[This journal entry is from February 17th, 2005. As always, Jay’s current thoughts about this entry are in the post script – Dawn]
The Spaces Between
There is a space between any outside stimulus and one’s inner response. There is yet another space between one’s inner response and outer expression of that response. These two spaces, how we use them, if we use them; and how conscious said uses of them are, largely defines who we are in the world.
(Disclaimer: I know there’s no real difference between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, and that who you are inside will inevitably determine who you are in the world. I’m just trying to make that very point by dancing around the point in my own special way. Bear with me.)
(Disclaimer disclaimer: if that disclaimer makes no sense to you, ignore it and read on. You’ll understand one day.)
Many believe that something happens and you respond to it. End of story. Many even believe that they have no choice in how they respond. These people are easily spotted. Just watch for phrases like: “Well, what was I supposed to do?” or “I didn’t do it on purpose.” or even simply “I had no choice in the matter.” Not to criticize, I spent my share of time in such restrictive mental confines. I just found a way out. The ‘way out’ is the space between the outer stimulus and your inner reaction. The other way out is the space between your inner reaction and your outer reaction. The first is by far the superior tool.
An example, if I may: If you insult me, I am faced with a choice. I can feel hurt inside, I can feel angry inside, I can feel indignant, I can feel anything I want… including nothing. Or love. Or compassion (after all, those who lash out do so only because they’re hurting inside, poor things).
This is the best choice to work with. Feeling hurt and then acting compassionate is just suppression. If you feel like kicking someone’s ass because they called you stupid, maybe you should suppress it (or maybe you should just acknowledge that you are indeed a bit stupid) until you have time to work on your needlessly violent tendencies. Every negative feeling you suppress is a little more gunpowder you’re shoving into the bomb within.
You can of course choose to express any negative emotion you may feel, but that’s ultimately not the most healthy way to go about this whole life caper. It’s better to insult back than it is to pop somebody in the nose. It’s better to shrug and laugh than it is to insult back.
The best choice of all is to make that space between the outer world and the inner you a space that is full of Love. Then you get to enjoy choosing between actions or reactions that benefit all players involved.
There is an old saying that has found expression in many religions. The basic message is that once you have had the thought of striking a blow, you have already struck in your mind. It sounds so either/or, so final, it surprises me that it is more of a eastern adage than a western one. Some choices may feel like reflex, or not a choice at all…but the spaces between reveal that every thought, every feeling, every action is a choice that we make.
When I was a badly behaved adolescent, the spaces between seemed to exist only in theory or in retrospect. “Why did you do that?” was the most mystifying question you could ask me, and plumbing my depths rarely resulted in anything more than a mumbled “I don’t know” from me.
I rented a little studio apartment, my first place all to myself, when I was a young adult. That was where I started writing, where I learned to meditate, and where I first explored the spaces between. I looked back over all the choices I had made and looked more closely at what other options had been available. The thing I got hung up on the most was that as I tried to make better choices in my present, I would feel like an utter failure if a thought or feeling came up that didn’t fit my desired new program. Even if I didn’t act on anger or irritation, or wallow in guilt or self-pity, the temptation to do so felt to me like I had somehow followed through.
It took awhile for me to realize that there was an evolution taking place that needed time to unfold. Even if I knew that my desired reaction was one of love no matter the situation, there was a ladder to climb whose every rung needed to be at least acknowledged in passing. The pattern was too obvious to be ignored: wake up thinking about something I didn’t want to think about at all one day and spend the whole day trying to not think about it; wake up the next day enraged that the thought was still there and tear myself apart all day for being unable to control my own mind; wake up the next day too exhausted to fight my own thoughts and feelings and just let my mind explore every past opportunity and every possible future catastrophe; wake up the next day with a clearer vision of what I wanted to be and more energy to do it; then wake up the next day thinking about something else I didn’t want to think about.
The spaces between don’t always whisper the secrets of the Universe to us; sometimes they are only big enough to show us a choice only slightly different than the one we keep making. The last thing we need to do is be frustrated by the very process that makes us better, or for the time it takes for our choices to become unlimited. Still the hand that struck before with the mind that does not wish to strike again until the thought that enters the mind is the love that spirit always offers.