“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I remember the first time I learned about the explanatory power of this quotation as I read Man’s Search for Meaning, the classic book on logotherapy penned by Viktor Frankl. It was so life-changing I couldn’t contain my excitement about stumbling onto it. In the New York Times best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey writes about a nurse who finally liberated herself from the negativity associated with her experience of caring for a patient who gave her a hard time, day in and day out. Ultimately, she realized that the cause of all her misery was not just the way her patient related to her. More importantly, it was how she responded to her patient’s unkindness and lack of consideration. She could choose to be negatively affected by it or she could choose to use the experience to become a better person. Hence, the premium that Covey assigns on the most primary habit of a highly effective person: be proactive. Choose to carry your own weather instead of being under the power of the weather.
That Frankl arrived at this paradigm-shifting insight after going through so much suffering as a Holocaust survivor in Auschwitz made it even more powerful. More to the point, he arrived at this insight as he was being tortured by his Nazi captors: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Fairly recently, I realized why despite the wisdom that is intrinsic in Frankl’s insight, it has been a struggle for many, including myself, to consistently imbibe and live out the power of choosing one’s response. Human beings are creatures of habit or automatic responses. Throw in the culture of distraction brought about by the rise of the social media and the complexities of living in the 21st century and you realize how truly difficult it could be to master the art of being proactive instead of being reactive. A terrorist incident takes place thousands of miles away and we are naturally negatively affected by it despite the distance. A loved one passes away all of a sudden and we are subsequently devastated. The predictability of tenure is rocked by the onset of digitization and digitalization and we are endlessly anxious and worried. An inconsiderate driver cuts into our lane and we find ourselves cursing aloud. Friends appear to have forgotten your birthday and you are offended and hurt you couldn’t stop thinking about it. Negative stimulus seems to inevitably give rise to negative response period.
This is precisely where mindfulness could prove to be of great value. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the leading authority on how the practice of mindfulness can truly live out Frankl’s insight. Over the years, Kabat-Zinn has developed tried and tested techniques for practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness zeroes in on focus and clarity. Focus is achieved by learning the art of meditation. At the heart of meditation is focusing on our breath. Clarity comes to us when we are able to catch ourselves reacting to a negative stimulus before it takes us down a negative spiral. The second one presupposes the first. If one is too immersed in one’s experience, the capacity for focus and ultimately, insight is adversely affected. One moves from one activity to the next without being able to rise above the series of stimuli that one experiences – from mindlessly doing your morning ritual to mindlessly working on your inbox day after day. The rock singer Dave Matthews wrote the song “Ants Marching” to call attention to how modern day man mindlessly lives his life by following the lead of everyone else just like ants marching in cadence. The solution is to master the art of pausing and going back to basics. And what could be more basic than the art of breathing. Easier said than done of course. This is why those who are new to this practice are taught to try out the experience for five minutes a day. I have been doing so for two weeks now and I could truly say that the experience has heightened my self-awareness. I am now more present in the moment. I also realize I can easily catch myself being caught up in a negative spiral much faster.
Alas, there are certain days when the pressures and the distractions around me could tend to be overwhelming. Thankfully, mindfulness also teaches what I would call the 573 technique. That is to say, when a negative stimulus is staring you in the face you can almost taste the negativity, breathe in deeply for 5 seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds. Do this thrice and you would be surprised with how you can easily recover instantaneously to “hijack,” as it were, the negative stimulus before it does extensive damage to you and those around you.
But wait there’s more.
Once you are able to master the art of the pause, mindfulness also teaches a technique for putting to question your natural and automatic response to a negative stimulus. This is called parsing or the experience of breaking down how our thoughts impact our actions. If a good friend, for example, passes you by without bothering to acknowledge you. Consider how you would naturally react. The thought that could come to you could range from: “my good friend appears to ignore me” to “I wonder why my friend ignored me” to “he ignored me on purpose” to “he probably pretended not to have seen me.” Any of these four thoughts could naturally make you feel bad. This could then lead to a feeling of heaviness perhaps on your shoulders and possibly, your neck. From there, it could affect the next action you would take which could range from either moving on or running after your friend. When one does parsing, you get to step back from the stimulus to examine which among the range of responses available to you would prove to be most productive and which ones you would be better off ignoring.
Socrates used the word techne to refer to the practical application of knowledge. That is to say, it is one thing to know something, it is entirely another thing altogether to act on that knowledge. Applying it to the concept of being proactive, it is one thing to know the concept of the space between stimulus and response. It is an entirely different thing to master that space through coming home to the breath, practicing deep breaths and parsing one’s experience. Through mindfulness, it is, in fact, possible to achieve calmness even in chaos. More to the point, through mindfulness, calmness is best achieved in chaos.