Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. ~ Stephen Covey
Homer tells of the great Odysseus, whose homeward journey after winning the Trojan War ended up taking several detours. On one of his side trips, the goddess Circe forewarns Odysseus about the sirens, evil monsters that appear as beautiful women and bewitch sailors with their enchanting voices. As his ship nears the siren’s island, Odysseus orders his men to plug their ears with beeswax so they cannot hear the beguiling siren song. Odysseus ties himself to the mast and orders his men to row quickly past and to not untie him, however much he begs.
And beg he does. Upon hearing the siren’s song, Odysseus is plunged into a torrent of wanting. Straining against his bonds, he yearns to swim toward the call, even with the knowledge it will end in his death. The sirens appear to him as beautiful maidens, yet when the gulls cry louder than their song, he sees them for the claw-footed ogres they are. He desires them and feels repulsed by them in equal measure. Finally, the men row far enough away from the island and untie their grateful captain.
Humans are hardwired to both desire and loathe things at once; longing and fearing are not mutually exclusive. Neuroscience tells that we have two basic habitual responses to any stimulus. We either want it or we reject it. Humans have played out these same two stories since time immemorial; our lives are a never-ending battle between pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. So we hear some siren call, and our brain says, “Yay!” or “Boo!” This is pretty straightforward. The problem arises because each of those responses comes mired in layers of personal narrative, judgment and opinion.
Let’s say you offered me a chocolate chip cookie. My brain says, “yay”! My yay is wrapped in the memory of our house smelling like cookies after school, triggering feelings of safety and comfort. Cookies remind me of my friend Maggie, who always brings cookies to a jelly jar dinner at my house. Of my friend Judy, who adds crunchy sea salt to my birthday cookies every year because, well, sweet and salty. They remind me of baking with Izzie. So cookies equal love and belonging in my mind.
Yet my brain simultaneously says, “boo”! Sugary treats trigger feelings of body shame, representing the denial and anguish of the constant dieting I did in my thirties. Eating cookies means I have no willpower, that I am destined to be ugly and fat. From the deep recesses of my memory, I recall how many miles I will need to run to burn off the calories in that cookie.
How very human of me. If forming opinions and clinging desperately to them were an Olympic sport, humans would all be standing on the podium, even though it is to the detriment of our peace and joy.
Thankfully, there is a third option. Mindfulness allows us to bypass the emotional triggers and make decisions with more self-awareness, as it is a more neutral response. Remember how Odysseus was overcome with a desire to simultaneously move towards and flee the sirens? He was caught in a mental loop of attachment, hypnotized by his conflicting longings. Desire, loathing, desire, loathing, rinse and repeat…
Do you also remember who didn’t go bananas on that boat? The sailors plugged their ears with beeswax and could hear only the rush of the breath echoed in the cavern of their minds. That silence created some space between their reactive longings and their actions. It wasn’t indifference, but awareness. And it’s only in silence that we create a little space between the stimulus (Cookie!) and our response (Gimmee that! I’m so fat! But also gimme that! This is delicious! Why did I eat that?) The little pause can break the loop of pleasure seeking and recrimination.
With a little bit of silence, we can view the contents of our minds with more dispassion. It allows us to notice what’s happening in our thoughts without getting carried away by them. So I can decide to eat the cookie while circumventing the emotional triggers surrounding it.
Remember this when you hear your next siren call (like the ding of a text, the smell of a freshly baked cake, the voice of a former lover, the clink of ice as the bartender makes the drink, any stimulus large or small that you notice). Take a single deep breath and then pause. That’s all it takes to shift from reaction to mindful response.