In every moment, we have a choice

As we develop, we find the wise gap between stimulus and response. Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash


In every moment of every day, we can choose how we react to events.  Even when we are feeling very triggered by something someone is doing to us, we still have a choice as to how we react.  We can either respond aggressively, trying to escape, or to fight, or to show the other person they are wrong… or we can respond peacefully, attentively, accepting the other person’s existence and views.


There are three main time periods for any momentary reaction:

  1. When the event hits our senses
  2. When our mind is triggered
  3. When our mind responds


Think of a baby being born.

  1. Firstly, the pain of the birth hits the baby’s body; there is an enormous change in sensation and movement. 
  2. Secondly, as a result, the mind of the baby is filled with energetic messages and alerts.  The whole thing is too much of a trigger, and the force of action and reaction is woken up.
  3. Thirdly, the mind of the baby gets involved in generating a noisy interaction with its carer, full of crying, and imagining the worst.

In babyhood, this three-stage process is very instinctive, without any gaps between sensation, trigger and response.  Our evolution has made sure that at first we are highly reactive, with minimal control.  Our parents respond to our cries with food and comfort, and the process of care begins.  The role of the parent is to save the child from the ravages of a suffering world.  As an early survival pattern, it all works well.

In short, when we are babies, it is functional and our birthright to be highly reactive, and to make a noise whenever we experience suffering.


But what would our life be like if this reactiveness continued into adulthood?  If we cried like a baby every time something happened that triggered us?  If we can find adult substitutes for our parents, then it works fine.  We can have a co-dependent relationship with a ‘carer’ type, and our triggered noise will be met with care and support.

But, if we are to find independence and individuality as humans, then sooner or later we have to find a different way to respond to events.  If we grow into a co-dependent cry-er, we may will always find care, but equally we may never be able to stand up for ourselves in the world.  Our event-response cycle is too limiting.  Neither will we be able to exercise any mastery or agency.  We are too busy reacting directly, and cannot create anything new by controlling their reaction.


In contrast to the childlike route, we can think of being the wisest person we can be, and how we might solve the problem of independence and individuality when encountering suffering:

  1. Firstly, the pain of living hits our senses; we feel discomfort, complication and hostility.
  2. Secondly, we watch with awareness, and accept the discomfort, complication, and hostility.
  3. Thirdly, having mastered our triggered mind, we decide on an appropriate response.

The difference here is that, instead of being directly reactive, our awareness provides quite some distance between stimulus and response.

If it can be achieved, this type of adaptive response is transformational.  No longer are we passive victims of experience.  We have become independent beings, able to act freely, whatever the world throws at us.

We have let go of our automatic fight-or-flight response. We are still free to fight or to flee mistreatment. But we do it at stage three, as a personal decision, not as an instinctive, animalistic reaction.

Whenever we encounter experience, including suffering, we do have a choice.  We can act instinctively, as our basic evolution dictates.  Or we can act like a wise person, watch with awareness, use our consciousness, and respond with freedom.