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Alarm Clock Model #1: Pauses in Time

The first model is called pauses in time. Pauses in time are prearranged signals that we use to wake us up, to bring us back to just being here. One of my own "pauses in time" is the telephone ringing. Whenever the phone rings, instead of picking it up right away, I always let it ring twice. Even though I might be feeling efficient, wanting to answer it right away to take care of business, I just sit there and feel the breath in my heart space as it rings twice. I'm not trying to do anything, like getting calm or centered. I'm just feeling the breath and the heart and noticing where I am, being present to the moment. Then I pick up the phone. One virtue of this particular practice is that its occurrence is so unpredictable. Since we never know when the phone will ring, it catches us in all of our craziness.

Another example of an effective pause in time is when we stop for a traffic light. Sitting there in the car, we can use the light as a reminder to come back to reality, if only for a few moments. If we're feeling impatience in wanting to get somewhere, the point is not to take a breath and try to feel patient. The point is simply to attend to whatever it is that's there. We listen to the voice of impatience and feel its physical texture. We don't try to relax or let it go. Instead, we're waking up to the fact that we're asleep in that moment, and experiencing what that moment is. When we try to relax, let go, or think positive thoughts, we're often just adding a cosmetic overlay to the moment, not really bringing awareness to what it is.

Pauses in time can be very effective for a few weeks or months — but then we might tune them out altogether. A good example of this is a picture I put in my entry hall of a young girl ice skating. Her arms are stretched out as if she's flying and her head is thrown back as if she doesn't have a care in the world. Right in front of her is a sign that says, "Beware, Thin Ice." I put this picture right where I would pass by it everyday and for the first several weeks it worked as the perfect alarm clock. I'd smile whenever I saw it, because it would remind me in a light-hearted way of how much time we spend skating on thin ice, sliding through life oblivious to what we eventually have to face. It's one of my favorite practice themes. Seeing the picture would wake me up to the moment, providing that pause in time where I could just experience being present. Some time later, I realized that I hadn't looked at the picture for weeks. Even though I'd probably walked by it several hundred times, I hadn't seen it at all!

As we begin to see this happen with practice alarm clocks, we see the power of the waking sleep-state. We learn that we have to counter this force by inventing new alarm clocks when the old ones no longer work. We change the picture, move it to another wall, turn it upside-down, or do whatever we have to do so that the alarm clock will do what it is intended to do: wake us up.

In my early years of practice, when I would "fail," say, by no longer seeing the picture, I'd condemn myself for being on the wrong track, or for not being up for the task. At some point I finally understood that we can't wake up simply because we want to. We may want to with great fervor one moment, but our basic mechanicalness will predictably and inexorably arise to counter our aspiration. Thus we must invent one alarm clock after another, whatever it takes to awaken ourselves from the incredibly limiting self-centered dream.

With pauses in time, we set up pattern-interrupts wherever we can. For example, on a given day, we could set our beeper watch to go off every thirty minutes. Whenever it rings, we check in with what's going on in that moment; simply feeling the texture of the moment. Other examples of everyday activities that can become pauses in time: reading aphorisms you've put on the mirror or in your wallet, turning your car on or off, opening your book to a bookmark with a practice reminder on it, sliding your credit card through the electronic scanner, or walking out to get your newspaper or mail. The possibilities are plentiful. The point is to just pause for a few moments and simply be here. The more of these small gestures you can edit into your day, the more awake and alive your day will be. You'll also become increasingly aware of just where and to what extent you are asleep.