Writings on Mindfulness

by K. Neal Hughes, M.A. LSPE NCC

Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Victor Frankl

There once was a young man who lived with his wife and two young children out in the country. His wife was a nurse and had to get to the surgery suite early that day so he was responsible for getting his 6-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son up and ready to go. The little girl would go to her first grade class in the nearby town. The toddler would go to his sitter’s home in a town some 30 minutes away in the other direction while the man then went to work in the same town as he lived.

The morning was not going according to plan. And he would be late to work regardless. It got later and later.

The children, being children and necessarily attention-challenged, were not terribly interested in the schedule of events for the morning. Instant packages of oatmeal did not appeal to them. Wearing clothes at all was not the boy’s preferred attire even on a good day. Today, as far as he was concerned, he would go very casually. For some reason the pony-tails (a mystery to our hero) would not line up just right and red and purple, at least these shades, did not match. Not that the dad cared that much whether the pony-tails were perfect or that the clothes matched but he knew that his wife would.

So, they struggled and he got angrier and angrier. His words were not entirely inappropriate for children but his tone made up for that.

“Hurry up! Eat your oatmeal! Put your shoes on! Get your teeth brushed! Etc, etc. And by the time it was all done, as well as it was going to be done, and the children were safely secured in their car seats in their brand new (but used) Dodge Caravan, which he in his great wisdom had purchased without his wife’s input. He breathed a sigh of relief. But, as he pulled out of the garage into the rain, he quickly noticed that the right front tire was flat!

He put the van into park, jumped out of the minivan, kicked the tire, and shouted a few inappropriate words.

“Aaaargh!” He stomped and fussed and grimaced.

Just then his daughter rolled down the window and calmly said, “Daddy, if you’re late to work will they fire you?”

And then, “Daddy, if I’m late to school we’ll just tell them we had a flat tire.”

And then, “Daddy, tires get flat … you just fix them.”

It took a matter of moments for the little girl to do therapy on her daddy. I proceeded to take the children into the house and calmly fix the tire. (She loves when I tell that story.)

Reacting vs. Responding

Normally, we humans act on automatic pilot based on previous experience. This acting on impulse can be a very efficient, effective and helpful use of energy and cognitive power … if you’re dodging bullets or a Mack truck. If, however, the matter before you is more complex, such as the one above, perhaps a more subtle response would be in order.

mindfulness, reaction response
The fact is there were a variety of possible responses available to our hero. The one he initially chose was an impulse based in fear/anger. The impulse was strong, the physiological flow of adrenalin and corticosteroids required some reaction or response, but my behavior, while automatic, was not inevitable. A 6-year-old child short-circuited it for heaven’s sake. But thinking before we speak and act requires the development of the ability to pause between stimulus and action. That we CAN do this does not mean we will.

There are a variety of theories used to explain this phenomenon, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Some are religious (e.g., we are “sinful” people or it was the result of a demonic being). Some are philosophical (i.e., the problem of evil). Some are scientific (i.e., an imbalance among limbic, prefrontal, and higher cortical functions, or perhaps introjected aspects of the family system). Regardless of which view you espouse, there is a scientifically based solution and it is adaptable to any religious or philosophic tradition. Practicing in any form, secular or religious, leads to the same neurological results.

The mind has two overall general functions. These are often called, again very generally, the ‘thinking mind’ and the ‘observing mind’.”

The former we know quite well and live in it more often than not. The “thinking mind” judges, analyzes, reasons, constructs scenarios, tells stories, and attempts to make sense out of things. The “observing mind” simply watches. It does not engage in judging, analyzing, story telling, etc. It is simply aware. With nurturance we can become better at it but our mind resists staying in this mode. The “thinking mind” is our default mode.

Mindfulness builds the power of the “observing mind” as one practices simply watching. From there one can begin to develop the mind/brain in one’s preferred directions, but it is necessary to begin here.”

The benefits are numerous emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically. For one, there is ability to step back, pause, and consider the consequences of one’s behavior before acting.

My daughter agrees.