You always have a choice

Between stimulus and response, there is a Space.” – Alex Pattakos, Prisoners of Our Thoughts

Every event and your reaction there is a period where you can make a choice. It may not seem that way because so many of our reactions to life’s events seem automatic.  Indeed, as human beings we have been programmed by evolution to react near instantly to perceived threats.  This is the function of the most ancient and primitive part of your brain, the amygdala.

However, as human beings we have evolved another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, than may override the automatic reactions of the amygdala.  This part of the brain provides what psychologists call “executive functions,” or higher level thinking and control processes that enable us to control our reactions to our environment, among other things.  It is the prefrontal cortex that is largely responsible for our rational and conceptual thinking abilities that help us assign deeper meaning to our world, and create more complex maps of reality.

But how can you hone your ability to choose?  How can you change your automatic behaviors and become more thoughtful in your responses to your environment?

Here are a few suggestions:

1.       Meditate. I have posted several articles on the blog about meditation, so I won’t go into detail here.  However, I will say that meditation is a thousands of years old practice of disciplining the mind.  Medical and psychological research has shown that various forms of meditation has profound effects on the way people manage stress, and view and react to the world around them.  Interestingly, medical research has also shown that a steady meditation practice can lower blood pressure, result in more restful sleep, and even promote better blood flow and ease medical conditions associated anxiety.  And all of these benefits only cost you about 40 minutes a day, or about 1 full length sitcom!

2.       Exercise.   As with meditation, I have posted several articles on the benefits of exercise.  Perhaps the largest benefit relative to training the mind is stress reduction, and building focus.  The stress reduction aspects of exercise (and meditation for that matter) is key to managing that Space between a stimulus and your reaction.  This is because stress tends to build in your mind and body, and when stress levels are high, your mind tends to default to the amygdala’s responses.  Likewise, physical stress, like the tension you can literally feel in your shoulders, back, and temples, can make it difficult to think clearly about an event, or engage in rational thinking.  When rational thinking is turned off or diminished the amygdala takes over.

3.       JournalWriting down daily reflections of significant or stressful events, and how you reacted to them, can be a powerful learning tool for you.  Over time, you may be able to identify situations and events that trigger negative reactions, and plan or practice your responses.  In this way, you are literally training your mind to react to a response in a certain way, much like a soldier trains to automatically respond to situations he or she has trained for.  And, reading old journal entries can also show your personal development progress, and be very entertaining.

4.       Learn to cope.  Life happens… a lot…  It is impossible to train our minds to react to every possible event we may encounter, so we need to learn how to cope with life’s challenges in a generally positive way.  We can do this by developing techniques and tools to deal with challenging situations.  One of my favorite is the “Stop-Breath-Think-Act” method taught to PADI Rescue Divers and Divemasters.  Another excellent approach is to learn to view life with a sense of curiosity, and nonjudgmental attitude.  Our judgments are what really color our responses, after all.  And finally, learning to practice radical acceptance, and avoiding battling against the world around us is another very powerful coping method.

Beyond learning to cope with our world, learning to master that Space between stimulus and reaction can actually help you shape your reality.  After all, what we perceive as reality is largely driven by how we interpret the data provided to us by our senses.  By changing the way we manage that Space, we change the way we think about the world around us, and thereby change the world we actually live in.

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