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Stimulus & Response in Your Work Environment

Last fall, a coworker approached me with a question. They said, “Now don’t freak out, but — “ and I couldn’t tell you a word of what came next. My brain was stuck. When had I become the one who freaked out?


I started asking people close to me, who I trusted to be honest. Was I freaking out? The consensus was yes — I was testier than usual, quicker to melt down, not really able to think things through. And that was enough for me.


Jess sits crosslegged on a rock on the shore of a mountain lake. The water in front of them is choppy and shines in the sun. A dramatic rocky mountain peak, a small meadow, and a pine forest are visible on the far side of the lake. Jess's back is to the camera - they are wearing black shorts and a turquoise tank top.

Making New Habits

I decided to stop drinking for a spell and to revamp my diet with greens and sugar-free options. I upped my exercise routine. But I’d done all those things before.


This time, I also committed to daily meditation. Not the “relax into sleep” guided meditations — I was already listening to one every night.


No, this time I committed to 15 minutes or more, first thing in the morning, before I did anything to start my day. I would sit, with no noise or guidance, and I would learn the things that came up in me.


I still didn’t really know why meditation seemed like a good solution — I’d just gotten back from my first (silent) meditation retreat and, while I’d had some clear insights, I wasn’t clear on the purpose of meditation for me. I just knew something had to change, and a lot of people believed meditation could help.


January 2020

The first weekend of the new year, a friend and I participated in another retreat with the same teacher. I was exhausted, grieving, stressed, and very uncertain about what I wanted out of the weekend.


But! I had been sitting every day for 15 minutes for the last 5 months. And I mostly wanted to know why it wasn’t working.


What I discovered was that meditation had been working for me, in small, subtle ways that were suddenly shifted into focus over the weekend. Here’s what I learned:


The Three R’s

My friend relayed this explanation of stimulus and response during one of our retreat evenings, and it resonated immediately.


When we are stimulated — by a sensation, a thought, something in the natural world — we have two pretty basic instincts: repress or react. Meditation allows for a third option.


Repress

In repression, a stimulus (a thought, a feeling, a perception) occurs, and rather than acknowledge that there’s something happening inside us, we block it or refuse to look at it.


Repression is often (in my observation) a symptom of conditioning. If you were raised in an emotionally unstable household, where one parent was volatile, you learned that expressing your own emotions would set that parental figure off, and so you learned to repress. It doesn’t have to be childhood trauma — stay in a toxic work environment long enough, and your natural instinct becomes to repress.


The key here is that when a stimulus provokes an emotion, our immediate decision (as conditioning, as survival mechanism, as habit) is to suppress it, to push it down.


React

In reaction, the stimulus triggers a lizard-brain instinct: fight! flight! freeze! like! dislike! This is where I was last fall — everything was danger! Because this is a chemical trait that our brains are hard-wired to produce, it’s very hard to unlearn. But we’re also just beginning to realize the fullness of the power our brains have over our bodies.


Emotions are a biological reaction to a thought. And our thoughts can dictate the things we feel, if we let them.


We’re discovering that the chemical mechanics of emotions themselves don’t really last long — 90 seconds, and then the surge washes through you — but we have trained ourselves to stoke that initial burst of hormones and feelings with more thoughts and more sensations. We can sustain those reactive feelings for an indeterminate amount of time, based on how long we focus our energy on thinking about the stimulus and the feeling we experienced.


Response

In response, a stimulus happens, and (instead of repressing or reacting) we consciously create space between the stimulus and our action. We create the ability to choose.


But how do we learn to recognize the stimulus, the urge to repress or react, then with cognizance, wait a beat and choose a response?


I think that’s where the power of meditation comes in.


Meditation takes us to a baseline state: This is how it is. This is my body in stillness. This is my mind being aware. It is our bodies and minds, safe, at rest, even. We focus on noticing when a thought arises and what feeling or reaction it triggers.


We practice in safety and stillness creating space and choosing to respond.

Then the practice becomes going out into the world and noticing a stimulus, noticing the urge to react or repress, noticing that we’re noticing the difference in our chemistry… and choosing a response.


Words, Again

Last month, I wrote an article about the power of our words to shape the world around us. This theme came up again at the January retreat. Our teacher read this quote:


“We are what we think. And our thoughts create the world.”

She said, “Making thoughts is what our brain does — just like our eyes see, and our ears hear, and our noses smell. What happens next is what matters most. Which thoughts do you pick up? Which do you start thinking about? Those are the thoughts that make the world.”


A Zen master lay dying, and his student asked, “But Master, what is the purpose of a lifetime of practice?”The master answered, “Appropriate response.”

With meditation, we learn to create a small space between the stimulus and us that allows time for a response. And in that small space, rather than being bound to either repress or react, we find that our options are infinite. When we pause and choose, we are responding.


Back to Work

My commitment to sitting had been doing its work. I can now feel on the days I am restless on my cushion or I excuse myself from the full 20 minutes of sitting, that I am less distanced from my instincts. I am more reactive; I repress a lot of feelings. I do not make wise choices with my attention.


In really simple words, when I don’t meditate, I’m more likely to create shitstorms for myself. When I do meditate, I can more easily access “observer mode” and choose the way I respond to any situation. It’s a lot like how the player of a character in a video game has a wider perspective than the character itself, and so the player can make better-informed decisions.


At the office, I’ve been practicing the slow work of noticing a stimulus and pausing to choose my response. I’m not good at it. But when I do notice, sometimes it manifests as, “Thank you for telling me this. I’d like to think about it for a while. Do you mind if I respond to you tomorrow?”


Sometimes, awareness and response manifests as not saying anything, of deciding that anything I contribute will not help to move the situation forward, and it’s probably wiser if I wait and observe.


Most often, though, in this technology-driven world, the response is simply, “I don’t have to answer right now.” Our cell phones and chat platforms and email apps have programmed us to react — we answer as soon as the machine tells us there’s a new message. Or we start thinking about our answer before the other person has stopped speaking.


I was talking to the same coworker today about learning to pause and learning to respond. I told them, “I practice meditation so I can have a choice — a choice about where I put my wise attention. A choice to respond skillfully to the other person and have no regrets.”

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