By Hema, Pokharna, PhD., Chief Purpose Officer | Resilience and Vitality Specialist, Journeys of Life
I was recently interviewed and asked if there had been themes or threads throughout my work in personal and professional development over the last 25 years. Several themes came to mind right away, including nonviolence, spirituality, healing, awareness and choice. Yet it is the theme of choice that has particularly guided my work. Many are called but few are chosen, but how many know they have the power to choose?
A quote from Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl has been the guiding light for most of my life’s work:
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.
I was born and brought up as a Jain with the paramount emphasis on inner peace, self-discipline and nonviolent ways of life in action, speech and thought. Also essential was the belief that core wisdom, an inner knowledge, is inherent to human nature. According to Jain teachings, violence and suffering are the result of disconnectedness from the knowledge of who we are and our infinite power to love.
So, when life happens to us – stimuli – we can either choose to respond or simply react, which depends on our self-connection and self-awareness. When we are not self-connected, the time space between the stimulus and response is often very short, and we react without considering that we have choices we can make moment to moment.
The Power to Choose
If we can pause, breathe and take time for the adrenaline hijack to subside, we can connect with the power to choose with awareness and love, allowing us to respond rather than react.
How we manage our emotions in the space between a stimulus and our response can open a space for growth and freedom, or it can close possibilities and, most likely, make us a victim of the situation. Our response will, in turn, have an impact on everyone else involved in the situation. How we think, feel and act is our choice, and our power to choose matters.
When we think of the power to choose, most of us have been conditioned to think about choice within the context of the stimulus or triggering action. This limits our choices for action, and we feel trapped and with little room for growth and freedom.
However, when we can view the situation compassionately, choose a graceful position and maintain inner peace, the possibilities immediately open. In essence, we have the power to choose the quality of our presence, which impacts the quality of our life experiences and people with whom we interact.
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others chose to live from a value of nonviolence and were able to transform the world and their experience of violence.
Again, words of Viktor Frankl:
When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.
Everything can be taken from a man
but one thing:
the last of the human freedoms –
to choose one’s attitude
in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one’s own way.
When we are able to anchor in our values and claim our power to choose who we will be – the presence that we will embody within a situation – we have full access to a higher wisdom within us that, in fact, guides our thoughts, words and actions.
The key is to pay attention – to pause and listen for the voice of wisdom inside of us and follow its guidance.
Choosing to Respond takes Daily Practice and Introspection
In my own work as a resilience and vitality coach, I’ve learned that self-connecting practices, like meditation, mindfulness and nonviolent communication, allow me to reflect, mourn the times I react and put in place strategies to consciously choose who I will be in every moment. It lessens the need for the built-in Stone Age protective brain pathways to be activated for me to feel safe. By exercising the power to choose, I can embrace difficult emotions, anchor myself in my values and keep getting stronger from the inside out to respond to life.
Simply asking yourself, ‘Am I reacting?’ will help you take a quick mental break and ground yourself. From that place, you can choose differently. Response (versus reaction) doesn’t mean you will be slow in speed. It is about being thoughtful and creative.
Keep a daily journal or a diary to log celebrations of your responses; mourn and learn from the moments you reacted.
This practice will support your ability and capacity to increase the space between the stimulus and your response, as well as manifest your power to choose your growth and freedom.