Respond, Don't React

Practice of the Week
Respond, Don't React
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” (Lao Tzu)
Category: Slogans to Live By. Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

To simplify the explanation of a complex journey, your brain evolved in three stages:
  • Reptile, fish—Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal, bird—Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Human—Cortex, focused on attaching to "us"
Whether a person is a psychopathic criminal or a saint; these three systems—avoiding, approaching, attaching— are always at work. The key is whether they're at work in a good way—one that promotes happiness and benefit for yourself and others—or a bad one that leads to suffering and harm.

What's happening in your brain when these systems are functioning in a good way—when you're feeling fine, or even "in the zone," self-actualizing, or spiritually blossoming? The answer is important, because then you can deliberately stimulate and thus gradually strengthen the neural networks that underpin these good states of mind.

When you are not rattled by life—in other words, when you're feeling safe, fulfilled, and loved—your brain's avoiding system is calm (in a word), the approaching system is contented, and the attaching system is caring. This is the responsive mode of the brain, which delights, soothes, and refuels you. It's your home base, the resting state of your brain, which is real good news.

Now here's the bad news: we also evolved hair-trigger mechanisms that activate the fight-or-flight reactive mode of the brain and drive us from home when we're stressed, whether from the snarl of a leopard a million years ago or a frown across a dinner table today. When you feel even subtly threatened, the avoiding system shifts gears into hatred (to use a strong, traditional word that encompasses the full range of fear and anger); when you're at all frustrated or dissatisfied, the approaching system tips into greed (ranging from longing to intense obsession or addiction); and when you feel even mildly rejected or devalued, the attaching system moves into heartache (from soft hurt to awful feelings of abandonment, worthlessness, or loneliness).

The reactive mode was a great way to keep our ancestors alive in the wild, and it's useful today in urgent situations. But it's lousy for long-term health and happiness. Each time your brain lights up its reactive mode—each time you feel pressured, worried, irritated, disappointed, let down, left out, or blue—this triggers the same stress machinery that evolved to escape charging lions or lethal aggression from other primates or humans.

Most reactive mode activations—pushing you off home , base—are mild to moderate. But they're frequent and relentless in the lives of most people, leading to a kind of inner homelessness that can become the new normal. Besides feeling crummy, this is bad for your physical health, since chronic stress leads to a weakened immune system, disturbed digestion, dysregulated hormones, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Stress wears on your mental health as well, bringing: pessimism, blue mood, and depression; heightened anxiety and irritability; "learned helplessness"; hunkering down, playing it safe, dreaming smaller dreams; clutching tighter to "us" and fearing and even exploiting or attacking "them."

So—let's come home.


These Practices of the Week include many practices for calm, contentment, and caring—and there are lots of other good methods in the writings and teachings of many people. So I'm not going to focus here on any particular way to activate the responsive mode of your brain. The key point is to make it a priority to feel good, to look for everyday opportunities for peacefulness, happiness, and love, and to take all the little moments you can to marinate in well-being.

Because here's more good news: Each time you rest in your brain's responsive mode, it gets easier to come home to it again. That's because "neurons that fire together, wire together" stimulating the neural substrates of calm, contentment, and caring strengthens them. This also makes it harder to be driven from home; it's like lengthening the keel of your mental sailboat so that no matter how hard the winds of life blow, you stay upright, not capsized, and keep on heading toward the lighthouse of your dreams.

What's wonderful about this is that the ends of the journey of life—being peaceful, happy, and loved/loving— become the means of getting there. In effect—in a traditional phrase—you are taking the fruit as the path. Instead of having to scratch and claw your way up the mountain top, you come home to the meadow that is the natural state of your brain—nourishing, expanding, and beautifying it every minute you spend there. For as they say in Tibet, "if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves."

For Journaling

Describe a time in the recent past when you were reactive. What would you have done differently if you had been more responsive and less reactive?

Describe a time in the recent past when you were responsive. What were the reactive impulses that you set aside in order to be responsive?

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Rick Hanson on responding, not reacting:

Longer video: Tara Brach, "Learning to Respond, Not React" (53:32)

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