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 Frankl
I was angry. It was wrong. “That’s not right! This is not fair!” Moral outrage washed over me – and I was incensed. I sat seething, thoughts racing, breath shallow and rapid as I intuitively reached for my phone to vent to a trusted mentor. He would get it – he would understand. Composing the email helped to organize my thoughts and feelings, and nearly two pages later, I hit “send.”
Two questions were the extent of his response. “What do you want to stand for in the face of this?” was his first question. Initially a wave of anger began to wash over me. I had expected a response of “You’re right – that’s b*llsh*t.” But no – his response was absent of empathy or validation – and full of empowerment. As I reflected on his question and began to calm down, I realized he was right. I could complain all I wanted, and whether I was right or wrong, ultimately I was giving up my power in choosing to blame and complain. He knew that in that moment of feeling disenfranchised and morally incensed, I may have craved validation or empathy, but what I needed was a strategy to reconnect with a sense of personal empowerment and agency.
Many of us encounter situations that leave us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and/or powerless. Watching the news in a sociopolitical landscape characterized by uncertainty and “alternative facts” can result in experiences of moral outrage and moral injury. Our culture offers many short-term, temporary distractions when we feel overwhelmed, powerless, and/or frustrated, including the seduction of shopping, technology, and/or substances. Other attempts to cope can include avoidant strategies including 1) filling our schedules with frenetic “busy-ness” (being a “human doing” vs. a human being), 2) generalizing problem solving strategies that can be useful in our external environment to our internal experiences (the “If I can just figure it out, then I will feel better” fallacy), 3) engaging in rumination, blaming or complaining, or 4) wallowing in self-pity and righteous indignation. Engaging in these strategies occasionally is normal and generally harmless; however, relying on them excessively or inflexibly, can increase suffering and decrease vitality.
Mindfulness can be a revolutionary act of intrinsic empowerment. According to Jon Kabat Zinn, “Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.” Navigating our social and emotional lives mindfully is an invitation to live in congruence with our intrinsic values and respond to difficult feelings, thoughts, and/or sensations with intention. Mindfulness allows us to show up to our lives and relationships with a willingness to embrace and engage in the present moment, exactly as it is, not as we want it to be or think it “should” be.
Engaging in mindful inquiry involves learning to harness our perceptual powers in service of observing our experience, untangling the thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, and behaviors into more manageable elements that can be observed and described as a curious scientist. Mindful inquiry allows us to defuse from any narratives, judgments, or story lines that may be triggered by or associated with our experiences, in favor of observing, describing, and choosing a response that is consistent with our values and/or effective in the context of the situation.
Moreover, mindfulness allows us to track the present moment of experience and adjust our responses on a moment by moment basis, rather than getting swept up by a chain of behavior that may or not be effective in the face of unfolding experience. Practicing mindful inquiry in the face of difficult, intense, or overwhelming experiences is an empowering way of maintaining equanimity and remaining connected to our internal wisdom.
Additionally, when we embrace the practice and attitudes of mindfulness, everything becomes an opportunity for learning. What an exciting shift of perspective when we can tap into our bodies and experiences as sources of data and wisdom. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “If you are cultivating mindfulness in your life, there is not one thing that you do or experience that cannot teach you about yourself by mirroring back to you the reflections of your own mind and body.” Viktor Frankl wrote “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.” Mindfulness allows us to “press pause,” creating a space that provides the opportunity to learn and explore with curiosity any narratives that the mind may be generating about our experiences:
- “Am I making any assumptions?”
- “Am I making any judgments, and if so, are they useful in this situation?”
- “Am I engaging in dichotomous thinking or zero-sum mentality?”
- “Am I assuming that my thoughts are facts?” (Even though they can REALLY seem like facts!!)
- “What data is my body communicating through emotions and/or sensations?”
- “Is this situation triggering any old narratives or story lines that are no longer true or useful?”
- “Can I offer myself loving kindness and compassion in the face of this experience?”
And, of course, Dr. Zettle’s wisdom – “What do you want to stand for in the face of this experience?” In case you are curious about the second question, he asked “Is it in your power to do that?” With mindfulness, we can respond “You bet it is!”
Salzberg, S., Halifax, R.J., & May, K. Wisdom 2.0 Conference Presentation (February 23, 2018). “Love and Compassion in an Age of Uncertainty.”
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living – using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Letting everything become your teacher – 100 lessons in mindfulness