Responding to Life, Instead of Reacting to It
You may have heard meditation called a “practice.” I practice mindfulness. I practice Zen. And so on.
But “practice” doesn’t only refer to the technique of paying mindful attention. Really, the point of practicing meditation is to practice being human: how we see ourselves and the world, the way we form intentions and ideas, the way we speak to each other, the way we act, the way we make our living, the way we apply ourselves. Practice involves far, far more than just meditating.
This is what the Greek philosophers called ‘self-governance.’ It starts with a conscious decision to leave behind a life of reactivity and embark on a life of self-creation, in which we work towards becoming the kind of person we aspire to be, and toward creating the kind of world we aspire to live in.
Reactivity is, in some ways, our biological and evolutionary baseline. It is central to our survival. We get out of the way of whatever might threaten us, and try to acquire whatever might enhance and support our lives. We do this all the time, usually without thinking. We’re organisms primed to react.
We can see this clearly in meditation. We can notice our experience, and notice that it makes us feel a certain way, and notice how the mind reacts. I like this, I don't like that. I'd like to get to know that person; don't like that one. There’s a kind of constant monologue that runs through our heads, almost all concerning What does this mean for me? What can I do with it?
Meditation teaches us how to cultivate a still, inner space that enables us to respond wisely to life, insteading reacting, often mindlessly, to it. We’ve probably all experienced this at times, this non-reactive space, this caring quality that can afford us another perspective on our lives, and the possibility of an ethical relationship that's not driven by getting what we want and getting rid of what we don't like. It's a quality of mind that wise people from all different walks of life and traditions intuitively understand. It’s when we experience our lives in a way that's not determined by what we want and what we don't want, that’s not all about me.
Reactive thoughts are invested in their own survival, often colored with fear or anxiety. We're worried, we're anxious, we're insecure around wanting something or not getting it or disliking something and fearing it or being preoccupied with my self-image and being worried that it won't hold up in the eyes of others. And so on.
In contrast, caring responses like generosity or kindness or wisdom are like going out into the world, engaging with a situation that is open-ended. These responses are not about my own survival, they’re not held back by anxiety and worry, they’re not self-centered.
In large part, meditation practice is about becoming clearer about this choice. It’s about seeing that it is possible to respond to life with care as opposed to reacting out of conditioning or habit. Its goal is to learn to think and speak and act from that non-reactive space.
In a sense, the difference between responding to life and reacting to it is the difference between freedom and non-freedom. We can learn to dwell in a space of awareness that provides us with a freedom to choose whether we respond or not, to cultivate a relationship with life that aspires to realize what we value as good. That is how we answer life’s fundamental questions: How do I live? How do I care? How do I find meaning in life?
Of course, the events of life rapidly and insistently bombard us. Often, a response is demanded immediately, and no matter how much meditation we do, we will never be able to know in advance what the effects of our actions will be. So we will sometimes get it wrong.
But through those mistakes is how we learn to refine our moral compass: by acting and then carefully attending to how the consequences of our actions play out – both in ourselves and on others. Your life is a work-in-progress, an unfinished project, and your practice is whatever drives this process forward. Be courageous, take risks, and don’t mind failure. As Samuel Beckett put it: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Stephen Batchelor is a renowned Buddhist teacher and writer, known for his secular and scholarly approach to Buddhism. He has written numerous books including the best-selling Buddhism Without Beliefs and most recently, What is This? Ancient Questions for Modern Minds.