In the psychological context of classical conditioning, we all are familiar with Pavlov’s dog who was conditioned to salivate upon seeing steak and hearing a tone, and eventually the tone itself caused the salivation without the steak even being present. This is the power of neural networks.
Mindfulness can be understood as the space between the stimulus and response. Viktor Frankl put it very eloquently when he said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Mindfulness can be quantified. I want to discuss how to open up the space between stimulus and response in a very deliberate and meaningful way that will be easy to put your finger on and allow the incorporation of mindfulness training exercises.
Being aware of what we are thinking about, or where our minds are going, is the concept of mindfulness. It is not simply being in the moment, for the obvious reason that sometimes the moment we are in, is unpleasant or unwanted. Mindfulness is the gentle guiding and deliberate use of mental control of our thoughts with the goal of being in the moment in the most enjoyable space we possibly can.
So what types of mindfulness training exercises can be done in order to be aware of our thoughts and gently guide our thoughts were we want them to go? I am going to suggest a very simply exercise for this month and I will elaborate more on this concept in future newsletters. But for now, I promised not to be esoteric, rather scientific in my approach. If we understand the concept of classical conditioning that Pavlov’s dog was salivating just by hearing a bell, without the steak even being introduced, then we understand the power of stimulus and response.
Now a very simple mindfulness exercise to avoid impulsive reactions is to simply notice the stimulus and before responding to allow mental space between the stimulus and the response. This can be done by a distraction technique. Any distraction will do, but since we are breathing all day every day, focusing on the breath is an easy way to create space between the stimulus and the response. Before reacting, notice what the stimulus is doing, how it is making you feel? What do you feel compelled to do or not do? How do you want to react? Notice how you feel about what reaction you want to give the stimulus before actually reacting. Start with a small goal. Tell yourself that you will notice one thing today. Before you react to the stimulus you give yourself space. Then you can slowly decide however quickly you get the hang of it, to do it more and more throughout the day.
This gentle awareness of our thoughts will lead us up to the next step of mindfulness which is redirecting our thoughts in the direction of our choice. But, the wonderful part about allowing the space between the stimulus and response is that it allow us to honor our current state of mind without judging ourselves or trying to force a change.
Try it this month, let me know if you like it.