What do we respond to?

Life is responsiveness, they say. To live is to respond.

But what do we actually respond to?

Sometimes it’s an awesome sunset, the caress of a loved one, an inspiring poem, or beautiful music. Those are peak moments of pure responsiveness.

The Problem

The_storytellerBut for most of us, most of our waking hours, we primarily respond to our own thoughts. We tell ourselves stories all day long, and we respond to the stories instead of to life as it is. We do this much of the day, every day, without even realizing that we’re caught up in stories rather than living life.

Here’s an example. Imagine you’re sitting at your desk. In ten minutes there will be a meeting where your boss is presiding and you are presenting. You’ve prepared. You’ve practiced. There’s nothing more to be done. There’s no reason you can’t just relax, have a glass of water, and wait quietly for the meeting time.

But that’s not what you do. Instead, you tell yourself story after story about what’s going to happen in the meeting. Some of the stories may be pleasant. You perform well and get praise from your boss. Some of them may be unpleasant. You slip up and get criticized by your boss.

In either case, your mind isn’t quiet. And your body isn’t quiet either. You can’t relax because you’re responding to the stories. When you respond to the pleasant stories, you feel excitement. You may slip further into a fantasy about a rosy future. You may get so caught up in the fantasy that you start to be dissatisfied with the present. And when you respond to the unpleasant stories, you feel anxiety and other kinds of distress. You may slip into a fantasy about a very unpleasant future, one where you have to work overtime, get demoted, or even lose your job. Then you respond to that story and feel even greater distress. You may start recalling past incidents where you were criticized (more stories!) and feel distressed about them too.

Does this sound familiar? I expect it does, because it’s standard operating procedure for most of us most of the time. And we usually don’t even realize it.

So that’s the problem. We respond to our thought stories about the future and the past. We put ourselves through hell because we’re much more interested in the stories than we are in life as it is here and now.

That’s the problem. What’s the solution?

The Solution

The solution is simple. Yes, simple. Simple, but not easy.

Here it is on a silver platter:
Become less interested in your thought stories and more interested in living here and now.

See what I mean? Simple but not easy.

Why isn’t it easy? Because our habits are strongly established. We pay attention to our thoughts. We tend to respond to the stories. Even when our rational mind says a story is baloney (like the one about botching the presentation and getting fired), we still find our bodies responding as if the story were true. Which means we feel distress. The throat tightens. The gut clenches. The heart beats faster. We interpret that as distress, as anxiety, and half the time we don’t know why we’re feeling it.

So if the rational mind isn’t the answer, what is? Mindfulness. Mindfulness training lets us begin to see the whole picture clearly. It lets us begin to distance ourselves from the thought stories, to become less interested in them, and to become more interested in what life offers us here and now. The resulting relief and relaxation can be immeasurable.

Thanks for reading. Comments and shares are welcome!


6 Responses to What do we respond to?

  1. This is a very practical and thoughtful article. The adage – we are the total sum of what we think about. The idea that “the solution is simple…but not easy” rings true with me. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thanks, Odin. I appreciate your comment. One idea behind the business name “More Than Mindful” is that the adage you mentioned, we are the total sum of what we think about, may not capture all there is. After all, when we see that we’re the observer of our thoughts, it’s immediately clear that we are not our thoughts.

  2. I really like how well this example shows how one can lapse – even unintentionally – into an artificial state that distances from the true present, and points out how distracting thoughts or stories, even if positive, can create a puddle of stress that risks drowning the here and now. As a physician, I am coming ever more to believe that reaching a better internal state of connectedness is a much purer route to ease and calm and harmony than becoming reliant on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. I strongly endorse engaging in mindfulness as an excellent way to get off of the merry-go-round of medicating the stress away. And directed training in mindfulness is significantly less expensive than is taking one medication after the next, and the practice of it is free! Great option!

    • Thanks, Dr. Miller. It’s great to have a physician’s viewpoint! Scientific evidence is mounting that meditation can be at least as effective as medication in treating some conditions, especially ones related to stress. Here’s one review of some of the evidence: https://morethanmindful.com/review

      Conclusions: The results support the safety and potential efficacy of meditative practices for treating certain illnesses, particularly in nonpsychotic mood and anxiety disorders.

    • Thanks, Aurorasa. I appreciate the comment. By saying “the Now is the best time to live” you touch on a point that I stopped short of making in this particular post, and which is at the heart of why I call my approach more than mindful rather than simply mindful.

      It’s this: Notice that now is the only time we ever live. Even when we seem to be lost in thought stories about the past or the future, we’re having that experience now. Our experience is always now. It’s inescapable presence. We never experience our own absence. It doesn’t even make sense to say that we ever could, because we would already have to be present in order to experience anything!

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Steve DiamondNote from Steve:

My new mindfulness book, The Relaxation Solution, was published in June, 2022.

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