71 – Breaking the Chain of Reactivity

At any given moment, we’re all acting upon what has been set in motion by others. A central teaching of Buddhism is that we can pause and break the cycle of reactivity. We can learn to be more skillful in how we contribute to the never-ending web of causes and effects going on all around us. In this episode, I will discuss the notion of breaking the chain or reactivity.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism podcast.

This is Episode Number 71. I am your host, Noah  Rasheta. And today I’m talking about breaking the chain of reactivity.

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Before I jump into the topic of the podcast episode, I want to remind you of the Dalai Llama’s advice. Do not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. And this has always been one of the key messages that I try to reinforce throughout the podcast, and in general, with my approach to teaching Buddhist concepts.

All of this is about helping you to become a better whatever you already are. It’s not about changing you from a something to a something else. So keep that in mind.

And the topic I’ve prepared for today is called, Breaking the Chain of Reactivity. Now I think this is a really important topic. If you’ve ever been in London, and you traveled on their Underground, the subway system, you will recognize the phrase or the expression, “Mind the gap.” It’s on the yellow line down by your feet when you are about to board the train. And it’s a warning to mind the gap between the platform and the train. And you hear it over the intercom over and over and over. You always hear them saying, “Mind the gap.” And it’s a fun expression that’s used even as a tourist promotion. Now, you can buy shirts that say, “Mind the gap,” or mugs, or little street signs that have the Underground logo, and this message of, “Mind the gap.” And it’s fun because it’s also a reminder to mind the gap between stimulus and response.

I have a friend who was telling me that, in their family, they’ve kind of adopted this as a motto. And rather than mind the gap, they say, “Gap the mind,” as a reminder to put the gap in their mind between stimulus and response. And in that conversation, and learning a little bit more about how they use this expression, something came up that actually prompted me to clarify this in a podcast episode. It was the idea of how this gap actually works. I think it’s a common misunderstanding to think that the gap between stimulus and response is found in an external circumstance, and then how I feel or react to that.

For example, “You call me a name, and here I am feeling angry. Well, I wasn’t capable of putting the gap between that stimulus and this response.” And that’s the misconception I want to address today. That’s why I’m calling this, Breaking the Chain of Reactivity, because first I want to bring attention to the fact that it’s a chain. It’s not that there’s a stimulus and a response, although there is. It’s more like there’s a stimulus and a response, and that response is the stimulus of the next response. And that chain goes on and on and on. At any given moment, everything that’s happening now is happening because of what happened before. And this is the overall teaching of interdependence.

So you can look at this through the lens of interdependence and start to see, not just this stimulus and response, but what was the … The stimulus is the response to some prior stimulus. And that goes on and on and on, ’cause it’s a chain, and it gets really complex, and it spreads out to the point where we really have no way to know the complexities of the causes and conditions that are leading to this moment, where I am about to interact with it, and perpetuate the causes and conditions from this moment going forward.

So another visual that another friend of mine posted one day on Facebook that I thought was clever and funny. She said, “I’d love to see the gap between stimulus and response when somebody’s throwing a ball at your face.” And I think that’s funny because it’s a fun visual. I don’t know if fun visual is the right word. It’s a humorous visual imagining, especially if no one gets hurt, obviously. But I’m thinking okay, like, so there’s the stimulus. “I’m gonna kick the ball.” And there’s your response. What are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna be reactive and duck? Or are you gonna put a gap there and really think about it? You know, “How fast is that ball coming at my face?” Well, by putting the gap in, boom, you’ve been hit.

But I think the deeper thing of what’s being insinuated with this perpetuates the misconception, right? This isn’t about putting a gap and how I react. We are hardwired to react, right? If you’re walking on a trail, and the bushes start rattling, or you hear a rattling sound, you’re hardwired to react, to jump and run, or do whatever you gotta do, because we’ve evolved to put our safety first to survive. And it’s not conducive to your survival to sit and think, “Is that a rattlesnake? Should I really think this through? Is it necessary for me to get away from this spot?” You know, it doesn’t work that way.

