Mindfulness: The Space Between Stimulus & Response

Mindfulness: The Space Between Stimulus & Response

I have an old friend that has been in my life for twenty years. He has always helped me sort out the many questions and confusions that constantly float in and around my head. What I do for him I sure don’t know, but I’m glad that we’re in each other’s lives. It’s been over a year since I sat in his office with his rambunctious puppy playing besides him. Today his puppy is fully grown but still rambunctious as ever.

“This is for you. I thought it might be helpful.” He handed a magazine with the words “mindfulness” across the top of the page.

Now mindfulness isn’t new to me — dialectical behavior therapy is at its core a mindfulness type of treatment — but I’ve always been hesitant practicing it. You see, I’m afraid of the silence. It’s in silence that the voices get louder, the pull towards chaos becomes great. Quieting my mind brings out the demons. In other words, mindfulness scares the living daylight out of me.

My friend continued on the article and stressed one last thing. He shared a quote from of our favorite author/hero, Viktor Frankl. In it he says,

Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in this space lies our power and freedom.

The quote delighted me to no end. Any time I hear Frankl’s words being applied to someone’s life I light up. But to apply it to my own life, well, i wondered if it was a challenge I was willing to accept.

As I see it through the lens of DBT, Frankl is talking about the space between the trigger and behavior. Within that space, no matter how small and minute it is, there is still a moment in which we can be mindful. Within that moment of mindfulness we can observe and describe without judgment, we can radically accept that we are triggered, and then, we can ultimately choose how to respond to the trigger using our wise-mind.

Being aware of that freedom, that space is half the battle. When you’re in the throes of an emotion (stimulus) and on a verge of an urge (response), the waves engulf you and you can’t think about anything but the constant push and pull of the waves bringing you down and the desperate attempt to gasp for air. You’re flailing around, doing everything and anything from giving up and giving in. In those moments, it’s hard to think about the life you’ve been building for the last two months.

And so I remind myself about breathing.

I remind myself that this moment is the only moment. I breathe in one and breathe out two. Once I get there, I find a little, small itty-bitty space where I can think about skills I’ll want to use so I won’t give in to the urge. I breathe in three and breathe out four. It is in that moment that I choose how to respond to the trigger. I choose not to give in to the pull, as strong as it is. And I keep coming back to my breath and choosing to use skills over and over again. It keeps me afloat until the storm subsides and the waters calm.

If you ask me, it doesn’t feel like freedom at all. It feels exhausting and difficult and stressful. Choosing not to engage in self destructive behavior is not nirvana. I don’t feel like twirling around in a field full of wild flowers. It’s not that kind of freedom, at least not for me. It feels the exact opposite of freedom. In those moments I have to stay mindful until there is enough time between me and the crisis. Only then I can feel the freedom.

9 Comment(s)
  • cho Posted December 9, 2016 9:43 pm

    I too have often read this quote.. I appreciate the thoughtful words on how to breathe and using the counting of breathes to ..ground? Pause. Then decide. I liked how you named it “self destructive” behaviour.. The response.. The lashing out.. The trigger.. The anger.. I myself have an injury response to triggers..cause my body to tense up..often creating pain.. It is this that reminds me most often of the need to work on my “pausing”.. Somewhere in Tara Brach’s ‘Radical Acceptance’ book is a chapter on pausing and her description of a real human being struggling to learn this..somewhere she writes how it is only after several attempts does the pause actual soure of repreive..a space of solace.. Like your last sentence, the freedom.. Is hard to attain. I would like to keep working on attaining it..getting to the point where it is a source of solace and..power for me.. A source of “freedom”

  • Devi Rosado Posted December 10, 2016 9:49 pm

    This last sentence was funny and so true … what’s wrong with exploding when we need to let off steam? It’s only human.

    • Claudia Wondrak Posted August 24, 2017 11:42 pm

      The problem with exploding is that you may regret later how you reacted and it will turn around like a boomerang destroying you (your self image, your self esteem)

  • Ann Posted January 30, 2017 10:12 am

    this quote isn’t actually from Frankl. We have been trying to find the original author, but to no avail.

    • Jon Wilde Posted February 13, 2017 5:06 am

      The quote is from the book Man’s Search For Meaning.

      • Rasha Salem Posted March 7, 2017 10:33 pm

        I have been trying to find the exact source/reference for this quote. I did not find it in Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Can you please include page number? I also came across that it was said by S. Covey quoting it from a book but he neither indicated the book nor the author, but he believed that it describes Frankl’s views. Thank you.
        Here is a link to Victor frank’s Institute confirming that:

        • G. P. Posted July 19, 2017 8:22 am

          Any update on your search for the original source? I came across it in Covey’s book, he mentions reading it a book but does note the title of the book or the author.

  • Abbey Posted July 6, 2017 6:04 pm

    And from there…where?
    If we can imagine the stimulus as most often being another person’s behaviour or their words, then it’s logical that we practice compassionate communication or nonviolent communication so as to respond wisely and kindly.
    Reading Marshall Rosenberg’s books and joining a practice group and or creating a practice group using the ONGO workbook, Everyday nonviolence.

  • Randy Engel Posted July 7, 2017 3:08 am

    So true. It home. All my thoughts in one place. Thank you.

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