There are a few things I've done in my adult life that have totally shifted my perspective.
Having a child is one of those things. Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” And that's very true. Having a child changes your perspective on life in every way possible.
Moving to another part of the country and travel has shifted my perspective. Making your way in a new place, learning a new culture, meeting all types of people changes you.
My divorce shifted my perspective, on my marriage, on the people around me, on my life and on myself.
I was an adult when I became a Christian; when I put my trust in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. That's a serious perspective shift and, like becoming a mother, has changed every area of my life.
But, there are smaller, less momentous shifts that have happened as well. I got about halfway through studying and training to be a pilot. Pilots have a whole different perspective of time and distance. While for me right now, a beach visit only makes sense for a long weekend. It's a trip. But for a pilot, it's a jaunt. It's an easy flight for dinner and a sunset. Most people can't imagine that kind of perspective on time and distance and how it shifts the possible.
I recently experienced another of those perspective shifts when I began to study and practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has a lot of benefits. Studies have shown it can reduce stress, improve working memory, improve attention and focus, reduce emotional reactivity, foster more cognitive flexibility, reduce rumination and depressive symptoms and foster empathy and compassion. There are a lot of other claims with weaker empirical evidence. But, really, the studies on PTSD symptoms were enough to get me interested in trying it.
One of the most interesting things to me is that the payoff and benefits don't require years of practice, And, I've found that to be true in my own life. Mindfulness meditation is like a workout for your brain. It's training your mind. And I found a difference in myself in 20 minutes a day, several days a week. The perspective shift for me happened when I realized that I have a choice about how I deal with my thoughts and emotions. I can choose my responses to them. They don't have to control my day, my attitude or my responses to others or to my circumstances.
We typically spend our days reacting automatically to the things that happen around us and to us. We allow circumstances to control whether or not we have a good day. Rebecca Norrington has a good description of this, saying, "a below-average golf game, an inconsiderate driver, the weather, your health, a rude cashier, a forgetful spouse, an anorexic bank account. These things, according to you, determine what type of day you’re having. I’ve labeled countless days “bad” or “good” depending on what’s “happened” to me. Sound familiar?"
You've probably lived this way. What determines whether or not you have a good day? A good season? A good year? We don't have to let our circumstances define our lives. What if I told you that your circumstances have nothing to do with whether or not you have a good or bad day?
Your choices do.
Last week, I talked about the difference between reacting and responding. The fundamental difference between reacting and responding is a conscious, intentional choice. And I told you that this week I'd get practical and share some ways to help you learn to respond instead of react. Here's the pattern to remember and to practice. And because I'm a fan of alliteration, the three steps all start with the letter "P."
Pick a response
Let's talk about each step.
Pay attention. Practice noticing when you're reacting versus responding. Practice noticing what invokes quick reactions. Pay attention to how you react in different situations. Pay attention to what gets you emotional. The first step toward making intentional choices is paying attention to when we need to make those choices. Most of us carry on internal conversations all day long without really paying attention to what's being said. Start noticing. Start paying attention.
Pause. Practice using a pause. It can be your best friend. Just because we have an internal thought, feeling, or reaction doesn't mean we need to react immediately. This is a game changer, friends.
I live in an area where ticks are rampant. You know, those disgusting little creatures that latch onto your skin, bite you, take your blood and can leave debilitating diseases in return. And they don't just jump off when they've bitten, they hang out gorging themselves on your life essence until they've transformed into a creature resembling something more like a mini balloon with waving whisker legs than a bug. They're absolutely disgusting. And can cause very serious harm. In the Spring, early in the season, when we find one, we tend to yelp, panic, flail around, brushing at both real and imaginary bugs. By midsummer, even the kids are calmly asking where the tweezers are and just pulling them off and dropping them in the alcohol jar to die.
We can learn not to react. We can learn to pause and let rational thought take control. That pause can be short or long depending on the circumstance. The point is not to be slow in responding, the point is to always be thoughtful. Having an interruption in your reaction cycle is invaluable.
In the article, Responding vs. Reacting, J. Loeks writes:
The act of responding requires one to look at the circumstance, identify the problem or situation, hear what is happening and reflect. That reflection can be for a moment, five seconds, one hour, two days or longer. The time frame doesn’t matter. What matters is that you stopped and put an effort to think and suspended judgment. It is a conscious act and shows that you are willing to listen or observe. This ‘gap’ between the circumstance and your behavior is what contributes to gaining a sense of control in your life. Once a person can identify that in responding they actually have a choice in the matter, he/she will start to realize that they are able to make better decisions. The key is that pause. If the situation requires an immediate action, then just take a deep breath first. This alone can help one gain a semblance of control and make one choose an alternative statement or action that can make a big difference in an outcome of a situation.
Pick a response. Now that you've paused, you've gained time to choose how to respond. You buy time to shape your perspective. How do you want to live your life? What kind of choices and reactions do you want to be known for? Kind ones? Cultivate picking kind responses. Ethical? Compassionate? Wise? Loving? Cultivate picking ethical, compassionate, wise or loving responses.
You always have an array of choices before you. Our initial reactions lead us to believe that there's only one appropriate response to any given event, stimulus or circumstance, the one that happens automatically. But, that's just not true. There are always options. You have the power to pick.
Pay Attention. Pause. Pick a response.
When we filter our reactions through a pause, they become clearer, more focused; they become a choice. You may choose to express the exact same emotions in a response that you would in a reaction, but you are able to choose how they're expressed. Yellow, red, white and black are all present in both the background and foreground of this piece, but in the background, they're muddled, messy, uncontrolled. In the foreground, in the version filtered through the pause, I chose their placement, the expression of their color in in shape, pattern. location, size and repetition.
The pause is made up of more than one layer. You may need more than one pause to find your best response and you'll certainly need more than one to practice this. It's not second nature.
This week, I took a photo Monday afternoon at a waterfall and I posted on Facebook. That evening, an acquaintance took my photo and posted it in a Facebook group that we both happen to be a part of. I suspect she didn't know I was in the group and she didn't claim to have taken the photo herself, but if there's one thing sure to get an angry reaction from a professional photographer, take one of their photos and use it without their permission. Now, I'm no longer a professional and this was a snapshot. But, still. Word to the uninformed: If you didn't take a photo and don't have permission to use it...just don't use it. I wasn't really angry, but I was definitely annoyed. She absolutely could have asked my permission and she didn't. So, I got to practice paying attention, pausing and picking a response. I noticed I was annoyed and I waited a few hours to respond. I'm not sure I chose the best response, but it certainly was better than had I responded immediately.
We react automatically to most of our lives. To countless things every day. But, we don't have to. One advantage of being human is that we get to choose.
Practice that ability.
Want to process the ideas in this podcast further? Download the Coffee Talk Worksheet or put this week's art on your phone: Episode 41 Downloads