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“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.”
Viktor E. Frankl
I know. This isn’t the first July I’ve written about freedom but I’ve really had this on the brain over the past few months. If you don’t know Viktor Frankl, you should. He was an existentialist who developed logotherapy, which basically says that our search for meaning is our primary motivational force. He honed this theory while he was a prisoner in a concentration camp.
I talk about this quote quite a bit when I teach mindfulness. I usually focus on the space between stimulus and response, but lately the word freedom has been working on me.
Freedom from what?
Freedom from our habit energy; from our knee jerk reactions.
I kayak on a lake fed by the Chattahoochee River. There has been lots of rain lately and the lake is filled with floating trash. I noticed that lots of people were commenting on this on FaceBook; each post reading something along the lines of what horrible people they are, those litterers, polluters, defilers of nature and of our children’s future.
As I paddled over Memorial Day weekend I passed by a day use area flooded with holiday revelers. The beach was packed with people and there was lots of splashing at the water’s edge. Boats and jet skis sped along, some pulling skiers and tubers and wake boarders and I paddled through them gathering up trash that was floating on top of the water. For one brief moment I heard the mantra: What horrible people they are; those litterers, polluters, defilers of nature and of our children’s future. And then I remembered when I had a fish-and-ski and small children. I remember that sometimes things flew out of the boat. Sometimes you didn’t know, never knew. Sometimes you didn’t know until later. Sometimes you knew, but you had tired, hungry, irritable, sunburned kids and had to get off the water just to psychologically survive. I’ve been in nature and had trash and forgotten it when I left. I’m a conscientious member of society but I am not perfect.
Yes, probably some, maybe much, of this trash was thrown down by someone who just didn’t care. But then I realized two things. The first was that there have been many, many times when I should have cared more about something. There have been times when I’ve been aware of my own refusal to see that I didn’t care. I may have had my reasons for not caring…or maybe not. But this has been me.
The second thought I had is how painful it can be to be in a space where you are disconnected from the planet and the people around you.
And I kept realizing over and over again that those people were me and maybe I…we could use a break, could really benefit from some acceptance and some compassion. Maybe my role while I picked up trash was that of supporter, because sometimes I need support.
When I first started picking up trash I just slipped into the habitual us-and-them narrative. I was reciting it in my head, those horrible people… and I had a horrible, defensive feeling in my mind and body. But when I allowed a small space I noticed another thought creep in.
Those people are me.
After that, every fiber of my being felt healed and happy when I paddled and cleaned, paddled and cleaned.
I wanted to share this with you to remind us both that we are all, every one of us, trapped by our habitual thinking. I don’t care how enlightened we may be, if we are alive we are identified with all kinds of things and we are shaped in the directions of those cultures and identities.
That’s not a bad thing. We need culture. We need identity. We just need to be aware of it.
But in that small space that we can create between stimulus and response we begin to see that maybe there are other thoughts seeking expression behind the habitual ones. Creating just a moment of stillness can open a passageway to deeper knowings. In the light of these other perspectives we become able to see, to question, and to potentially choose another response.
We become free to move our thoughts, our words, our relationships, our lives in a conscious direction, one of our choosing.