This is Part 2 in a three-article series, to read Part 1 click here.
Life is going to throw us events and we are going to react to them, whether we like it or not.
Mindless reactions are often brash, unnecessary, and/or cruel. Sometimes we over-react, lose control of our words and end up hurting relationships or losing opportunities. These thoughtless responses only harm others and ourselves.
They feed into a negative feedback loop which can be hard to get off. Our experiences become more and more negative. We start to expect things to go badly and get into a certain pattern of reacting.
It doesn’t occur to us that we can get off the ride, we can actually change our negative habits and respond to things differently–with kindness, with awareness.
An Internal Sequence of Events
In between what actually happens and how we react to it, there is a sequence of internal experiences. By understanding this process, we can learn to circumvent autopilot mode and completely change our habits of reacting.
There are ways to slow the sequence down and notice what’s going on. We can even choose to respond with love or not react at all. (But we will get to that more in the next article).
But let’s examine what happens whenever we are having a reaction and really slow the process down–way, way down. Take it step-by-step.
Reactions: the words we say and the actions we take after a situation or event has taken place.
By increasing our awareness, it is possible to tune into these internal events in real time and learn how to pause long enough to make different choices along the way. We can literally train ourselves how to stop running on autopilot.
The first step is to understand the process:
Something that “happens” to us is perceived, one of our senses picked it up. Our ears hear something, our eyes see something–we get some kind of sensorial input. Let’s call it the “event” in our reaction scenario. If our eyes didn’t see it, if we didn’t perceive it–there would be nothing to react to, right?
It may not always feel like we have a choice over what happens but we do have choices over what input is going into our brains. We choose what shows we watch, who we hang around with and what activities we do. And there are plenty of other times when we do not have control. Sometimes we see, hear or experience things just randomly and are compelled to react to them.
Next this sensory input is interpreted. Our brain, the interpreter, always trying to make sense of the incoming data. A literal biological computer inside our heads, it recognizes the object our eyes scanned as an image and finds a reference: “oh, that’s an apple” or “that’s a chair.” It interprets sounds someone utters as words. Perception is individual. A large group of people could witness the exact same event and each person would perceive it differently.
After interpreting the event, we evaluate and attach meaning to things. We pass it through our filters of experiences and come up with opinions such as: “I like apples” or “chairs like that are uncomfortable.”
Meanings are personal. An entire group of people could witness something, they could all even somehow (miraculously) perceive the event in the exact same way and yet all of them would likely attach different meanings to the event based on their personal experiences.
4. Bodily Feeling
After we’ve attached some kind of personal meaning to an event, our body begins to produce sensations or feelings based on our beliefs about what happened. If I see an apple and like apples, suddenly I might discover that my mouth is watering and my stomach rumbling. If a conversation I overhear is about me and I don’t like what is being said, I may feel my heart speeding up and my limbs becoming trembly.
Incoming input is initially neutral but our perceptions and interpretations assign meaning and then our bodies react to those thoughts. This is going on all the time, in each and every moment of our day.
Whenever we mentally decide something is “good”, we have a rush of positive sensations and crave more of it. If we decide something is “bad”, we have a rush of negative sensations and want to make it stop.
5. Visible Reaction
Finally, we come to the actual reaction: the way we speak or act to outwardly show what is going on internally. An outward reaction could be to storm off, give the silent treatment, punch something, yell, shut down, say something mean, drive fast, smile, laugh, joke, get mad, run away, talk about it…the list is endless. Whether we want to or not, we are always reacting externally to the internal dialogue about what is happening around us.
How people treat you is their karma, how you react is yours.Wayne Dyer
Pause and Notice
Did you know it is possible to mentally tune in to this constant flow of changing physical sensations happening inside of us? And by noticing them, we take the first, small step towards choosing how we want to react to events.
Meditation can help us tune into our thoughts and feelings. It literally helps us slow down and notice things. You wouldn’t ask your body to just go and go forever without any rest and yet it seems like we rarely give our minds the time to slow down and observe what’s going on inside us.
