Our behavior is driven by unconscious urges. We roll through our days like robots, our actions largely determined by stimulus-response chains.
I see a photo of a large café mocha made with whole milk and dark chocolate, topped with mounds of whipped cream (stimulus). I feel a desire that starts in my gut and practically makes me drool (response).
The urge to act on that desire—before I even know what’s going on inside me—is strong.
If I do give in, the cost is five dollars, 500 calories, and God knows how much saturated fat.
I’m walking through an intersection and almost get hit by a driver who’s speeding and runs a red light (stimulus).
I retreat to the curb and feel an urge to scream at the driver (response).
Acting on that urge won’t change the driver’s behavior, of course. But it will raise my blood pressure, strain my voice, and infect me with an emotional negativity that lingers for hours.
This all seems so mind-numbingly obvious once I stop to see it. Yet I seldom do that.
This is the way my life unfolds—existing on a sub-human level, moving through a waking sleep.
No wonder that Gurdjieff described us as “machines among machines.”
There is another option—To become aware. To live like a conscious human being.
To wake up.
The key is putting a space between stimulus and response. This is a major theme in the literature of self-help, spiritual practice, and psychotherapy.
Recently I found a particularly useful expression of this idea in Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal. It is an interview conducted by Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps.
Griffin spoke with Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. Marlatt developed the Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) program. Its purpose is to help recovering alcoholics and addicts learn not to act on urges to drink alcohol or use other drugs.
The essence of MBRP is meta-cognition. Marlatt describes this as “the ability to stand back, observe what is happening and think about what you are doing rather than being on automatic pilot.”
Marlatt goes on to explain a handy technique for meta-cognition. He summarizes the steps in this technique with an acronym—SOBER.
Suppose that you’re a recovering alcoholic and you walk by a bar you used to visit. A thought arises: I could just step inside and see if anyone I know is there.
That thought is a stimulus, triggering a craving for alcohol. And a likely response is falling off the wagon.
Instead, you can:
- Stop walking.
- Observe your thoughts and feelings.
- Breathe will mindful awareness.
- Expand your awareness so that you can visualize the likely result of entering the bar.
- Respond in a way that sustains your recovery—such as walking quickly away from the bar.
This is a simple and practical way to deal with cravings of any type. The essence is to stop, breathe, and cultivate a moment of self-awareness.
That’s all it takes to introduce a sacred space between stimulus and response.
Like the old saying goes: What you are aware of, you can control; what you are not aware of, controls you.
Image by hmerinomx, Flickr Creative Commons