We are a reactive species – we’ve talked about this before, and we’ll talk about it lots more to come because moving from reactivity to responsiveness is one of the great challenges and opportunities of our personal development.
First off, what does that even mean, moving from reactivity to responsiveness?
Let’s take one of my favorite examples: Driving.
Years ago, on a day of a very bad, no good, fully rotten mood, a person was tailgating me. As soon as she could, she pulled around me and I felt my left arm start to rise in an unkind salute. That was a reaction, as in:
Stimulus: Anger launched by being unable to see the person’s headlights in my rearview mirror because she was driving so close
Reaction: An unthinking skyward middle finger
I don’t ever feel good about using that finger in that way. When I noticed what my arm was doing, what my experience of anger was encouraging me to do, I felt my right hand quickly intercede, pushing my left hand back down to my lap. That was a response.
Responses don’t cancel reactions, they override them. Moving from reactivity to responsiveness is not about somehow eliminating the part of our brains that fuel these instantaneous thoughts and behaviors but rather practicing building in enough of a pause for conscious and intentional decision making to take over. And we’re not talking about some long pause of contemplation here; we’re talking about practicing such that the response can swoop in just shy of instantaneously. It took me a fraction of a second to move from reaction to response in the tailgater episode.
What is this practice?
In the bigger picture, the practice is being intentional to identify and live into our values. That’s big work, set-an-afternoon-aside work, revisit-it-every-so-often work. That’s the work that shows us the landscape of what we’re shooting for, the land of our biggest self and our baddest life.
And then there’s the daily, incremental practice. It’s the work of building the muscles of responsiveness, rep by rep. These days, we tend to call those reps “mindfulness.”
The actions of mindfulness practice are the most subtle exercises I know. Mindfulness practice can be anything from taking three seconds to notice as many sounds in your environment as possible to taking a walk without music or a podcast and intentionally attending to the scenery, the feeling of the air, the sensation of your feet landing on the pavement again and again. In an intro to mindfulness book that Theresa loves, there’s an activity where the reader is invited to take a single raisin and examine it thoroughly with all of their senses – looking at it, yes, and smelling it, and also rolling it between their fingers to feel its texture and then rolling it more while holding it next to one’s ears to hear the sound that produces before finally placing it on the tongue to explore the mouth feel and taste.
What is the point of hearing a raisin? you might be asking. How do the sounds in my environment keep me from flipping off an eager driver?
These activities of mindfulness are simple ways to practice conscious decision making. When I am on autopilot, the sound of the fan on my laptop and the buzz of electricity in my home become invisible to me, background noise. I have to make a conscious decision to engage enough with my environment to hear them.
That conscious decision activates and reinforces the muscle of conscious decision making, a muscle that can be applied elsewhere, in more consequential moments. It’s no different than the way each plank I hold during yoga practice strengthens my arms which makes it a little easier to open jars and carry all the groceries. That is, a plank pose isn’t going to cook my dinner but it does make it easier for me to do so later on.
Two of the coolest bonuses of mindfulness practice, beyond how it sets us up for living more fully into our values, are:
- Mindfulness practices are calming and centering in the moment. The next time you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, try taking just 5 seconds to listen to your environment, noting with intention the sounds that are available. Then check in with yourself again and see if your pulse isn’t a little quieter, your chest a little lighter.
- Mindfulness practices are always available. A little while back, I shared a moment of mindfulness as I adjusted my posture while breaking down a massive Georgia Candy Roaster Squash. One of my favorites is to really tune in while I’m washing my hair; it feels as good, if not even better, than when my stylist does it. Taking a moment to thoughtfully adjust your hands on your keyboard, to put down your phone and really listen to your child or partner, taking five to step outside and feel the air – these are all micro-practice in intentionality and conscious decision making – in responsiveness.
Fair warning: Mindfulness practices can be so subtle – their effects can sometimes be so subtle – that we can miss their impact. This can be demotivating.
Practicing noticing incremental shifts in your behavior and experience of life can illuminate the inching toward our bigger and badder. And while the leaps in growth make for the best anecdotes, the inching is the more consistent part of the process that sets us up for those leaps.
Reactivity feels so normal, so right, even as we careen toward problematic decisions; coaching is an amazing tool for seeing our reactivity with greater clarity – and with self-compassion. I’ve got bandwidth for you; are you ready to commit more fully to your biggest self and baddest life?