At first all you can see is your mind jumping all over the place–from thought to random thought. But if possible, try to simply observe the jumping, try not to react with frustration or negativity. Accept your busy mind. Appreciate it, love it, even. But teach it there’s also a time and a place for rest.
Do you notice all the little stories, all the self-justifications? How the mind constantly craves pleasant experiences and wants to avoid unpleasantness at all costs?
Just sit with the physical sensations that arise in the body and then watch them. Do they grow stronger or weaker under observation? Do they eventually go away?
Reactions Are a Choice
We first have to get away from this victim mentality of “having no choice” over how we react to things. I call bullshit. And by thinking we don’t have control over our reactions, we actually relinquish the power to choose how we want to react.
Yes, it is easy to let autopilot take over and just make up excuses for our behavior, to blame it on the circumstances or on someone else. But if we do, we will never know the peace that comes from making the conscious choice to respond with love instead. We will continue to be controlled by old habits and unconscious reactions as we go down the road of craving more positive sensations and running from negative ones.
NOT Reacting is Also a Choice
In time, with practice, you will start to gain the skill of slowing your mind down just enough to pause the timeline of events. A break in between something happening and your reaction to it. Just sit with whatever feeling is going on inside your body. It’s a priceless pause that will give you the time and opportunity to make another choice, including possibly just doing nothing at all at the moment. You can just sit with your perceptions, interpretations and feelings and make a choice not to react.
What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens.Ellen Glasgow
As simple as this may sound, smiling is one of the quickest ways to change our mindless reaction habits. Smiling has been proven to boost our mood because it releases the hormones of good feelings. So just by doing it we are able to come at things with a better approach.
Then order of operations could actually be:
Situation–>Question Assumptions–>Pause & Notice Feelings–>Smile–>Respond with love
Write It Down
There is great benefit in putting your pen to the page or your fingers to the keyboard and just writing it all down. Try thinking of it as a log of what happened and how you reacted. And when you do, write only the truth because this is for you, not anyone else and the truth is healing.
It will probably happen that you’ll react poorly in spite of all your efforts. Just put it in writing. Be honest about the things you would like to do differently next time.
You may be surprised how helpful it can be to see the event objectively out on a piece of paper. Write your truth. Do it without judgment or justifying, it’s freeing, healing, and can be extremely insightful.
Triggers and Invisible Scars
What about reactions that come from deep childhood scars? That arise without warning or even a rational explanation?
Have you ever been triggered by something where it feels like your reactions are out of control and way out of proportion to the actual event?
Sometimes our bodies or minds lock our trauma up because it’s too painful to bear. We stuff it somewhere deep inside and try to pretend it never happened. But then, out of nowhere, a small, seemingly unrelated thing triggers us and you’d think it was the end of the world. All of a sudden we can’t explain it, but we’re really upset. We’re overreacting and raising hell and it’s just as confusing to ourselves as it is to those around us.
So how can we handle these hidden triggers? What I have found is we deal with them in the exact same way as with regular reactions. Slow down, notice the assumptions being made and how our bodies are feeling. Sit with the feelings and know that we have endless choices. The choice is ours to not react automatically. In time, it will become clearer what is triggering us and it becomes easier and easier to pause long enough to make a different choice.
So…Why am I Reacting This Way?
In order answer our first question–what is (really) happening?–we saw that it’s necessary let go of assuming and be willing to find a new perspective on what might be actually going on.
To answer the second question–why am I reacting this way?–it’s also necessary to let go of our preliminary assumptions. We must be willing to humbly dig deeper into our own minds and bodies and slow down long enough to feel and see the truth.
At first it feels like we’re trying to step in front of the reaction train of habitual reactions which can be a little scary, I’ll be honest. Sometimes it seems like that train is going to run us over.
But in the simple act of slowing down and observing the internal reaction process, in being willing to pause and notice, we can actually land on the solution.
It’s possible to hold enough time and space to choose differently and then we can respond with love and kindness instead of having a thoughtless, mindless reaction.
Look for the next blog article coming soon: Question 3: How can I Respond with Love Instead?
Written by Sarah Caton