How can we gift ourselves this maturity to shift from reaction to response?
What is the difference between reaction and response?
Reaction is a default setting in the brain. It is instantaneous and more of a reflex action. Reactions are repetitive in nature; that is, the same or similar situations will evoke the same reactions every time. There is no novelty and creativity in reactions. It is the same old gramophone record playing the same music again and again. There is no thinking involved in reactions. You give your mind free rein to do and say whatever it wants without any censoring. In reacting, we are under the influence of unconscious forces that are largely ruled by emotion. The conscious rational mind has very little say in the matter. It remains a mute observer, only to reap the unfortunate consequences of the reaction. Reactions happen in a split second, but the damage can last a lifetime. Animals react. Only humans have the option to respond. To progress from reaction to response is what maturity is all about. Reactions were useful in the jungle when threats were all around, and there was no time to pause and evaluate. But once language came into the picture, reactivity in human interaction caused immense damage.
Reactions generally produce counter-reactions and spiral out of control. Accusations are thrown, past incidents are raked up and it becomes a
no-holds-barred contest. Reactions aggravate conflicts, separate people and reinforce reactive behaviour so that the cycle repeats itself. This can go on lifelong and become a fixed habit with no awareness of what is happening. The mind is also very good at justifying reactions, which becomes yet another reaction.
Reactions spring from an agitated mind, fuelled by emotions, and can be explosive. Raised voices aggravate a reaction. When one person is reactive, the other has to be responsive. Reactions cannot be calmed by another reaction. It will only worsen the situation to a point of no return. The reactive mode is generally either to go on the defensive or to launch an attack. We not only react to other people but also react to what we have done. We need to observe both.
Where do reactions come from? Their source is mostly from the culture we live in and what we have picked up from others. If you have seen your parents react in a certain way, you may do the same in a similar situation. Reactions are largely driven by ego and emotion, and their primary aim is to protect the self-image. For the ego, protecting the self-image is more important than preserving a relationship.
Responses require training, awareness and introspection. Initially, it will require a pause after the stimulus. The pause stops the reaction in its tracks. When we introduce a gap, we prevent the past from coming in immediately. The small gap we create allows a response to come in from a space that is not infected by past emotional conditioning. There is therefore a possibility of bringing in a different quality of energy into the situation. The rational neo-cortex then has a chance to exert its influence and override the limbic reactive brain. The pause acts as a breaker. The gush of energy that the reaction produces is stopped midway. But reactions are so fast that they happen in the blink of an eye. It is like stopping a runaway train. The first stage is when we become aware of the reaction much after it happens. It is better than not being aware at all. The next stage is when we become aware soon after it happens. The third stage is when we become aware while it is happening and are able to stop the reaction midway. The final stage is when the mind automatically puts the brakes even as the reaction is welling up inside and waiting to explode in a gush of emotion. That initial brief stopping is our practice. Even if a new response does not appear immediately, at least the reaction is stopped in its tracks and its damage contained. Ultimately, our responses have to be as quick as our reactions. But this will require considerable introspection, experience, maturity and awareness.
The shift from reaction to response is self-mastery. It is a shift from the lower to the higher, from the amygdala to the neo-cortex, from emotion to reason, from immaturity to maturity, from childishness to adulthood, from being controlled to being in charge, from unconsciousness to consciousness, from darkness to light. It is a shift in context itself; the place from where we respond is not the same as the place from where we react.
After we have reacted and faced adverse consequences, it is time to introspect. Introspection involves going back in time to the scene of action and imagining a better response. This has to be done in a cool non-emotional state, not immediately after the event when the brain is emotionally charged. Every time we do this, the brain is being reprogrammed and stores the response we have imagined, for future use. This practice of reflecting on our reactions and substituting them with responses will develop in us the skill of making better choices. Ultimately, the most important aspect of life is about making choices. In reactivity, there is no choice. We are victims. To regain our power, we need to have the freedom to choose our responses.
When the Buddha was insulted, he responded in a very non-reactive way. It is our responses that will make us Buddha-like. It is not that once I become a Buddha, I will respond like him; until then, I will react the way I usually do. That will never work. As long as we are in the reactive mode, our consciousness will remain at the same level. The difference between an ordinary person and a Buddha is in the way they respond. We cannot free ourselves from anger and then respond without anger. Our angry outbursts have made us an angry person. Our responses change our being, and the new way of being makes for better responses.
