There’s a gap that opens up when you exercise awareness. In that gap, you have a choice: react as you always do, or respond mindfully.
WHEN YOU get angry in the traffic and start moaning—or shouting—about what idiots people are; when someone talks about you or challenges you at work and you feel that your reputation is in danger; when your lover or spouse doesn’t pay attention to you in the way that you would want and you feel jealous or insecure: these are all examples of being reactive.
Being reactive is something that just happens. You don’t sit back, think about it, and choose, or decide, to be reactive. It’s your natural, most basic response, which is why it’s often termed a “knee-jerk” reaction. Often, you’ll defend it by saying, “That’s just how I am,” or, “That’s just what I need to do in order to deal with the world the way it is.” You experience yourself in that moment as having no choice but to react in that way.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. When you are mindful, or conscious, you create a gap between the trigger (the event) and your reaction. Instead of just that knee-jerk reaction, it’s possible to have a moment of awareness and, in that gap, mindfully or consciously choose a response. That response is likely to be one that is more appropriate to the situation—in particular, one that involves some understanding of the bigger picture, one that does not create anger or hurt in yourself or the other person.
React (no gap, no choice) or respond
As you can see, the words used above are react and respond. We’ll use the word react and its variants to describe the problem state mentioned above, and the word respond to describe the alternative state, the state of being nonreactive, which is indicated by the exercise of a mindful, conscious choice.
Responding, or being nonreactive, is not the same as suppressing the reaction. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t act in any situation. The difference is that you act with choice. You take considered action. You act based on what is appropriate for the situation, for example so as to not cause harm to yourself or others.
The bottom line is that reacting is automatic. It’s what follows when things don’t go the way you want them to, and you don’t stop to think about it, to understand or reframe, nor to check whether your own reaction is appropriate. You just lash out. You say what you say. You do what you do. It feels wholly appropriate in the situation and, if asked about it, you add another layer, the layer of justification. You say something like, “Yes, of course I reacted like that, because that’s how I am and that’s how the world is.” There’s not a lot of thought behind it. And whatever thought there is just adds fuel to the fire.
Awareness opens up the gap
On the other hand, when you know what reactivity looks like, and you’ve set yourself the goal of being nonreactive, you create the possibility for awareness to occur. When awareness gets activated, you’ll experience it as that moment in which you notice your reaction arising. Instead of just acting out the reaction, you can take a step back. In that gap, you become aware of your judgements and preferences and do an evaluation. What matters? What doesn’t? What assumptions am I making? What else do I need to consider? You look at the situation, you look at yourself, and you make a choice. Shall I continue with this verbal outburst, or physical action, or shall I count to ten and take a different, more considered action?
Reactivity implies no choice, and no presence, and may not necessarily be the best for you or for others.
Being nonreactive is like having an earth leakage in an electrical circuit. When the charge gets too high for the circuit, instead of exploding the circuit, it finds its way out of the system and back to earth. Another analogy might be a pressure release valve, or an overflow pipe in a geyser. It’s there when you need it. (Note: you always need it.)
Being nonreactive opens up naturally
Remember, the key point is that being nonreactive is all about having awareness (the first of the Three Key Elements that we teach in the Practical Mindfulness course), followed by being nonjudgemental (the second of the Three Key Elements), and then exercising choice. When you take care of the first two, then being nonreactive opens up naturally. So you don’t really do nonreactivity, you do the other two, and nonreactivity happens as a result.
This is where the possibility arises for you to have that “different, better experience of life” which is in our mission statement. In other words, a life of responding instead of reacting; a life of sanity instead of insanity; a life of harmony instead of drama.