In Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier, he talks about being introduced to meditation after some issues with anxiety. Even as a skeptic, he found a self-help technique that actually worked for him: mindfulness. One idea that he continually goes back to is: respond, don’t react.
Say you’re in line at Starbucks and somebody cuts you off. You think to yourself, “I’m angry.” And immediately, instantaneously, reflexively, you inhabit the thought and become angry. Meditation teaches you to put a little bit of a break between the thought and the emotional state. You recognize that you’re angry or annoyed or impatient, but instead of blindly going with the emotion, you have a buffer between stimulus and response.
Oftentimes we react with our emotions instead of taking the time to quiet our minds and respond thoughtfully. Sometimes it is difficult to respond because we are so busy reacting that we don’t take the time to stop and think. When you feel those emotions bubbling up inside you, it’s a good idea to give yourself as much of a time-out as you can to take a breath and give yourself some time to respond. Hurtful words can be said when we immediately react to those negative emotions, and they can’t be taken back. You may feel at the time like it’s important to get something out, but it doesn’t usually feel good once it’s out there. Hurtful words come from hurting hearts.
Even in a situation involving only yourself (maybe you’re upset with yourself, you missed the bus, you’re late for work), remember: respond, don’t react. Try to put the situation in context and consider whether you can do anything about it right now. Hindsight is 20/20, but if you can take a step back to be mindful of the situation, you can try using 20/20 vision right now to determine the best response.
Game Plan: One way to train your brain to respond thoughtfully rather than reacting with your emotions is through meditation. If you’re a beginner, try starting with just five minutes a day. You can increase your time gradually if you like, but consistency is more important than the length of time you spend doing it. Here is a basic mindfulness meditation from 10% Happier:
- Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position – unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.
- Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.
- This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought – which you will, thousands of times – gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”