“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.”
-Vicktor E. Frankl
For those of us that struggle with controlling our anger (and we all do from time to time), mindfulness creates the space between the match and the fuse. I was introduced to this metaphor by mindfulness teacher and author, Greg Marcus, and it reminded me of the above Viktor Frankl quote, which has been so formative for my mindfulness practice. That gap…that pause….between the things that trigger us and our response is where choice lives. All too often, when in the heat of the moment of a triggering situation, we may feel consumed by emotion, like we have lost complete control of our behavior. Perhaps we yell at our significant other or child after having a stressful work day or lay on the car horn after someone cuts us off in traffic. In these moments, our sense of empowerment eludes us. For some of us, maybe just for a moment, and for others of us, perhaps the disconnection is much greater. Our volition, our ability to control our behavior, is still there; however, it is just beyond the veil of what we can access. Mindfulness is a skill. Just like a muscle, we must exercise it for it to grow. Over time, with diligent practice, mindfulness becomes an automatic habit, and our ability to create space between the match and the fuse increases. And that fuse, eventually dissipates or transforms into a more productive expression of emotion. Once we have awareness, the veil is lifted allowing us to navigate our relationships with more intention and insight.
For many of us that struggle with managing anger, we can find ourselves in a self-perpetuating cycle. We feel triggered by an event (ex. our significant other leaves a sink full of dirty dishes) and react unconsciously (ex. scream at our partner). The natural response that often accompanies this pattern is feelings of guilt and shame and thoughts that are harsh, critical, and judgmental in nature. This pulls us even deeper into this precarious feedback loop where the space between the match and the fuse becomes smaller and smaller…maybe we lose all sense of awareness of a space at all.
Anger is not inherently bad. We all experience anger, along with all the other emotions, from time to time. A fundamental mindfulness principal asserts that emotions are not good or bad; they simply just are. It is our behavioral expression of anger, how we react, that can become maladaptive. The expression of anger does not have to be dysfunctional. Additionally, charged and intense emotions are not intrinsically maladaptive. In fact, they can be quite powerful and can ignite our inner fire to create positive change within our lives and the world. When anger starts to percolate, mindfulness can allow us to pause and make a conscious choice on how to respond. Mindful awareness offers us an opportunity to free ourselves from the cycle of the match and the fuse. This allows us to live more empowered and intentional lives. Here we will find freedom from our triggers.
What exactly is mindfulness? With a simple search, you will see mindfulness defined in many beautiful and eloquent ways. At its heart, mindfulness is simply being present. Mindfulness is intentionally being aware of what sensations are arising in your inner and outer world as they are happening: thoughts, emotions, somatic sensations/feelings, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Mindfulness is essentially a form of attention training. How does one practice mindfulness? Again, with a brief search, you will see an abundance of mindfulness practice exercises. Start with something short and simple as a launching pad to cultivate your mindfulness practice. For example, set a timer for five minutes and find a comfortable seated position that allows for an aligned posture of the spine. Over the course of the five minutes, simply observe your breath. Notice when you are breathing in, and notice when you are breathing out. Settle your attention on the place within your body where the movement of the breath is most felt such as the belly rising and falling, the lungs expanding and contracting, or the nostrils where the sensation of the air flowing in and out can be felt. Allow for the natural rhythm of your breath to flow. Witness the in-breath turn to out-breath and the out-breath turn to in-breath. Become aware of the still, quiet pauses between the in-breath and out-breath and the out-breath and in-breath. When your mind wanders and thoughts begin to arise, know that it is not a problem. This is what our minds do. The moment we are aware of the fact that we are thinking, is a moment we are mindful. When this happens, simply notice, and bring your attention back to your breath. If critical thoughts start bubbling up throughout your practice, let them go as best as you can while holding yourself in a space of self-compassion and gentleness. There is no perfect way to practice mindfulness. However you are being during your mindfulness practice, is just fine.
If you are interested in profoundly shifting the way you relate to the stress in your life by taking Jon Kabat-Zinn’s eight week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course that was developed at the University Massachusetts Medical School, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information on upcoming courses.
Wishing you a beautiful week.