Some say the key to happiness is to liberate ourselves from ignorance and get in touch with the preciousness of life. However, the "habit energy," as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, of our everyday lives is very adept at pulling our attention in multiple directions and making it difficult to realize the many spaces of choice we have to live a meaningful life.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Blink," speaks to how the mind makes a snap decision or interpretation within the first two seconds of an event occurring. For most of us, after that blink effect, autopilot kicks in and carries us into an unintentional unfolding of moments.
I would argue that, as Viktor Frankl says, there are many spaces that occur in our lives between moments of stimulation and moments of reaction where there is power to choose a response. "In that response lies our growth and our freedom." In the unfolding of moments, we have the power to become present, gain clarity, change our minds, change our brains, incline our minds toward the good and even learn how to relate to our difficult feelings differently to realize a freedom from the confines of our habitual thoughts and reactions.
I'm currently writing an upcoming book called "The Now Effect: How this Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life" (Atria Books, 2011). The premise of this book is based on moving beyond some promised pathway to enlightenment and turning the wheel of mindfulness one step further to learn how to specifically engage the space "between stimulus and response," to gain more clarity and choice in various facets of everyday life. My goal here is to write it in a very practical and accessible way so we move beyond the intellectual game with engaging the now and readers can realize its effects.
I've often told the story of how my father used to visit people on their death bed and one man had a very telling story. He spent his entire life stepping on other people to get to what he perceived to be a man of high value (e.g. power and wealth). Unfortunately there were no people around him at this time. At the end of his life he was forced to stop and reached a moment of clarity. He realized it was about who you love and how you love them and the rest of it never mattered. This man reached this clarity at the end of his life, but it was too late to make use of it.
This is about gaining clarity in our lives about what is really most important right now so we can live life with this intention. We don't have to wait for a 9/11 or a heart attack to recognize that we don't "have to" be a slave to this habit energy of rushing around and distraction. However, without a practical knowing of where these spaces lie, we are destined to be driven by an auto-pilot in our minds as that's just the way things go.
It makes sense. Our brains are designed to handle more and more complex information and as more complex avenues of information has become available (e.g., PDAs, internet, etc.), our brain adapts and we can't help but live in shallow noisy waters and lack a sense of depth of what is most important. It's not really our fault, our brains adapt to handle the complexity of the situation and at times to simply try to avoid pain.
But there is another choice and the only way we can truly realize it is through some kind of intentional practice that brings us here.
As you're reading these words you are living in a space between where you were previously and to where you're about to be.
What is most important for you to be paying attention to in this next moment? Recognize right now that you have a choice onto where you can intentionally place your attention.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Adapted from a publication on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at Psychcentral.com. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is Co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. You may also find him at www.drsgoldstein.com.