I debated starting this post with a quote from that Dave Matthews Band song but it would be irrelevant. This post has nothing to do with that.
There is this moment, this occurrence that I’m sure has a name but I’m not smart enough yet to know what it’s called. You know that moment, it’s that split-second between when something happens and you respond. You bang your knee and you scream “fuck!” or someone says something hurtful to you and you launch into your epic defense of your character. Maybe you’ve never recognized this moment before but boy has it become more clear to me recently.
It started coming up on my mat a few months ago when I felt like my body couldn’t go any further and on my way down to take rest I realized the loop – stimulus to reaction to stimulus to reaction to stimulus…and I decided to change that. How much longer could I commit to staying in the discomfort? Could I focus my breath, my intention, my energy on expanding the space between an occurrence and my reaction to it? And there’s always this moment when I’m working on something in my practice and I get really good at it that I realize that it’s time to take it into the real world. Shit.
I started small – when I’d stub my toe, I’d stay silent, keep my body the same, change nothing, knowing that this moment too will be over. Everything is impermanent. Surely enough after a few seconds the pain would subside and life would continue as normal. It became a personal game, how much space could I hold for myself? Then came the people.
At work when a challenge presented itself or someone would say something that was hard for me to hear, I’d just sit and let it wash over me. Then it would pass. Let me be clear, it still felt terrible, I’d be sad, I’d be angry, but what was most important for me in these exercises was about controlling my reaction. I was actively trying to break the loop in my brain – building the space between stimulus and reaction. To my surprise though, it made people uneasy.
“Why aren’t you reacting? I can’t tell how you feel right now? “Are you upset? Just, DO SOMETHING! SAY SOMETHING! REACT!”
And then I learned something else about myself – much of the time I spent interacting with others was about eliciting a reaction. If they were a friend, someone I admired and respected, I’d want to make them react positively – a laugh, a smile, excited speech, all of those responses that say “I’m happy with you. I love you. I accept you.” Alternately, if it was someone I didn’t care for, I wanted to make them feel hurt, less than, small. If my interactions weren’t getting me the response I sought then I’d push a little further – tell my funniest joke, hurl my biggest (albeit subtle) insult until I got the desired reaction. And all of this was coming right back at me – well, in fact it was coming from me.
So what would happen if I stopped giving any reaction? Or an even better question, what would happen if I stopped seeking reaction? Because there’s a lot of messy stuff tied up in there for me – I want everyone to like me, I want to be perceived as the best, I want to be the funniest, and handsomest, and fiercest – so you can imagine that my presentation would be a little (understatement!) over the top. What would happen if I just let that go and just act from my soul?
Let me tell you.
Last weekend I taught my first yoga class and went to a local restaurant to have a celebratory beer (I’m sure I’m breaking a yoga teacher rule) with my partner. We sat down and launched into our typical banter – laughing, joking and telling stories when this woman walked over.
Typically, this would be the moment when I’d react strongly. I’d put on a serious, matter-of-fact tone, straight face, find out what she wanted, give it to her, and then send her on her way.
She’s beautiful. Not in a physical sense, but her presence is soft, she’s unassuming, and she looks at me and says “excuse me, I just had to let you know something.” *mind talk: do I have something in my teeth? Is my shirt inside out? What’s wrong with me?* “You have the most amazing smile.” In that moment she shattered my walls. I thanked her and expected that she would return to her table and I to my day.
She didn’t leave.
She invited her dog over to meet us, she brought her beer over, and struck up small talk. By this point I’m uncomfortable and my ability to exist in that space between stimulus and reaction is weakening quickly. Her food comes out, a hamburger. She removes the bun and sets the plate on the floor for her dog. I’m beside myself at this point. But I’m holding it together. And there was a moment – I don’t know exactly when, that I surrendered. I mean completely surrendered. This woman, so sweet with so many amazing stories to tell, with experiences far different from mine, was here to share space and time. I felt gratitude wash over me. For the next hour the three of us laughed and exchanged our stories with no boundaries. Somehow, we’d created this space that felt so safe and comfortable that we could share anything we wanted. It was beautiful. And as time wore on, we knew that our oasis would soon vanish, but we seemed to all be okay with that. Then the check came.
As Jay and I reached into our pockets to do the (I’m sure) dreaded-by-servers ‘credit card split,’ our new friend took the check and put her own card in. “Let me get that for you.” WOW. I mean WHOA! This woman whom neither of us had previously met was paying for our food and beverages. Her kindness didn’t stop there. When the check came back she turned it to us, “Please write in the tip, be as generous as you’d like. She was good to us.”
None of that would’ve happened if I acted from the split-second place. I wouldn’t have met a new friend, I wouldn’t have gotten to play with my favorite animal, I wouldn’t have gotten to have belly full laughs, I wouldn’t have gotten to hear my partner talk about his fears of the future. I would have robbed myself blind. By growing the space between, I got so much. SO MUCH. And a free meal.
With this all said, I challenge you. Even for a day, for a minute, for your next interaction, focus on building the space between. Start small – go with something personal that only you know and maybe make it more public. You decide. But commit. Commit to feeling everything in the space between, and as you feel something in one moment, generate your excitement for feeling something in the next moment, and the next, and the one after that. I can’t promise enlightenment, I can’t promise a free meal, hell – I can’t even promise it’ll make you any happier or calmer or anything. All I can promise is a new experience. I can promise a different sensation. I can promise fully feeling emotions, a new awareness for your soul, a departure from the same.
THAT’s the space between – a departure from the same.