One of the most important lessons mindfulness teaches us is to “respond” to situations, rather than “react”. There is a huge difference between reacting and responding. A reaction is typically quick, without much thought, and often linked to negative emotions such as anger, frustration, or annoyance. A response is a thought out, calm and compassionate response. Let’s look at an example of the difference between the two:
About a year ago, I was faced with an everyday minor situation. The situation involved making my monthly batch of granola, very insignificant I know! But like anything, when we’re in a reactive mind set, we often blow everything out of proportion. At the time, I had a little more energy than I do today, but cooking was something that still that made me fatigued. As I was getting the granola out of the oven, I somehow flipped the baking tray and it all went scattering over the floor.
This is how I used to react:
This is a disaster! I’d start panicking because no one was in the house to help clear up the mess, and I was so exhausted from making the granola I had no energy left to clean it up! But I had to clean it up! I couldn’t just leave a month’s supply of granola on the floor. But then I’d have to use the vacuum cleaner which is too heavy for me! And what am I going to have for breakfast tomorrow? And think of all that waste, I can’t believe I was so stupid. All that effort for nothing. Now I’m going to be so exhausted from cleaning the mess, I won’t be able to do anything for the rest of the week, and I’ll have to cancel all my plans as it will take me ages to recover from this. But I simply can’t leave it on the floor, that would be so selfish of me to let my parents clean up my mess that I was stupid enough to make! None of this granola is any good I’ll have to throw it all away. (Furthermore, in the distraction of my reactive emotions, I forgot to turn the oven off and burnt my hands on the tray – only causing further calamity, pain, anger, and frustration!)
Now let’s look at the difference when for the first time I mindfully responded to the situation:
Oh, well that’s a bit of a bummer. I should probably turn the oven off. Ok, let’s just sit down and have a little think. I’m feeling pretty exhausted right now, so it’s best I don’t do anything else. I think I’ll have a little rest and put my feet up before trying to clean it up and see how I feel as I’m in a bit of pain. It doesn’t matter too much if I have to throw it all away, I have plenty of other things to have for breakfast. (10 minutes later) … I’m still feeling tired, so I think it’s best to wait for my parents to get home and ask them kindly if they can clean it up. I know they would much rather they came home to a messy kitchen which took them 10 minutes to clean, rather than me cleaning it and then being too ill to move for the rest of the week! Actually, all this granola on the oven door I can probably save as it’s still on the baking mat! I’ll just put this in a container and then go lie down. Wow look, I managed to save 2/3 of the granola! Didn’t waste that much after all! That’s good.
It is such a simple, everyday example, yet as you can see, the difference between the two responses is huge!
How can mindfulness help?
Mindfulness means watching your emotions closely without judging them or over-identifying with them. When a situation occurs that might normally upset you or trigger an emotional reaction, mindfulness gives you the space to observe this and reflect before reacting. You can watch your impulse to react to the situation without acting upon it, and then letting that impulse go. Sometimes this takes a few seconds, other times it means you need to remove yourself from the situation and cool down before responding. The more you practise watching your reaction and the emotions that arise with it without responding, the easier it will become to mindfully respond rather than react.
How does mindfully responding to a situation instead of reacting benefit me?
The response we choose has a huge impact on our relationship with others, because if we choose to react rather than respond when talking to someone, it can often lead to arguments, as we are acting irrationally and without thinking about what we’re saying to the other person, which could be hurtful to them. If like my situation, the reaction was only to myself, it can still have a negative impact on others because by reacting you are often left feeling angry and frustrated, which consequently might lead you to take this anger out on those around you. Furthermore, how you respond not only impacts your mood in that moment, but it has a huge impact on your mood for the rest of the day, therefore affecting your overall well-being.
For example, something recently happened to my friend at university. We have been talking a lot recently about mindfulness and meditation, and she’s been trying to implement my posts in her everyday life. A few weeks ago, she had an early start the following day with lectures and had got an early night to prepare for this. But at 3am she got woken up by her drunken flat mates pouring in from a night out, and they ended up setting off the fire-alarm. It’s safe to say most of us would not be happy!! We would probably get very angry and annoyed, and panic about not getting enough sleep for the next day, and then probably take longer to get to sleep as we’re so wound up. But my friend remembered her mindfulness skills, and she said, “It was very annoying, but I remember reading about choosing how to react to things. I tried hard to choose not to be angry as it wouldn’t help anything and would just keep me awake for longer. So instead I tried to keep calm and get cosy and go back to sleep again. I was still tired the next day, but that’s okay, as I still got more sleep than I would have if I’d been lying in bed feeling annoyed about it!”
If my friend had chosen to react rather than mindfully respond, it would have not only impacted her mood, but also her health, as she would have struggled to go back to sleep. To an extent, this reactive mood might have prolonged into the rest of the week as she might have chosen to stay angry at her flatmates, or the bad night sleep might have caused her to fall behind on her studies.
How do you mindfully respond to a situation?
The easiest way to implement this skill is to pause. When something happens that triggers an emotional response; pause, take some deep breaths, and observe your emotions and how you’re feeling. If you have an impulse to react, simply observe this impulse, thinking, “I have an impulse to react”, let this thought come to the front of your mind, then let it go. By allowing yourself the time to pause, it gives you the best possible chance to figure out the best way to handle the situation. For example, let’s look at two people who are having the exact same problem:
At 8:30am, Mark is driving to work and has a very important meeting at 9am, but he gets stuck in a horrendous traffic jam, and is going to be late for the meeting. He thinks, “Oh no, I have a meeting at 9am, I’m going to be late! This is such a pain. What am I going to do?” Mark thinks about a different route he could take to work, and looks up on his satnav the traffic information, only finding out all other routes are just as busy. Then he thinks about the meeting. “How bad would it be if I missed it?”, he asks himself. “People sometimes miss a meeting and nothing terrible happens!” But then he remembers he has to present an idea to the team. “This is so inconvenient!” he thinks. “What else could I do? Would the boss agree to postpone the meeting?” Postponing the meeting seems unlikely. Then Mark remembers how someone in the last meeting participated by speakerphone! He thinks, “I’ll call the office and tell them I’m in a traffic jam and going to be late. I’ll ask the assistant to set up the speakerphone. Then I can participate in the meeting.”
Tony is having the exact same problem. He is unknowingly in the car behind Mark, also stuck in the traffic jam, also trying to make the 9.00am meeting to present his ideas to the team. Tony thinks, “Why does this sort of thing always happen to me? What’s wrong with me that I can’t do something as simple as get to work on time? This is completely my fault. I should have checked the traffic conditions before I left for work or have left the house earlier. That was really stupid.” Tony remembers other occasions when he’s missed work because of unexpected problems. He thinks, “I’ve done this too many times. People are going to think this is typical of me, always so unreliable. I can imagine what they’ll be saying when I walk in late. I bet my boss is wondering if I should really have this job.”
By Mark staying mindful, he was able to stay focused on the problem and figure out possible solutions and ways around it. Whereas because Tony was so consumed with his reactive emotions, he didn’t have the mind-set to take a step back and look at the problem in perspective and work out a way around it.
With all these examples, we can see that when we react mindfully, it gives us the time to choose the best response to the situation. Our mind-set allows us to see ways around our problems, and look at everything logically and in perspective. I hope by now you can see how mindfully responding to situations can have such a positive impact on both your life and well-being, and you will start to practise mindfully responding to situations in the future.
Metta, E xx