The 4 Levels of Non-Reactivity

“Learn to sit with the flies, allow them to land on your arm, walk around, and then fly away.”

Troy Erstling
Nov 27, 2018 · 6 min read
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Whether you’re studying Stoicism, Buddhist Meditation, Mindfulness, or simply practicing How to Not Give a Fuck, the underlying principle remains the same — How to become less reactive and more emotionally stable. How to cultivate a healthy indifference.

Note that this is different than avoidance or non-reactivity. The goal here is NOT to become an emotionless robot. We don’t want you to stop reacting to things and allow everything to happen, that’s not the aim.

Instead, the goal of these practices is to be aware of and in control of your reactions. To be as Steven Covey says, “Respons-able” or “able to control our responses”.

This means instead of being swayed by the winds of external circumstance, you’re anchored into your own lack of emotional reactivity.

I personally believe that along this path of cultivating a healthy control over your reactions, many of us will go through four common stages. Four stages best illustrated through the annoyance of a simple fly…

The 4 Levels of Reactivity — The Analogy of the Fly

Level 1 — Emotionally Reactive

Imagine that you’re sitting in a park reading a book when a fly circles by your head.

At first, you try to swat at it and get it away from you…but no matter how many times you swat, it keeps circling back.

You get frustrated with the fly that won’t leave you alone. Eventually you get angry and leave because you can’t take it anymore.

The fly got the best of you and got you to react. You took the bait.

More importantly, it’s exhausting to swat at every fly that comes by.

*This is the emotionally reactive person. The person who swats at every small problem that arises. The second a fly buzzes in their ear, they freak out about it. They can’t just sit still and watch the fly come and go, they have to make a fuss about it.

Level 2 — Freeze Up

Imagine that you’re sitting in a park reading a book when a fly circles by your head.

This time, you don’t want to react to it. You hope that by ignoring it it will fly away on it’s own.

Then it lands on your arm and starts walking around. Your mind revolts and says “don’t react, don’t react”.

You’re frozen in place. Not quite reacting by swatting at it, but no longer present either.

Instead of reading your book, you’re focused on the fly and waiting for it to leave.

The fly got a reaction out of you in your attempt to not react.

*This is the non-reactive robot. While you were “non-reactive” you were also frozen in fear. The simple act of saying “don’t react don’t react” is a reaction in itself. One of fear that will stop you dead in your tracks.

Level 3 — The Boomerang

Imagine that you’re sitting in a park reading a book when a fly circles by your head.

This time, it lands on your arm and starts walking around.

At first, you notice it and pick your head up from your book. You take a look at it, and then return back to reading.

The fly temporarily disrupted your attention, but eventually you went back to reading.

You also didn’t try to shake the fly off of you. You simply allowed it to come and go.

The fly got a reaction out of you, but you returned back quickly.

*This is the person who makes a mistake, but is able to catch themselves. The person who is able to notice when a distraction or interruption has taken place, be aware of it, but still remain immersed in the task at hand. Although temporarily taken out of the present moment, they have the ability to return back.

Level 4 — The Anchor

Imagine that you’re sitting in a park reading a book when a fly circles by your head.

This time, it lands on your arm and starts walking around. Then it flies to your face. Then it flies to your hand. Then it flies away.

In all this time you continue reading. You notice the fly momentarily, but it doesn’t disrupt your focus. You remain immersed in the book.

The fly came and went without receiving a reaction. You were merely a series of landing pads for the fly.

*This is the true master of healthy indifference. The master who is able to have the problems of life land squarely on his/her face and not react to them, but remain focused on their true goals.

I believe that these levels are a reflection of how most of us react to situations in life.

In the analogies above, the “Fly” is any emotional trigger in life. The things that are most likely to get a rise out of us.

Everyone has unique triggers that get them stressed/angry/anxious/frustrated….you name it.

In order to understand your triggers, in order to understand the flies of life, we must take inventory of the reactions of ours that have a negative ripple. The reactions that harm the people around us.

Let’s say for example that you’re someone who is volatile and gets angry easily. At first you might react to every criticism (Fly) someone throws your way. Over time you can learn to react to 1 out of 5. Then maybe have the ability to see the reaction rise and say no to it. Then finally be at a point where these situations stir up no emotional reaction at all.

It’s a process. A sequence that we usually follow on the road to becoming less reactive. It’s a series of trials and tribulations that bring us closer to our eventual goal of having more control over he way we handle the stresses of life.

But in order to do this, we must first discover our triggers. We must discover the causes that trigger our reactions so that we can be aware of them, and work on instilling habits in the opposite direction.

Your experiences will vary as well depending on the severity and habitual rooting of the specific reaction that is in discussion. Some of our reactions are very deep rooted, and some of our “triggers” can be flipped at a moments notice.

Also — Please remember this is an analogy. It is ok to react to avoid harm. If this were a mosquito that is biting you, or a bee that was about to sting you, it makes sense to react.

The point is to not react if the reaction will make things worse. To know how to distinguish if something deserves a reaction, or not.

Don’t allow the flies of life to knock you off your game and hurt the people around you. Learn to sit with the flies, allow them to land on your arm, walk around, and then fly away on their own.

Remember that “this too shall pass”. Any fly that comes and lands on your arm will eventually fly away. Treat the problems of life as such and watch the flies come and go without interrupting your day along the way.

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