“Between stimulus and response, there is a gap. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”- Victor Frankl
Being able to choose your response to stimuli, as Frankl suggests in the quote above, is uniquely human. Other animals simply follow instinct. A dog confronted by the presence of the mail man does not consider what response might be best… he just barks.
Many times, humans fall into the same trap. For instance, when we get cut off on the freeway, we immediately react in anger, instead of considering a counterfact that may make us feel better. For instance, perhaps the person is rushing to a hospital to be with their pregnant wife in labor. Instead, we instinctively get angry before we take advantage of the gap. When you give in to the anger, it actually makes your day tangibly worse. This trap leads us to arguments, misunderstandings, anger, sadness and division.
The question is: How could we take better advantage of the gap between stimulus and response to generate better outcomes? To start, let’s try these three simple steps.
Step 1: Be conscious of the gap. We must hone our ability to recognize that the gap is present. Learn to recognize what happens in your body when a stressful stimulus has appeared. Do your ears feel hot (mine do)? Does a lump in your stomach appear? Does your jaw tense?
Step 2: Increase the size of the gap. We want to avoid a snap decision hijacked by our fight, flight or freeze response. Take a breath and bring your mind into the present moment.
Step 3: Decide consciously what response will generate the most advantageous outcome.
Simple advice to give, but this can be difficult advice to use. All of it hinges upon your ability to recognize and use the gap effectively. How do you increase the likelihood? By training your mind for stability through meditation and/or mindfulness.
Simple meditation instructions
Sit comfortably in a space where you are unlikely to be distubed
- Set a timer for 10 minutes. If that seems too long, start with 5 minutes (even 3 minutes has been shown in studies to have a significant impact).
- Close your eyes and take three deep breaths.
- Bring your full attention to your breath. To do that, notice where in your body that you feel your breath. That may be the rise and fall of your belly or chest, the breath in the back of your throat or the air passing your nostrils / upper lip.
- Count the breaths: one on the inhale, two on the exhale, three on the inhale, four on the exhale etc. Count up to ten and then start over at one. Repeat the pattern until the timer indicates that your time is up.
Note: You are likely to only be able to keep your attention on your breath for a few seconds, before you mind wanders. Simply bring your attention back to your breath and start over again. The process of your mind wandering and you bringing it back to the breath is the magic of meditation. It is how you train your mind to be in the present moment (notice the gap) more often. Therefore, the mind wandering is not a problem, instead it is the opportunity. Too often, people feel that their inability to clear their minds makes them a “bad meditator” or unable to meditate. Neither could be further from the truth.
If you want to go deeper, consider using guided meditation. There are lots of options for free on-line. If you want more support, try popular apps like Headspace, Calm, 10% Happier etc. I have used Headspace for years and I love it.
Simple mindfulness instructions
Throughout your day, bring your attention exclusively to a physical sensation for 10 seconds.
Examples: focus on the feeling of water on your skin when washing your hands, really soak in the beauty of a tree on a daily walk, focus on the sounds that you can hear in a “silent” room or focus on the feeling of your feet on the ground as you stand.
Author Shirzad Chamine recommends that you try to do this 100 times per day in his book “Positive Intelligence”. However, any amount of time where you can bring yourself to the present moment will have an impact.
Simple exercises like meditation and mindfulness can help to train your mind to be present in the present moment and take better advantage of the gap between stimulus and response.
I hope that you found this article useful. Let me know what you think / how it goes.