It sounds completely contrary, but at least from my experience, it’s true that when we take the time and the space to process, only then can we RESPOND instead of REACT. And, initially, learning to do this means we have to slow down.
Wikipedia says that: “In technology, response time is the time a system or functional unit takes to react to a given input.” So, like machines, when we’re operating on automatic pilot, we can be quick. We “react to a given input.”
And from the same source, if we also look at Emergency Response Times: “A common measurement in benchmarking the efficacy of emergency services is response time, the amount of time that it takes for emergency responders to arrive at the scene of an incident after the emergency response system was activated. Due to the nature of emergencies, fast response times are often a crucial component of the emergency service system.”
So in both cases, speed & efficiency are favored. And actually I really like speed & efficiency! It takes awareness & skill to be both accurate and fast. However, when it comes to emergencies, we’re talking primal brain which is going to react with fight, flight or freeze. It might be fast, but I think we’d be wise to question it’s accuracy, as it’s often running on outdated or inaccurate information–fears from the past, or of the future.
This is where I find yoga to be like a laboratory. We put ourselves into a controlled & safe environment–a practice on the mat, which I think of as the crucible, with or without other humans present–and we start tweeking. Change the temperature. Change the alignment to create clearer lines, angles & circuits. Adjust the energy levels–amp it up, tone it down. Add some internal jack-hammer-ing with sound to break up concretized areas. Bring the observer in to see what happens with each change. Repeat some things. Settle the temperature & sponge up the juices at the end. Make notes. Do it again tomorrow or next week.
Applying this off the mat, in a non-controlled environment like school or work or home, means that the only control is ourselves. Most everything else is an unknown quantity. You might think you know, but really most of us don’t even know ourselves, so how can we really know another?! So when a stimulus comes into our systems that sets off the alerts, the emergency signals, & all systems hike up energy to react immediately with unconscious response times, we actually should be calling them reaction times.
Because, in order to actually respond instead of knee-jerk react, we have to first take in the request or information & tease out whether it’s relevant. Is this my story, my responsibility, my shit, or yours? And then secondly, we have to determine how we feel or think–or better yet, how we WANT to feel or think–about this particular request or situation. If I want to change my patterns, I need more time to see that I’m in them in the first place! And then I need to cultivate alternative routes, & therefore responses.
Eventually, with slowing down, considering the origins, the effects & the desired outcome, the unconscious reactions are re-trained into conscious responses. And with even more practice, the response times can quicken without dropping into reactivity. This requires awareness. At the start of developing awareness, or mindfulness as it seems to be popularly called these days, we are often a muddle of thoughts, feelings, old stories, & desires that aren’t quite clear or individuated, but that are driving most of our reactions.
In short, we are walking emergency responders until we stop, drop & roll.
Stop–step off the emergency excitement ride.
Drop–the distractions & get clear on what’s what & who’s whose stuff.
Roll–from that place of awareness to flow with the moment.
Which made me recall this ancient quote:
You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.
-Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.5
Interestingly, Brihadaranyaka seems to mean “the great forest of knowledge.” Until we allow space & time into our lives, we tend to not see the forest for the trees, meaning we lack the eyes to see the wider view (AKA awareness). If you’re feeling the heat of life–changes, the unknown, conflict, concern–& there’s a tendency to contract, to grit your teeth, those are alerts! What happens if literally or metaphorically you step onto the mat & inquire first?
Perhaps then you can walk alongside the power of your primal, animal body, seeing the trees that make up the forest. Seeing the desires that make your will, your deeds, & thus your destiny.