Humans are unique. Between stimulus and response, there’s an opportunity to decide how we feel. For some, that idea sounds ridiculous. Someone slaps you in the face for no reason, you’re going to be angry, right? For others, this will ring true. There can be a vast expanse in which to gather your thoughts, and the prospect of just lashing out like any other animal would seems equally silly.
This was one of the key ideas of Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl. His seminal work, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. It details his survival in three different death camps during the Holocaust. That’s an incredible example of someone deciding how to react to the outside world. Life for him at that time was full of darkness, despair and misery. His entire family was killed. Every day, he faced his own impending death. Yet he kept going, somehow…
I am confident that not a single person reading this faces any problems remotely approaching those of Dr. Frankl. And yet, how many times today did you find yourself frustrated over something completely inconsequential – when you’d rather not be? Did you snap at your other half, or swear at someone for driving slightly too slowly for your liking? Wouldn’t it be better if you could take a moment to just consider your reaction, to show some of Frankl’s measured, calm reserve?
I am absolutely not an exception to this kind of behaviour. Only yesterday, I spent about 30 minutes playing with the spacing of the margins and layout of my dissertation, growing increasingly annoyed when I couldn’t get it ‘just right’. But, I was able to recognise myself getting lost in thought and move on, rather than walking around with a nagging sense of frustration, without being aware of why, all day (or all week for that matter).
You work on growing that gap between stimulus and response in exactly the same way you’d seek to grow stronger or more flexible physically. You come up with a plan you can stick to and you consistently put the work in. The body and the mind are incontrovertibly linked.
The exercise? Meditation.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I have always found sitting still, even for 10 minutes, unbelievably hard. In today’s world, nobody is used to being alone with their thoughts. The internet has killed boredom. But it’s so vital to spend some time faced with the reality of being. Otherwise, you’re just permanently ‘lost in thought’ (as I’ve heard Sam Harris phrase it).
Guided meditation is a good place to start. I’m a big fan of Headspace. Here’s one I found on Youtube.
If you can’t watch it right now, mindfulness meditation looks something like this:
You sit down, preferably somewhere quiet. You don’t need to sit in a lotus position like a monk. Just on a chair, the floor or the end of your bed is fine. You close your eyes and pay close attention to the sensation of the breath. You’re not trying to ‘empty your mind’. Rather, when you’re inevitably distracted by something, you recognise the distraction, and return your focus to the breath. Do this for as long as you can – 10 minutes is about right to start, but one mindful breath is infinitely better than nothing.
10 minutes out of 24 hours is less than 1% of your day. Can you think of anything with more upside and so little downside? Doing this regularly is exactly the equivalent of tearing muscle fibres. They’ll knit together and heal, stronger than before. The benefits of meditation are vast. You’ll start widening that gap between things happening to you and how you respond. In making better decisions, you’ll find your freedom.
Think of Viktor Frankl in the camp next time you find yourself moaning or complaining. You have the option to choose. That’s not to be taken lightly.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning really is an incredible book. I read it in one sitting – it was impossible to put down. I’d highly recommend it. Find it here.
Meditation is also something that’s vastly improved the quality of my life – this Reddit article really captures some of the specific benefits. I’ve experienced everything on the list, including some lucid dreaming. Definitely the thinking visually too.