Taking A Step Back: How Meditation Can Stop Us Over-Reacting

Tell somebody you are practising meditation and you may get a response along the lines of, “oh that’s too hard for me, I could never stop myself thinking!”. This is due to a common misconception that meditation is the process of trying not to think. It really is not the case. Firstly, stopping thoughts is impossible, they come whether you like it or not – just try not to think of a pink elephant and see what happens! Secondly, if we were unable to think we would be pretty stuck – imagine trying to plan your day without a single thought, you would not get very far.

So what are we doing when we meditate? Rather than preventing thoughts, we are working to change our attitude toward them. Instead of reacting to our thoughts with words, actions, or further thinking – we are learning to view them with a detached awareness. By practising this in meditation we can more easily develop this non-reactionary approach in everyday life, this brings many advantages that will later be discussed.

Non-Reaction In Spiritual Traditions

The concept of non-reaction plays an important role in many ancient traditions. The seminal Taoist text, the Tao De Ching speaks of the virtue of non-reaction:

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching Chapter 15

Waiting for the mud to settle before acting is good advice: how many times have you reacted or made a decision when in an intense emotional state, only to regret it later? If your mind is clouded with a feeling such as anger, it is much harder to clearly see the most beneficial course of action. The metaphor of muddy water is perfect for these type of situations, the more you stir it up, the more cloudy it gets. So by trying desperately to solve a problem you are in fact making it worse! Much better to take a step back and wait for things to settle.

In Buddhism we have the concept of “Right Mindfulness” – this relates to a clear, non-judgemental awareness of thoughts and actions.

What is right mindfulness? [He] abides contemplating the body as a body… fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings … He abides contemplating Consciousness as Consciousness … He abides contemplating mental objects as mental objects, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. This is called right mindfulness.
The Buddha Shakyamuni, Sathipatthana Sutra

So rather than reacting automatically to whatever comes up, you observe the mental process from a detached perspective. If somebody annoys you, instead of punching them in the face, you simply note, “There is anger right now.” If you feel annoyed or distracted during meditation, simply be aware of this. Non-judgement is key here, there is nothing “wrong” with anything you feel. We are not trying to replace anger with guilt, just recognise whatever comes up. Your mind is not the enemy, more like a well-meaning friend who sometimes gets the wrong idea!

The Hindu tradition also advocates the non-reactionary way of living. In perhaps the most influential of the Hindu texts, the Bhagavad-Gita, we find quotes such as:

Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by the desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do…
Bhagavad-Gita 2:49

Again the emphasis is on detached awareness, responding to the world without attachment to the consequences.

Benefits Of Non-Reaction

So why is non-reaction so prominent in these scriptures? One obvious advantage is that we learn to avoid making decisions or performing actions that could harm ourselves or others. We can also avoid getting stuck in unhelpful thought patterns such as self-criticism or pointless rumination – treading water without getting anywhere.

The Buddhist tradition differentiates between Dukha (sometimes translated as suffering but more accurately, discomfort) and Sukha (comfort). We can think of our inner essence as being a state of comfort: a place where there is no suffering. However often this is masked by Dukha – the trials and tribulations of everyday life such as bodily or emotional pain. If we act from a position of Dukha we may say or do negative things; for example, experiencing physical pain or tiredness may cause us to react harshly to other people. Realising this helps us to feel compassion for others even when they are behaving negatively toward us (they are coming from a position of discomfort, so may not even be aware of the hurtfulness of their actions). If we take the time to step back from our thoughts and feelings with detached awareness, we will be able to question whether they are coming from a place of comfort or discomfort.

When you start viewing your thoughts with detached awareness you may be surprised at what you find. You may start to realise thoughts are transient, contradictory, and sometimes completely random! Perhaps today you feel beautiful, but tomorrow ugly. Your best friend may suddenly be the most annoying person you have ever met. What seemed like a good idea a few weeks ago may be now be a source of regret. In short, the mind is perhaps not as reliable as we would like to believe it is. This is why so many spiritual traditions advocate training the mind so that this practically infinitely powerful tool becomes our greatest ally rather than an adversary.

Taking a step back from the mind, and seeing the transient nature of thought can bring about the powerful and slightly unnerving realisation:  we are NOT our thoughts. If the mind says you are beautiful one day and ugly tomorrow then what are you really? Searching for this answer to this question is what has occupied the mystics since the beginning of time – if you figure it out please let us know 🙂

A Simple Practice

A simple practice to cultivate this non-reactionary attitude is to meditate on the breath. Sit in a comfortable and upright position with your eyes closed (or fixed on a point in front of you) and simply bring your attention to your breathing. Thoughts will arise, and that certainly is not an indication you are doing anything wrong. When you experience a thought, simply notice that you are thinking and return to your breath. So if you feel hungry, you can mentally note “there is hunger”; instead of then daydreaming about potatoes you simply return your focus to your breath. It is not such an easy practice as often you will have thought about many things before you notice. The number of thoughts you have does not matter – it is awareness of the thought that is the point of the practice. When first starting out you can limit the session for 5-10 minutes, extending the time once you become more familiar with the practice.

To develop an attitude of non-reaction, in meditation and in daily life, is challenging as we have such a strong desire to react. However if you approach the practice with a curious, non-judgemental attitude, and a strong motivation, the many benefits will become apparent.

More on the benefits and practice of meditation can be found in our other articles:

Meditation: Why Bother
Should We Try And Stop Our Thoughts And Desires

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