Where do responses come from? They come from values. They are not driven by negative emotions. They are contextual and take the totality of the situation into purview. They take long-term consequences into account. They take the others’ emotional state and maturity into consideration. They have the power to change who we are into who we want to be. They don’t give in to the demands of the ego and its need to protect the self-image at any cost. It keeps the larger good in mind.
Let us examine a few scenarios to discern the difference between reactions and responses.
We have a plethora of reactions and responses to choose from. The choices we make will tell us the kind of person we are and will become.
When we are criticized, we go into a reactive mode instantly, as our self-image is threatened. When a daughter criticizes her mother, the mother can react by counter-criticizing and say you are no better. She interprets criticism as disrespect. She can also respond by addressing the criticism and taking her daughter’s perception seriously, however unjustified the criticism may be, instead of taking a defensive stance and justifying her actions. Responses do not negate the other person’s perception immediately, which are what reactions do.
We don’t like to be contradicted. But some people have made it their profession to contradict. You say something, and they will say exactly the opposite. We dislike people who make us wrong. We always want to be right and will defend our positions till the very end, even after knowing we are not right. Given this fact of human nature, what should we be doing when contradicted?
We can get angry and shout at the top of our voice and drown our opponent’s voice. We can simply keep quiet and allow the listeners to decide who is right. We can start having doubts whether what we said was really right and back off. We can get emotionally upset, lose our cool and refuse to talk. We can become sarcastic and cynical.
Alternatively, we can respond by not proving the other wrong but simply stating our case with more proof. When one person is reactive, the other has to be responsive. We shouldn’t enter into an argument and a verbal slanging match. In most cases, the enthusiasm and sincerity with which we speak will carry the day. If in spite of all this, you lose out, thank your opponent for enlightening you. Arguments are not to be seen as a battle between two people. It is a battle between two ideas. Where is the need to be attached to ideas and be identified with them? May the best idea win!
When the ego is hurt, it reacts violently. It has to repair the damage to the self-image. It draws its sword out, ready to battle, by reacting. It can do this quite effectively with people who don’t matter and who are weaker. But with people who matter and who are in positions of authority, it becomes helpless. It wants to attack, but it cannot, as the consequences may be worse if it reacts. The unexpressed reaction goes internal and accumulates as rage, affecting the body. One necessary response in such situations is to release this pent-up emotion by unburdening with another person.
The normal reaction to failure is to feel dejected, defeated and upset. The self-image is shaken up. What are the reactions and responses available after this initial reaction? Find excuses for the failure? Cry? Get rid of the feeling? Push it inside? Be with the feeling without thinking and allow the emotion to drain away? Tell yourself that failure is the stepping stone to success? That failure is only a feedback. Resolve to pass next time in flying colours? Practise acceptance? Be happy that your friends have also failed? Meditate? Go into hiding? Go for a movie? Feel envious of those who have passed? Tell yourself that it is karma? Blame the question paper and the paper examiner? Focus on the future? Put up a brave front and say ‘It’s ok’?
We have a plethora of reactions and responses to choose from. The choices we make will tell us the kind of person each one of us are and will become.
Even in the safe area of our homes, we tend to react. Home is a place where we think we can get away with anything. But what we need to realise is that we are creating habits and sending wrong signals to the brain if we keep reacting. If we practise responding even at home, our relationships will get better. Actually, home is the best place to practise the art of responding since we can take our own time. There is no need to rush with a reaction. We can pause longer and choose the best response.
Moving from reaction to response will take time. The mind will slowly get the hang of the distinction between reaction and response. The best way to learn is by observing a person who has mastered matured responses. In human interaction, responses come with body language and tone of voice, which cannot be learnt by reading books. Seminars and theory will raise awareness levels. Learning is always on the field.
In a way, we can say that the quality of our life depends on the quality of our responses. Observing our reactions and converting them to responses is therefore a lifelong endeavour. We can get better at it if we keep working on it. If we do nothing about our reactions, it will only get worse.
The shift from reaction to response is self-mastery. It is a shift in context itself; the place from where we respond is not the same as the place from where we react.