I want to make a distinction between two ways of behaving.
The first way is reactivity, which I will define as the ability to come up with a rapid, instinctive answer to events.
The second is responsiveness, which I will define as the ability to come up with a more mindful, detached answer to events.
Like dogs barking, we are good at coming up with instant responses to changes in events. When we are driving and someone gets in our way, we can find ourselves very quickly falling into a default, quite animalistic response which asserts our own interests. We might sigh, or mutter something under our breath.
If the other person is close to us, then they are likely to pick up the vibe from our reaction. They may, in turn, fall into an animalistic response, and bark back at us. This is how most arguments start, in an escalation of instant reactions. We can recognise this process, because we often find ourselves aftterwards wondering what on earth happened.
In reactive interactions, each minor escalation seems fairly innocuous. But, because the escalation happens so quickly, it turns into a major escalation which we cannot believe has just happened. It can happen in domestic life, and it can happen in war zones.
Some people have learned to use a second type of answer to events – responsiveness. In particular, those who train themselves with meditation can easily halt their initial animalistic reaction, and break the escalating chain which so often hampers human relations.
Why does meditation help? Well, the more time you spend improving focus, reducing self-interest, and acknowledging other people’s perspectives, the easier you find it to avoid a mindless, animal response when you are inconvenienced. You are ready for the next interruption; you are attentive to others; and you have more mastery emotionally.
Try the following activity for an hour – or for a day if you dare!
Remain mindful of the fact that, any minute, your mind will be interrupted by an external stimulus, or internal trigger, that will challenge you. Be aware that, when it happens, you will have a choice. Are you going to dive into an animal reaction, fuelled by self-interest? Or, alternatively, are you going to breathe more evenly, resist falling into that trap, and remain focused, attentive, and emotionally intelligent?
You may find that the first few times it all happens too quickly, and you have fallen into an animal reaction before you know it. But if you are lucky, you will be able to catch yourself more an more, and stay on a more aware plane.
If you can develop a responsive behaviour in place of your reactive behaviour, your life can become surprisingly peaceful, simply because those relationship escalations don’t happen. You will have broken the dependent relationship between events and your mood, and events will begin to reward you, by being easier to deal with.