Have you ever hit “send” on an e-mail and then regretted it a few seconds later? Or snapped at a loved one? Or wished you’d paused before criticizing a colleague?

Reactions like these happen to all of us. Despite our best efforts, we get swept into the raging current of daily life and automatically react to a situation instead of consciously responding. Why does this keep happening, even though we “know better”?

Blame it on our lightning-fast limbic system. This ancient, reptilian part of our brain is typically the first responder to stress, causing us to automatically react instead of skillfully responding from our prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher-order reasoning.

Our self-protective, limbic mechanisms are the product of thousands of years of human experience, transmitted to us through our genes. Our autonomic nervous system regulates a variety of processes that take place without conscious effort, such as breathing or pumping our heart. But when we encounter danger, this same nervous system is responsible for activating our automatic fight, flee, freeze, or faint response.

This emotional reactivity is part of our evolutionary heritage for a reason. It is helpful, indeed essential, when danger is imminent and physical — for example, when a lion is chasing us. But when the danger is psychological in nature, which is more often the case in modern life, this coping mechanism can cause harm.

These reactive patterns are so ingrained that we may not even realize we’re engaging in them. Someone cuts us off the on the highway and we _____. Our child forgets to do what we ask for the umpteenth time and we _____. An employee or colleague doesn’t do their part of a project and we _____. These patterns can become so dominant that they diminish our capacity to see clearly and limit our freedom to choose a wise and compassionate response. We end up going through life on automatic pilot, cruising along our superhighways of habit, allowing conditioned patterns and emotions to govern what we believe, think, and do.

Mindfulness counters this ingrained reactivity by throwing two powerful blocks into this headlong rush to react:

1. The mindful pause: Mindfulness creates a moment of pause between a stimulus and a response. This pause gives us the space to see a situation clearly and choose a response, rather than automatically reacting with ingrained patterns that may not serve us, others, or the situation. Mindfulness puts us back in choice. A wise saying attributed to psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl captures it best: “Between the stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

2. The witness state of awareness: When we pause in mindfulness, we’re taking a mental step back from whatever is happening. We can then use our higher-order mind to observe a situation objectively. When we get swept away by the current of life, we lose perspective. Mindfulness helps us rise above the turmoil to see with greater clarity. Imagine being swept away in a raging river. We’d spend all of our energy just trying to keep our head above water. Mindfulness, instead, is like observing the situation from a helicopter. We gain a greater perspective.

› Mindfulness creates a moment of pause between a stimulus and a response. This pause gives us the space to see a situation clearly and choose a response.

Together, the mindful pause and the witness state free us from our ingrained reactions, especially in emotionally charged situations. While mindfulness does not necessarily change what is happening, it changes our relationship to what is happening. It helps us disembroil ourselves, see the situation with clear eyes, and wisely respond instead of automatically react.

Excerpted from GOOD MORNING, I LOVE YOU: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity and Joy, by Shauna Shapiro, PhD. Sounds True, January 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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