Solitude on its own won’t give us knowledge and compassion—it depends how we use that time with ourselves. But it gives us the opportunity to listen to ourselves, to hear the ideas, inspiration, feelings, and reactions that arise, and hopefully to approach what arises with kindness and compassion even when the thoughts that come up are painful or unflattering.
Moments of pause are especially powerful when combined with gratitude and feelings of love. I had a medical school professor who struggled with the demands of being a mother, doctor, teacher, researcher, and administrator. Finding time to meditate or go on a retreat was a near impossibility for her, but whenever she washed her hands before seeing a patient, she would let the warm water run over her hands for a few extra seconds and think of something she was grateful for—the opportunity to be a part of the patient’s healing, the health of her family, the joy of teaching a student earlier that morning. She was one of the first people to teach me that the power of gratitude can be delivered in the smallest of moments . . . and those moments have the power to change how we see ourselves and the people around us.
If we ever forget the power of pausing, we need only remember the lesson of our heart. The heart operates in two phases: systole where it pumps blood to the vital organs and diastole where it relaxes. Most people think that systole is where the action is and the more time in systole the better. But diastole – the relaxation phase – is where the coronary blood vessels fill and supply life sustaining oxygen to the heart muscle itself. Pausing, it turns out, is what sustains the heart.
From former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy’s lovely book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
When the pandemic first exploded earlier this year, I naively hoped that it would be a unifying enemy that would help us transcend our differences. That didn’t happen here at least. I think some fortunate people were able to pause, but pausing–like many things–is easier with privilege. When I look at the depressing state of community and political discourse, I think Murthy has it exactly right:
The great challenge facing us today is how to build a people-centered life and a people-centered world. So many of the front-page issues we face are made worse by—and in some cases originate from—disconnection. Many of these challenges are the manifestation of a deeper individual and collective loneliness that has brewed for too long in too many. In the face of such pain, few healing forces are as powerful as genuine, loving relationships.