“Between stimulus and response is our greatest power—the freedom to choose.”
Quotes like Covey’s are like spiritual Sweet-Tarts, sugary rushes of wisdom lacking real nourishment. Who hasn’t gotten inspired by Goethe’s “whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” My root chakra tingles just writing it. I want to do all the things I’ve been too much of a puss to do.
But what happens after the axiomatic rush? Doesn’t it always get subsumed by habit? No matter how clever or true, few quotes can match the power of habit. Habits are our neurological earthmovers. We can hear and believe that love is the answer and that our bodies are temples, but if we are in the habit of being hostile to our parents and eating McDonald’s, those axioms mean nothing—they are spiritual marshmallow fluff.
I subscribe to Covey’s quote about choice in principle, but often find myself veering from it in practice.
Most of us exercise little or no choice to the various stimuli in our lives. We are almost totally on automatic, reacting to situations without any awareness as to why.
Here’s a test to see if this is true for you. Ask yourself if there are things—people, institutions, situations—that bother you? Don’t rationalize them away by saying, “I am bothered, but I know that I am responsible for how I react.” That’s BS. If you’re bothered, you’re bothered. I’m bothered by a lot of things. I don’t think I should have to make money or pay for health insurance. I don’t choose to be pissed off.
Assuming you are like me and feel bothered by something, the question is, is this feeling a choice? If we had the freedom to choose how we responded to stimuli, why we would we ever choose to be bothered or angry or scared or experience any other unpleasant feeling? Why wouldn’t we choose to be happy and at peace with things as they are? Isn’t that what we really want?
I know what you’re saying, “But that’s delusional. Some things are supposed to make us angry.” This is the response of the justifiably angry (and unhappy). Many of us think there are requisite responses to certain stimuli. Injustice always demands outrage. Unkindness always demands scorn. Indulgence always demands shame.
This line of thinking has a gap in logic. We can’t get to peace and happiness via disturbance and anger. Or as Gandhi put it, “There is no road towards peace; peace is the road.” To illustrate, we think that if we are angry at Republicans for their tax policies, if we just get pissed enough, if we yell loud enough, they’ll listen to our side and stop subjugating the lower classes. When this happens, justice will reign and we will be happy.
What actually happens is that we yell at the Republicans, they get angry at our anger, they say bugger off hippy, and opt to be greedier still. Solving anger with anger is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy dies (forgot where I heard that one, but it’s good).
Most of us can’t conceptualize joyful responses to difficult situations. That we can peacefully stand for human rights. That we can love and protect the environment without hating those who destroy it. That we can take care of our bodies without shaming ourselves.
This is all a big prelude to plug meditation. Meditation is where we get space between stimulus and response.
About a year and a half ago, a friend of a friend recommended a book called “The Presence Process.” In his somewhat windy prose, author Michael Brown outlines a 10-week meditation program with accompanying text to be read every morning. His basic idea is that we have no choice in how we interpret the world. We are in a perpetual state of reaction. Mediation is where we start cultivating the ability to respond.
Brown teases apart reaction and response. To react is to repeat an action. We re-act to stimulus based on the way we acted before. Therefore reaction is past-dependent.
Etymologically, the word respond is derived from the Old French word respondre, which means ‘to answer.’ To answer denotes thought—we think about or choose how to respond to something. Responses are present-dependent. Our responses, or answer to a stimulus, depend on the present situation, not how we acted in the past.
Brown suggests a non-negotiable, twice-daily meditation practice for 10 weeks, where you sit absolutely still for 15-minutes each sitting and pay close attention to your breath. The idea is that mindfulness of one’s breath brings awareness to an otherwise automatic behavior. By cultivating awareness of this most basic automatic system, we can bring awareness to other automatic parts of our lives, i.e. our reactions to the various stimuli in our lives—relationships, situations, our identity, etc.
Through this process, I began to notice that when I was anxious, depressed or excited, my breath got irregular and shallow. When this happened, I could return to my breath, making it regular, and suddenly I wouldn’t feel as disturbed. Body followed mind as mind follows body.
I completed the 10 weeks without fail and went over a year with missing only 2 or 3 sessions out of 730. Nowadays, I skip it the one or two nights I stay over at my girlfriend’s place, but otherwise it’s the first thing I do in morning and last thing at night. It’s a habit.
The good new is that yes, like Covey said, we can find freedom through our responses to stimuli. I have. In this last year and a half, I feel like I’m more prone to responding than reacting—to freeing myself of reactions that just lead to suffering. I no longer react to my girlfriend like my mother, react to men like they’re my dad or brother, react to strangers like they’re my 6th grade classmates. To be clear, it’s not act of sitting a half-hour on a mat that’s a big deal; it’s the freedom I have in the other 23 1/2 hours.
The bad news is that the ability to choose my responses hasn’t come about through soundbites, wishful thinking or intellectualization. It’s come about by consistently cultivating awareness via meditation. Getting still before bed even though I just want to go to sleep. Waking up a half hour early to make sure I take my mental shower. It’s not about discipline. It’s about the desire to not be a slave to my reactions. Peace is not out there, or as Jack Handy puts it so eloquently:
“If God dwells inside us like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas, because that’s what He’s getting.”