Discover more from Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein
This Practice Will Turn Your Day Around
"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response."
A shorter version of this essay originally appeared at the Foundation for Economic Education.
"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." — Anonymous (often incorrectly attributed to Viktor Frankl)
A few years ago, my wife said something that stirred an immediate flash of anger in me. Perhaps you can remember being at a similar crossroads? What follows anger? Three paths open:
Express your anger. How did that work out for you the last time your anger showed?
Stuff your anger and silently rehearse your grievance. Again, your relationship will suffer.
Choose a better way. Non-judgmental observation of your anger opens a new outlook and changes your response.
That day, I chose a better way. Almost at the moment, my anger arose, I noticed a story forming in my mind to justify my anger. I realized anger was pre-existing in my mind, and the story I was constructing was a made-up narrative designed to help me avoid responsibility. In that moment of realization, the anger was gone—not stuffed, gone.
My realization arose without intellectual processing. In other words, I didn't do a number on myself.
An hour later, I couldn't have told you what I thought I was angry about. Something can no longer be a cause (what my wife said) if it has no effects. When a false cause is removed, its effects disappear.
I would like to tell you I always choose path 3. I don't. Path 3 is unnatural to our ego’s self-concept; it requires suspending our ego’s habitual stream of thinking, but the rewards are immense.
The process I'm describing is a little pivot toward happiness that can apply to any upset: fear, anxiety, worry, etc. However, you are likely to feel tremendous resistance to observing your antics throughout the day.
Why the resistance? A part of your mind is working to maintain your self-concept, rehearsing your story of me, your face of innocence, your sense of victimization.
Notice how much of your self-concept is maintained through judgment, resistance, and attempts to control. These mindsets produce exhaustion. See if that is true for you. The more you judge, the more you resist, the more you try to control, and the more fatigue you experience.
When you observe your thinking, you see that your self-concept is based partially upon what you think you want to get rid of, namely, the upset. You want the upset to be gone, but you want to keep your self-concept. You ask for the impossible because your self-concept is bound by the upset. These are opposing desires which you will usually resolve in favor of your self-concept.
Your ego would rather be right than happy. Do you want to identify with your self-concept? If so, your freedom to choose a better way will be limited.
On a day when you feel resistance to Path 3, what can you do? As soon as you are willing to stop judging yourself, the others involved, and the situation, you can decide to be a happy learner.
First, notice when you are perversely insisting on being miserable. Remember, misery is strengthening your self-concept. Part of your mind would rather be a miserable somebody than a happy nobody.
Now that you are aware of your resistance, you can assume responsibility for your interpretation of any situation and give up the fiction that your interpretations are reality. With practice, you can become increasingly aware that your thinking is creating your experience. While you are not responsible for the behavior of others, you are responsible for your interpretations.
Decide that the price you are paying to prop up your self-concept and be right, is too high. From that space of willingness and non-judgmental awareness, you will find the strength to choose another way. You will know what to do next.
Freedom to choose a better way comes from taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions, but doesn’t mean judging and condemning ourselves. It means becoming aware of the story our ego has made to justify our behavior. We take our ego for granted. Our ego wants us to believe we are our thoughts; but that is not who we are. The more we place ourselves in the observer seat, the faster we move beyond current disturbing thoughts, emotions, and mistaken actions.
Put another way, the key is to practice shifting our attention beyond our habitual stream of thinking. But we can only realize the place beyond our self-concept if we trust there is more than nothingness there.
The inciting incident that opens this essay occurred in 2019. If you are wondering, of course, since 2019, I have had many opportunities to practice observing my thoughts and emotions. Our ego may speak first, but we don’t have to give our ego the last word.
The practice I am describing is not heavy or complicated; it requires only a little willingness. Your ego brings judgment and resistance to you, so take neither seriously. Powering through doesn’t work. Be more aware of the justifications your thinking provides for your choices. Look at them, see if they are serving you and, if not, choose another way.
An example from my book, The Inner-Work of Leadership describes the experience of George, a leadership student of mine. George was driving home when another driver cut him off.
George relates his first thought, “How dare he pass me like that?” George found it normal to speed up and cut off the offending driver. But then, for George, something unexpected happened; he changed his mind. In George’s words:
Slowly, I remembered the professor’s words about ego. Without realizing it, I was driving at the speed limit. Not a mile above (which is unusual for me). I even went to the point of putting on my seatbelt. It took me a few minutes to realize what had happened, what I did, and what was going through my mind. After I stopped the car, I remembered what had happened as if I was watching a movie.
Had George not changed his mind, he would have merely followed an old, tired script; his ego’s reaction would have chained him. In actuality, George had stepped out of his “movie” and into reality. Having changed his mind, he was free to choose a better way. As for George, every day, life brings us opportunities to sit in the observer’s seat and choose a better way.
These few words are enough...This opening to the life we have refused again and again until now.—David Whyte
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