Everyone who has been in the London Underground has probably seen the platform signs “Mind the gap”. What we may not often think of is the short gap between the external stimuli that reaches us and how we react to them. It is in this short gap in time from thought to action that we have the opportunity to make important choices.
Meditation and mindfulness, as practiced in Buddhism is based on four simple principles that can be understood in five minutes, but which require a lifetime of practice to explore and not even then have we fully mastered all its aspects.
1. There is a gap between stimulus and response. We are all the time met by a large amount of sensory impressions. Most of these are neutral and do not require any active action on our part. At most, we record them and then let them pass. But quite a lot of the information that reaches our consciousness is triggering a response from us, and between the two there is a short gap.
2. There is a choice in the gap. It is in the short moment that immediately follows a stimulus that we can choose how to react and in each individual situation there is an infinite number of ways to do this. If someone approaches us with anger, we can choose to respond the same way, but we can also choose to walk away or to respond with calm and kindness.
By regularly practising meditation we become less impulse-controlled, and thus we increase our ability to extend the brief moment between stimulus and response so that we can more easily choose how we should relate to what has happened. The practice of meditation also makes us more creative, which over time provides us with a larger palette of different choices how to handle the situation.
3. Our choices matter. The way we react to a given situation may have major consequences for ourselves and for others. In Buddhism, one does not speak of good and evil acts, but of skilful and unskilful actions based on their consequences. Actions that lead to mistrust, discord, self-interest, and which block continued good co-operation are unskilful, while actions that lead to harmony, insight, and a constructive way forward are skilful.
Similarly, we are affected by the state of mind that is triggered by what happens to us. We can either react impatiently with anxiety, anxiety, hatred, inferiority, or skilfully with calm, love and contentment. Here, too, we have a choice to culture positive states of mind.
4. We can only choose if we have awareness. Going from being constantly reflexively reacting in an immature way to reacting well-overlaid in a skilful manner requires that we are constantly aware of the possibility of our choices. This requires a presence and awareness that does not come automatically but must be practiced. Meditation and mindfulness are therefore not a quick fix but a lifelong learning.
This blog post has been inspired by: Bodhipaksa. Wildmind. A step-by-step guide to meditation
Illustration: Pixabay.com – GregPlom