Reacting and responding are similar words, but they mean subtly different things. If we have an infection, we hope that our body responds to the antibiotic rather than reacts to it. Like a carpenter working with the grain, rather than against it, mindfulness is about working skilfully with our present-moment experience. This means creating the mental and emotional space to respond skilfully to whatever arises, rather than reacting automatically, which can often make a difficult situation worse, or add friction to our relationships with others.
Like the saying, “knee-jerk reaction”, when we’re stressed or agitated, we often react without examining the facts, before we know what actually happened. At times of stress, we can switch into fight-or-flight mode, which limits our inner resources. So we lose the ability to think clearly, properly assess a situation, and review options.
Of course, there are times when physically reacting fast can be useful and even save our lives, for instance, when we hit the brake as a car suddenly swerves into our lane. This type of reaction is driven by the brainstem, which keeps us alive, but is not the sort of reaction we’re talking about here.
When we react, there is no pause between the event and the reaction, no space to reflect, and no flexibility or choice. Viktor Frankl, the neurologist, psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies the freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and happiness”.