Last week I tweeted a few mini-posts about the link between stimulus and response and their role in suffering. It seemed to strike a chord of agreement with many. Perhaps it’s because it demonstrates the clear and ever present control we actually have over our emotional responses and how our responses are linked to suffering.
I first learned this concept from Dr. Wayne Dyer, a psychologist, author, and perennial host of public broadcasting specials here in the U.S. When I did, my life instantly changed. Though I’d been reading Buddhist literature for some time, I didn’t fully grasp that within me was the power to choose non-suffering. I thought I had to work for it.
I mistakenly thought that if I meditated long enough and practiced mindfulness often enough, then certainly I would no longer to subject to suffering.
It’s a mistake a lot of us make because we’ve been conditioned to see cause and effect as inextricably linked. But in fact, they are not. Stimulus is nearly always followed by a choice that manifests in a reaction, usually an emotional one.
Of course there are neurological reflexes that are almost instantaneous, like those found in newborns or by tapping your patellar tendon just below your kneecap. These reflexes are protective in nature and not a choice.
Suffering on the other hand is not a reflex. It’s a choice we make in response to various negative stimuli such as disappointment, loss, anger, or betrayal, as well as more positive stimuli like hope or anticipation. The link between these stimuli and suffering lies in our choice of response.
If we attach to a sense of hope and do not get what we want, we experience disappointment and unless we are mindful of our choice of responses we can lapse into sadness and anger. It’s not that anger or sadness are inappropriate responses, but by choosing them we open ourselves to additional suffering.
Mindfulness and non-suffering
In practicing mindfulness, we regularly examine our thoughts and ask if we are choosing the right ones. Through mindfulness we become increasingly aware of how we think, the patterns that emerge, and the resulting behavior that we engage in. Part of the payoff of practicing mindfulness -even though Buddhists claim there is no goal in practice- is that we increase our awareness around the choices we make in response to stimuli.
Choosing non-suffering begins the very next time you experience a positive or negative emotion. There isn’t a five step approach or magic process for choosing non-suffering. You just do it.
When you experience a negative emotion, you have a choice to either let it in and ruminate over it and commiserate with your demons over it OR simply observe it and let it go. Letting it go is facilitated by making a choice to recognize your disappointment, allowing yourself to feel it but choosing not to internalize it and suffer because of it.
With practice comes awareness
This take time and practice. I was once a hot-headed guy who many considered reactive in nature. And I was. But as I practiced mindfulness on a regular basis I began to see that my resulting behaviors were mostly conditioned responses. They were like psychic cow’s cudd; I could mentally chew on them again whenever I felt it served me. Mindfulness practice helped me increase the space between stimulus and response and make a better, more positive choice.
Mindfulness provides the space between stimulus and response.
You can’t make the choice of non-suffering unless you are mindful of your options. Being mindful of your options is the first step toward non-suffering. By practicing mindfulness daily, you will increase your awareness of your knee-jerk responses and begin to increase the space between stimulus and response.
When you find yourself in that space, you always have the power to choose non-suffering.