Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
The ability to remain mindful, to hold that space Frankl speaks of is a great gift. To greet it without compulsion, habit or knee-jerk reactions is to face what comes as honestly as possible.
As Rosemary McGinn says in her article, Addiction, Meditation and Space,
Without some degree of mindfulness, it can seem impossible to distinguish between stimulus and response, between experience and association.
Life happens fast. So fast our minds have a hard time keeping up with it. Even our judgements lag behind. So our minds form little habits in order to keep up, to deal with all that happens. They do it by forming associations.
But, like experiences, our
associations tumble along so quickly that they seem indistinguishable from the experience that launched them.
The human mind, not always a model of efficiency, makes a valiant effort in these cases. According to Sharon Salzberg, we
tend to compound our experience, jumbling together stimulus and response,
and our minds can drag us, unawares, from experience to judgement to anger or doubt to self-hatred in a trice.
As clicker trainers and those who practice mindfulness meditation know, there is a space in there.
Remember the old adage about counting to ten when angered before acting? That’s a means of creating awareness of the space. There are all sorts of ways of remembering that space, of recognizing it in the fleeting infinitesimal instant of its existence, and using it to its best advantage: kindness. Kindness to ourselves and our horses.
How to spot the space?
Some people do it by stilling their minds on a regular basis. This is not easy, but bears fruit over time. A few seconds at a time to start. Counting your breath without falling into the habit of discursive thought, daydreaming, etc. Returning to the simple awareness of the breath when you find yourself thinking. That breath is the space.
It seemed impossible that I would ever build the muscle enough to be of much use: when I tried to count breaths up to 4, I often found myself at 37 before noticing I’d wandered.
It’s a conscious choice to seize the chance to slow things down once you spot the space, to deliberately choose your judgement and reaction based on where you’ve gone off the track, and returning to the basics. To have compassion for ourselves and others. When you’ve figured out what you want to do with the space, it works.
What do I want to do with the space?
I know what I don’t want to do with it. I don’t want to fall into aggression, anger or fear. They are the usual responses, especially when the stimulus is new or particularly challenging.
Last week I had a chance to work with a horse who showed me some particularly challenging behaviors. My task was simply to assess his body for signs of physical distress that might cause behavioral issues. But I could not get him to stand still long enough to complete the assessment. While he was dancing around, my feet were in constant danger, as were various parts of my body that he threatened to nip. Clearly, there was something going on with this guy.
Initial reaction, without respecting the space: irritation with the horse: “don’t you know I”m trying to help you?” It happens in a flash. So fast I’m not even aware of it.
Secondary reaction: “I can’t even handle him for the 90 seconds it takes to complete the assessment.”
Tertiary reaction: “I’m not very good at this.”
Had I been more mindful, acknowledging the space would have allowed me to think,”Yes, there is something going on here. I can’t handle him myself and assess him at the same time.” I needed to ask for a second person. Focusing in on a spiral of thoughts on myself, my own little ego, obliterated the space between the stimulus (the dancing, nipping horse), and the response (self-doubt and recrimination). The efficiency and habit-following tendency of my mind did me no favors here. But I’m really in charge of that, aren’t I?
Now I know what I want to do with the space: Practice practice practice and awareness. Respect it.
Next time: see the space.
Choose the response (don’t let it choose me): it’s not all about me.
Ask for help if you need it.
Help the horse.