Like the seasons of nature, the human experience inevitably comprises periods of growth and periods of slowing down and the dying off of old growth. Our culture and our society, however, do not value or celebrate fallow times. Our society values productivity, growth, busyness, dynamism, and change. What is not immediately obvious or celebrated, however, is that change often requires an accompanying period of emptiness. Emptiness is not a celebrated state of being. Stopping, however, often brings a period of emptiness. Emptiness is, in fact, a desired aspect of stopping yet one that strikes fear, judgment and discomfort in most of us.
What does it mean to stop? Do we ever stop? Have we lost the ability to stop or is stopping an underdeveloped aspect of human nature?
What do I even mean by stopping? Stopping striving. Stopping craving. Stopping comparing. Stopping achieving. Stopping trying. Stopping wanting. Stopping worrying. Stopping criticizing (self and others). Stopping hating (self and others). Stopping judging (self and others).
Stopping scares us. If we stop won’t we miss out? In a culture of FOMO, we fear that if we are not constantly doing, connecting and accomplishing we will inevitably miss out. There is a strong underlying current that tells us that we must be switched on all of the time in order to be valued and to live a fulfilling and exciting life.
What we are seeing more and more of in today’s society, however, is burnout. The contradictory forces of having one foot firmly on the gas pedal and a mind and soul unable to reach the brake, drives the body into a state of burnout. Burnout occurs when we do everything in our power, consciously or not, not to stop. We ignore biological signals, we discount the inner voices, we push through the physical red flags urging and warning us to pause. Stopping is anathema.
I know this cycle well. I have been there many times myself. I specifically mentioned stopping comparing as one of the critical components of stopping, for one of the greatest barriers to stopping is surveying our peers, the societal messages and the cultural norm of striving that surround us and convincing ourselves that we must carry on.
I posit that as counterintuitive as it sounds, we have to stop occasionally, sometimes for a short period, sometimes for a lengthy period, in order to reach the next level of growth that we think striving will bring us. Just as a farmer’s field lies fallow between crops, we too must also accept periods of emptiness in order to evolve.
For many of us, however (myself included), starting somehow feels much easier than its opposite, stopping. If we fill out just one more application, cross off just one more chore, fit in just one more workout, send just one more text message, we will somehow be further ahead than if we simply let it all go – all pressure, all expectation, all productivity – and let ourselves just be. Pausing, being, stopping can all feel tremendously difficult and uncomfortable, daunting, scary and unnatural, especially when we’ve been taught that to be successful we must work hard, play hard and be hard.
As we move into Fall, with the leaves shifting from vibrant green to golden yellow, drifting off the branches to make room for next year’s buds, I suggest pausing to reflect on your own seasons of change. There is just as much purpose, value and beauty to be found in the bare branches as there is in the tree bursting with leaves. If the trees were always green and full we would value their beauty half as much. Seasonal chronology is not designed by chance. The beauty of Spring follows and juxtaposes the bareness of Winter exactly as it should. We exult in the beautiful Spring flowers because we have experienced the empty space created by the Winter months.
Today, take pause in the brilliant colours of Autumn. Stop. Reflect. Assimilate all that has come before, let go of what no longer serves you, and trust in the process of stopping.