Widening the gap

One of the most profound ideas regarding practical philosophy I’ve ever stumbled across is often attributed to Viktor Frankl: In the gap between stimulus and response lies the space to choose.

In Frankl’s books there are many examples of scenarios where he himself was forced to choose. Most of the time he decided upon the way of compassion, kindness and courage. He watched others choose the same, and choose differently.

I myself have been trawling through accounts of the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Holocaust. I’ve learnt about instances where people stood up to authority, where men and women suffered greatly so others didn’t have to, where individuals refused to yield to terrible pressures and forces of great compulsion. Yet, alongside these accounts of exemplary courage and humanity, I’ve found stories of startling cowardice, inhumane cruelty and unbelievable meekness. If I’m honest, the deeper I go into extreme events—and consequently, the extremes of human capacity—the more astounded I am at the sheer range of deeds humanity has at its disposal. Not just as a species—it’s widely known that there are great disparities in how different people behave in different situations—but as individuals. Deeds of courage can follow swiftly in the wake of deeds of cowardice. It seems that overarching themes of life don’t really exist because so much is dependent upon situational factors, social pressures, individual biases, and a thousand other inputs. A man can be strong in one moment, and weak in the next.

But I digress. Back to the gap and the reason I am talking about it.

That the gap exists is, to me, self-evident. Say someone talks to me in a disrespectful, aggressive manner. Before I respond I must pass through the gap. It may seem small, so small as to seem non-existent, but it exists—I have to, at some point and on some level, decide how to respond. Keep that in mind as you read the following passage from Mindfulness in Plain English:

“Mindfulness gives us time; time gives us choices. We don’t have to be swept away by our feelings. We can respond with wisdom rather than delusion.”

So, the gap exists, and mindfulness, the practice of non-judgemental noticing, allows us to manipulate it. It allows us to distort time. Of course, we cannot slow time in reality, but we can slow our perception of it. And this is perhaps the biggest boon of mindfulness practice: it allows us to widen the gap between stimulus and response, expand the space for choice. I can think of scenes in my own life where I’ve witnessed this at work. For instance, Molly will say something, perhaps make an observation that I disagree with or ask an awkward question. Multiple times, I’ve caught myself before I utter my default response—usually something cynical, sarcastic, or something designed to relieve the seriousness of said situation.

Thus, my experience of mindfulness has helped me to bring unconscious, unthinking responses upwards and transform them into responses that are deliberate, measured and conscious. This has occurred, not because of any change in my external circumstances, only because of an internal re-orientation. Mindfulness has allowed me to widen the gap.