Reacting and Responding

“July 15, 2014,” THE ZEN DIARY by David Gabriel Fischer

I was walking my grandkids to school last week when one of their friend’s Mom asked me if I had retired. I replied that I was working about one third of my time doing what I love to do for money and two thirds of my time doing what I love to do for no money. She responded, “So you feel stimulated but not over-worked.” I smiled and said, “Exactly!”

In my experience, few people take the time to reframe what another person is saying in a fresh, creative way. It not only takes effort to make an accurate response, it also takes skill and compassion. You have to demonstrate interest in what another person is saying and care enough to try to understand. Sometimes we are too distracted to really hear what is being said. Often we are too caught up in our own lives to be able to reach out to another. And there are times when we just don’t have the energy to respond.

Responding requires us to be impartial, at least initially, as well as receptive, accepting, broad-minded, and open-minded. Responsive people tend to be flexible, sensitive, and self-aware.

Photo by Flickr user Amanda Tipton

Reacting, on the other hand, means there’s not much happening between the stimulus and your action. Reactive people tend be inflexible, emotionally upset, or stressed out. We sometimes react when an unanticipated or unexpected event occurs — particularly if it is negative. We can get thrown off course and scramble to recover. In a world where fake news and gossip travels quickly, our words and actions in panic mode can make problems worse. The difference between success and failure is mostly determined by whether or not we react or respond to the challenge or change.

When we are in reaction mode, we tend to narrow our focus and fail to see the larger picture. We often miss important details needed to make informed decisions. We misread situations, jump to conclusions, and take the first action that pops into our mind.

When we are in responsive mode, we are more thoughtful, we take all information into account, and we deal constructively with whatever we have been handed. It helps to be adaptive because it increases the chances of finding the right solution. Since the world is constantly changing in unpredictable ways, we can easily get lost if we don’t adapt and respond wisely. We can only move forward by being responsive.

For eight years, I taught inmates interpersonal skills — for example, how to be more responsive. People who end up in jail are usually there because they reacted instead of responded. We used a process called training as treatment in which one inmate would share an issue he was having and another inmate would have to respond, “You feel ____________, because ________________.” In this treatment methodology, the focus is on the “helper” instead of the “helpee.” The helper gets feedback on the accuracy and completeness of his or her response and the “helpees” get the side benefit of being understood — perhaps for the first time in their life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us received that kind of training and feedback without needing to go to jail to learn the skills?

After months of training, some of the inmates became very skilled at responding accurately to another’s experience. They developed a broad vocabulary for feelings and values, and they developed the discipline to listen more and talk less. Strangely enough, I heard more responding in jail than I have heard in conversations I’ve listened to over the past 40 years.

Now we have technology to exacerbate the problem. People text, tweet, and react. Kids text messages from the back seat to the front seat of the car instead of engaging in conversation. It’s not uncommon to go out to eat and see couples sitting across from each other skimming through Facebook posts on their iPhones and rarely saying a word to each other.

Credit: darenmiles on Flickr

Recently, I have found myself reacting strongly to opinions and taking sides. Being so reactive has put me in a state of disharmony. For example, when I learn that someone voted for Trump, I immediately feel a gulf opening between us. To me, voting for Trump was like “Crossing the Rubicon.” This idiom means to pass a point of no return and refers to Julius Caesar’s army crossing of the Rubicon River in 49 BC, which was considered an act of insurrection and treason. In my mind, the white nationalists supporting Trump have crossed the Rubicon in their actions and words, and I’m having a difficult time finding the most constructive response.

I know that in order to respond wisely, I need to be in a state of Tao or unity. I’m having trouble with that. Looking for guidance, I go regularly to the Tao Te Ching Institute on-line Study Group created by my QiGong master Luke Chan. In a recent discussion thread, this question was posed:

“As one embraces Tao, does detachment manifest as holding fewer and fewer opinions? Are opinions distracting us from being present?”

Not surprisingly, Luke responded using references from the Tao Te Ching (TTC). He said, “In Chapter 1, TTC says the absolute Tao cannot be described so it can’t be embraced. Chapter 22 says: The sage embraces Oneness. Even though we can’t embrace absolute Tao, we can embrace Long Life Tao (Chapter 59). Long Life Tao is about loving yourself, loving others, and loving nature. Since we embrace Long Life Tao, we will have opinions. For example, we believe that love is good and hatred is bad. Now we come to the word “detachment.” If we assume that detachment means detaching from one’s ego, then I agree that detachment manifests as holding fewer and fewer opinions. Why? Because opposite opinions can coexist in Oneness. Are opinions distracting us from being present? Again, the word “present” differs in different situations. In qigong practice, when we are aware of our breathing, we say we are in the present. Therefore, if we can embrace all opinions (instead of focusing on our own), the opinions will not distract us from being present. But if we only focus on own opinions, we are not in the present because we are not aware of all that is happening around us here and now.”

Luke continued with a quote from Einstein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Between Luke and Einstein, I now have a clearer perspective on how to navigate this crisis in which we are bombarded daily with idiotic tweets and statements from the person soon to be commander in chief. Yes, that reflects an opinion that is not detached from my ego. Hey, I’m struggling here. I’m trying to be more responsive than reactive, but it’s hard to read the New York Times every morning and not react to what is being reported.

In short, here’s the deal as I understand it:

  1. Reacting doesn’t work. By definition, when we react we don’t think. A reaction is simply a reflex action to an emotion we may not even understand deeply.
  2. Responding doesn’t mean you agree with an opposing opinion, and it doesn’t constitute appeasement. Instead, if the response is genuine and accurate, it defuses the other person’s feelings, gives you time to think, and increases the chances that your opinion will be heard.
  3. People deserve to be understood. Many people are suffering from crushing pain that they just can’t seem to beat. Remember, opposite opinions can co-exist in Oneness and compassion is the path to harmony.

This is not easy. I don’t want to feel separate, but I do. I don’t want to feel alienated, but I do. I don’t want to react like a raging lunatic, but sometimes I do. I don’t want to feel like everyone who voted for Trump crossed the Rubicon in my life, but I do. I don’t like the fact that political commentary keeps creeping into my posts, but for me it’s necessary. We can’t talk about esoteric ideas in a vacuum. They need to be applied to the world in which we live. We not only need to have informed opinions on what is good and evil, we also need to resist hateful words and actions.

Fortunately, I am able to stay responsive, calm, and present with my grand-kids. They know I love them completely and unconditionally. The hugs I give and receive on a daily basis get me through each day feeling enormously grateful and lucky. And I still appreciate a simple response from a new acquaintance. It makes me feel more connected. It makes me feel more at One. As Luke says, love yourself, love others, love nature. It’s all we can do.

Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.

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