The Buddha Was an Introvert

Finding peace of mind in a hectic world

A Time to Wait; A Time to Act

In praise of hesitation

"He who hesitates is lost" goes the famous adage. But is this really the case in all circumstances? This culture's dedication to extroversion gives hesitation a bad rap. I've checked the thesaurus on my word processor and these terms come up for hesitation: unwillingness, reluctance, disinclination, indecision, uncertainty, vacillation, wavering, faltering, dithering. Not very attractive company. 

Hesitation has value. In an evolutionary context, hesitation can be adaptive under the right circumstances. Boldness is also valuable but can be maladaptive in different situations. Ethological studies of birds by Niels Dingemanse and Piet Drent of the University of Groningen (as reported in by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times) that during times of scarce food different patterns of adaption emerged. Female shy birds did worse than bold birds. Males had the opposite pattern. Birds in the middle adapted best. 

A thoughtful consideration of hesitation goes beyond decision-making scenarios. We can think of hesitation at the very core of our mental process. The mind is always engaged with decisions to engage or not to engage with whatever material is presenting itself to consciousness (and, indeed, there is also the decision whether to be conscious or on automatic pilot). 

When we are in what neuroscientists call the default mode network (DMN) impulsivity is the rule. Let's think of impulsivity distinct from boldness. To be bold is to act decisively to effect a desired or necessary outcome in a situation. To act just out of habit or fear is an impulsive tendency that is at the very core of how our minds operate. 

Mindfulness can be thought of as the practice of hesitation. Material presents itself to consciousness and we regard these thoughts, images, and emotions with awareness. We don't just chase every conversational thread that comes through the mind. We don't just follow every associational thread that shows up. 

This mindfulness tendency is often called a pause. In my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, I described mindfulness as being like a pause button on a media player. When the flow of information and energy (as Dan Siegel defines the mind) is slowed or paused, a new universe of possibility emerges. 

There is the option to just sit and be without having to take any action. There is a freedom in that scenario. Like Herman Hesse's Siddhartha we can "think, wait, and fast." We can practice forbearance, restraint, and renunciation without feeling deprived. 

Introverts, by definition, will be more prone towards pausing and reviewing information before acting. The addition of mindfulness creates a powerful dimension to the introvert's predilection towards hesitation. Instead of getting caught up in the stickiness of interior conversations, mindfulness allows introverts to be at home in the mind. 

Hesitation and the thoughtfulness that stems from it has many advantages that are sorely needed in today's instant gratification, consumerist, and celebrity and wealth-obsessed culture. Wall Street would have been better served by introverts who were able to wait instead of jumping into risky assets. Individuals might be better served waiting to buy the next thing they must have and by remaining silent when the impulse to speak is strong. Hesitation could save us a lot of trouble. 

Of course, we also need to act at times. Hesitation provides a context of clarity that can be our best launch point for action. The more introverts meditate, the more accessible this clear place for action will be. Sometimes this action will be speaking a difficult truth. At other times, this action will remain silent because this is the path that wisdom dictates. 

 

 

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine and founder of the Exquisite Mind Psychotherapy and Meditation Studio.

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