I was wandering through the bowels of my computer when I came across this feature I wrote many years back. It struck a chord. Much as I think mindfulness is generally a ‘good thing’ (and heaven knows I’ve banged on about it enough in way too many books) sometimes I just want to smack it right in the gob. Why? I dunno – the way it’s presented often makes it feel too smug for its own good. Whereas stopping…or rather Stopping… Yes, that I can do. And I might just do it right now.
First came stress management. Then meditation and mindfulness. Next we were told to downsize, to declutter – both our minds and our spaces. But what do you do when you’re simply too stressed to try stress management? When your mind panics at the very thought of wasting ten precious minutes meditating? When the very idea of deciding what to do with even one small drawer of stuff is enough to send your blood pressure into meltdown? As the pace of life gets more frantic, a host of “experts” have come up with scores of techniques for beating burnout. Most of them create more stress than they disperse. However Dr David Kundtz has a completely new idea. Stop.
Stop as in do nothing at all? Apparently so.
Stopping sounds terrifying to anyone caught on the fast track of modern life. How on earth does he expect us to stop when the whole world demands we keep going – faster and faster?
“Stopping is for hurried, harried people,” insists Kundtz, an ex-priest turned therapist who endearingly describes himself as a failed meditator. “The purpose of Stopping is to be able to keep going.”
Stopping is a simple, straightforward technique to stop burnout. It could even save your sanity. Basically it involves three levels of stopping – from the merest moment to serious time out. The techniques are practical but go way beyond pure stress relief. As you might expect from a former priest, Stopping’s ultimate purpose is almost spiritual. It is tailor-made for anyone who yearns for an uncomplicated method of relief and rest, yet also feels there has to be more to life. Stopping promises to give you spiritual renewal as well as psychological solace.
Kundtz designed Stopping after looking back at how life used to be. In the past, he points out, the natural rhythms of life automatically provided sufficient time to achieve a balance between quiet work and active work. There were busy times and leisure times. “In our grandparents’ day the pace of life allowed for time in between events,” he says: the time walking to school, to a neighbour’s; and the times of solitary work around the house, shop or farm.
For most of us, the quiet moments simply don’t happen any more. We’re just too busy. However, if we choose, we can create these seemingly blank spaces between the events of life. It’s a simple habit. Just as we have had to make specific choices to get, say, enough physical exercise, so we now have to make choices to put spaces in our lives, spaces with nothing to do. Creating these spaces is the purpose of Stopping. Kundtz calls Stopping “contemporary contemplation.” “It is a variety of meditation for those too busy (or maybe moving too fast) to meditate; it’s a way to care for the soul for those who wouldn’t otherwise have time.” Here’s how it works.
Stopping has three levels. They are based on length of time: Stillpoints, Stopovers, and Grinding Halts. Each one is meant for different moments of life.
A Stillpoint is Stopping quickly and doing nothing for just a moment. It is brief and meant to be used anytime, all the time, and many times a day. Stillpoints can last a few seconds or a few minutes and are designed to take advantage of the unfilled moments in life: waiting for the microwave to ping, brushing your teeth, or sitting at traffic lights.
They can also be used at moments of stress: walking into an interview, during a feeling of anger, or when you know you’re going to be late for an appointment. Creating Stillpoints during the day is fundamental to the Stopping principle. A day with fifteen Stillpoints in it will make you much more peaceful, satisfied and calm, no matter how much you’ve had to do, how many people you have had to attend to. The advantage of Stillpoints, compared to meditation and other time-consuming systems of quieting the mind, is that they can be incorporated into your life with minimal disruption and maximum effect.
What you do during a Stillpoint is simple. You stop doing whatever you’re doing, sit or stand, take a deep breath with your eyes open or closed and focus your attention inward for a moment. Then you “remember”. Remembering can mean recalling a belief or event that motivates you (why you do your job; why you chose to become a parent and so forth). But it can also mean remembering a prayer for strength or peace, a message you need to hear at the moment like “you can do it”, or a self-encouragement like “you are OK.”
For example, you could be traveling to work on the bus or train. Begin by simply noticing your breathing for a few moments. Then briefly bring to mind some of the people that are very important to you. Be thankful.
So Stillpoints have a physical part (being still and breathing) and a spiritual part (remembering, praying, being grateful or telling yourself things that are good for you to hear).
These last quite a bit longer than Stillpoints – an hour to several days – and so are used far less often. These are the wonderful times of Stopping, when you really have the feeling that you have been away and have had a mini-vacation for the soul.
Perhaps the best way to experience a Stopover is over a weekend. Pick out a weekend, maybe a few months from now, in order to give you some idea to get used to the idea. Mark it on the calendar and plan time just for yourself. Say to yourself, “There is really nothing I have to do for a day and a half. No pressure and no expectations at all.”
Practically speaking, many Stopovers happen during holidays. If you go on holiday with others, perhaps you could arrange to have a day to yourself. On its own, time off is not necessarily Stopping. Some people cram their holidays so full that they defeat the purpose of rest and renewal. Consider a Stopping holiday with no expectations, no plans, no agenda.
You could also consider trying a retreat. Retreats don’t have to be religious or even spiritual. They simply involve getting away from everything in a place dedicated to peace and quiet. I’m lucky in that reviewing retreats is a part of my job. I can often simply “drop out” for a day or two at a retreat centre and spend the time reading, walking and (maybe even) sleeping. I return to the fray feeling…better. Equally you might consider renting a cottage or borrowing a friend’s place for a weekend. Anywhere that gets you out of your usual routine and allows you time to stop and think (or sink into blissful non-thought) is deeply refreshing. Or you could follow the simple prescription of walking, nutritious, healthy food, a nap, a good shower and an early night – all in soothing silence.
Stopovers, says Kundtz, are vital for our mental, physical and emotional health. Yet we rarely take them. We feel guilty about taking the time; about spending the money; about leaving our families or partners. But, insists Kundtz, regular Stopovers can actually improve your relationships and give you a huge burst of fresh energy and creativity which can even jumpstart your work.
Stillpoints and Stopovers can be incorporated into life on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. A Grinding Halt is different. It’s an extended time out which happens much less frequently, perhaps once or a few times in a lifetime, and it may not be needed by everyone. Usually it is seen as a way to resolve some life crisis.
Generally a Grinding Halt marks a significant life transition or decision. It can be particularly useful and healing for those having “mid-life crisis” or experiencing that feeling of “what’s it all about?”
A Grinding Halt is a way of rediscovering meaning in life. It usually involves cutting loose from your ties and responsibilities for a period of time: a week might be enough; a month is more likely but not everyone can afford that luxury. Even if you are not able to take a Grinding Halt, it is worth realising that the desire to stop and do absolutely nothing is perfectly natural. There is nothing odd or selfish or disloyal about needing a period of time totally on your own – without having to work, worry or even be around other people. If we feel guilty at the idea of a Stopover; how much more guilt arises at the thought of simply dropping out for a week or more.
When the need for a Grinding Halt comes, it usually arrives like a sledgehammer. You feel you can barely function; you are often depressed or permanently exhausted. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning and virtually impossible to find any enthusiasm in life. This is the point when, if humanly possible, you should throw in the towel, explain how you feel to your family; make excuses or take holiday time from work, and Stop. Take yourself away from it all – again a retreat centre or a rented cottage would be good, but your own home can do the trick – once again, just Stop. Don’t try to plan; don’t even think – just do nothing, think nothing. Sleep all week if you want. Ten to one, after a week or more, you will start to awaken and return to the world, feeling clearer about what you need and what you want. Then the world can start again – with you playing a full role once more.