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. -Viktor E. Frankl
In order to be free from disruptive emotions, we must learn to become the witness of them. When we can watch our thoughts and emotions without acting on them, we create a space between the thought/emotion experience and our choice of action. In contrast, if we are not present enough to witness our mind and body, we come from the place of ego, which is to say, we re-act out of past experience, rather than act out of the present moment. When we react, we are acting in a similar, programmed way to past mental conditioning. Ironically, we are not choosing to act at all and instead, allowing the past conditioning to choose for us.
For example, someone who is an “angry person” has, in his past, most likely been rewarded for acting in an angry manner. In turn, his subconscious mind is lead to believe he will get what he wants from others by the use of anger. Consequently, when he wants another to comply with his wishes, he will react angrily. In other words, he will act in a similar way to a past experience because he believes it will help him get what he wants. However, all he will really do is create disharmony in his relationships.
The Falcon and the Quail
There is a story told by the Buddha of a young quail and a falcon. One day the falcon swooped down from the sky and snatched up the quail in its talons. As she was carrying the little quail away, he began to cry out, “Oh why did I not listen to my parents, I would not be in this predicament.”
The falcon responded, “And where did your parents tell you to stay you little runt? In the newly plowed field?” The falcon went on, “I will give you one more hour of life and see if you can get away. Then, when the time is up, I will catch you, break your little neck, and eat you on the spot!”
The falcon flew to a mound of dirt and dropped the quail off there. But after she released the little bird, surprisingly, he began to mock her, saying, “Why wait an hour? Why not see if you can catch me now?”
Infuriated, the falcon began to dive full speed at the little quail, but just as she was about to grab him in her talons, he stepped aside and the falcon crashed into the ground with such force that it broke her breast bone, killing her instantly.
The Six Senses
The moral of the story tells of the importance of maintaining equanimity in mind and body through mindfulness, which we do by observing the six senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and perceiving, before acting on them.
Typically, we don’t consider perceiving as a sense faculty. However, it is the perceiving mind that pieces together what it is seeing, hearing, and smelling to make meaning of it. Much like there are those who have a keener sense of sight, so too are there those who have a sharper sense of perception and can, therefore, experience things others cannot.
In the story above, the falcon perceived the actions of the little quail as taunting her, became enraged, and acted on the feeling. Had the falcon looked deeper into the actions of the little quail, she would have understood the behavior to be an attempt to distract her from her purpose, which was to capture and eat the quail as a meal. However, her short sightedness got the best of her, and she dove recklessly to her death.
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. -Buddha
Most of us have found ourselves in a situation similar to the story portrayed above, where someone attempts to throw us off balance by sending an insult our way. Perhaps they are trying to feel better about themselves, and so they attempt to do so at our expense. Indeed, the way we feel “good” or “bad” about our self is to compare our self to others, or perhaps we compare our previous “self” with our current “self.” We believe, quite erroneously, that if we can make another feel worse about himself than we do about our self, we have achieved something. However, all we have done is promoted conflict.
The key to all this is having present moment awareness of all the sense perceptions, including how we are perceiving them. In other words, when we see someone as big or small, short or tall, angry or sad, or any other way whatsoever, it is merely a perception we have formed, and we have formed it in relation to our previous experiences, which means it is only “real” to us.
To become free of the perceiving mind all we need do is recognize it for what it is; a tool to be used by us in order to interact with our environment and learn from our experiences. The way to do that is to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment and choose to act independent of the perceiving mind. For example, we have often been told to “count to ten” when we feel angry. Why? Pausing and counting to ten serves a couple of important functions. First, it interrupts the mind dialog that is providing all the reasons we are in an angry state. Second, it buys us time for the emotions to subside so that we can choose our actions wisely, rather than react in the heat of the moment.
The more we practice this one simple idea, the better we become at witnessing the thought/emotion experience and increase the likelihood of acting out of the present rather than the past. In turn, we will experience much more harmony in everyday life.