Rather than running away, we need only commit ourselves to arriving, here and now, with wholehearted presence.”  When you are caught up in tension or self-judgment, pause and ask yourself, what would it be like if you could accept life – accept this moment – exactly as it is?”


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Practice pausing especially during times of stress and apply Radical Acceptance.  What do you experience?


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness.

Next: Unconditional Friendliness Previous: Awakening from the Trance