So again, going back to the chain of reactivity, what I wanna highlight here is it’s not just the stimulus and response. It’s, “Where am I in the ongoing chain of reactivity? And at this moment, can I put a pause, and can I become more skillful with how I handle whatever comes next?”

So another visual that I think helps explain this is, when I’m teaching a workshop, I always show a slide, when I’m talking about this topic, of a wall with a hole in it. And it’s obvious by looking at the picture that it’s a hole that somebody punched a wall. And this is the chain of reactivity, right? The gap is between the emotion and the reaction to the emotion. Not necessarily between the event and the emotion. So in that example of the wall, something happened that made that person angry. That’s one stimulus and response. The next one was, “Here I am feeling angry, and I can’t contain the fact that I’m angry, so I’m gonna do something about it. So I punched the wall.” That was another stimulus and response. The stimulus in this case was feeling anger. The response was reacting to the anger by punching something.

So again, the misconception is that mindfulness is going to help me to no longer feel angry. That’s not true. It’s not about not feeling emotions. That’s impossible, right? It’s about what do we do with the anger? The emotions that we feel, they’re all natural. They’re all normal. Some are pleasant. Some are unpleasant. You’re going to be angry. You’re going to be sad. You’re going to be frustrated, right? At different stages of life, under different circumstances, it’s natural to feel these things. You’re going to feel angry if somebody does … If the causes and conditions are met to feel anger, anger arises. Boom. That’s all normal and natural.

What we’re looking at here is, “What do I do with that? Now that I’m experiencing this emotion, now what do I do with it?” That’s where I put the gap. And again, going to this, looking at this as a chain, it may be that the gap happens several links into the chain. “I’m angry. I punched the wall. My hand is bleeding. I’m going to the hospital. I find out how much I have to pay the doctor. Now I start swearing.” You know? Like maybe then, at that moment, I put the gap. “Oh, okay. Now what do I do next?” Well, the very next thing, it can be a continuation of the unskillful reactivity, or it can be the start of a skillful action.

So what I wanna emphasize with this is it’s not about putting this at the beginning. It’s about putting this somewhere in the chain. It may be six links into it that I’m finally capable of stopping and seeing the reactivity, and saying, “Okay, I’m not gonna be reactive any more. Now I’m gonna be more skillful.” And with time, it could get better, but it never reaches the point where I will never be reactive. That’s not the point. The point isn’t to not be reactive, the point is, “Can I stop my reactivity once it starts? Because the reactivity sets me up for more reactivity,” right? I react. That’ another … And then there’s the new stimulus and response.

So the stimulus and response is the chain. Every stimulus has a response, and every response is the stimulus of a new response, and that chain goes on and on and on.

So this is about saying, “Can I put a gap anywhere in the chain?” Sure, it may have been 20 links into it, but that’s better than spending a whole life at reactivity where I never put a gap in it. That’s what this is about.

So the gap is about seeing the stopping of the reactivity. But it doesn’t matter where in the chain, because as soon as I realize it’s all a chain, “Well, I might as well stop it now even though I’m 20 or 30 links into it, because it could have kept going.” So, in that sense, it’s the reactivity to the reactivity that we’re trying to stop. I hope that makes sense.

So the exercise, or the invitation that I would extend to you, as you think about this concept, is try to pause and see if you can detect where you are in the chain of reactivity. Because every single one of us right now is, in the present moment, is … It’s a part of a chain of reactivity. “How did I get here?” Right? “What did it take for this moment to arise?” And you can look at this in several topics in your life with regards to relationships, career decisions. You know, “Why did I just buy this car?” You could pause at any of these moments and say, “Can I start to see some of the stimulus and response, the causes and conditions that have led for this moment to arise?” And that gives me the flexibility to say what comes next, right? The whole concept of what comes next is that is the gap. That is the pause. Because it’s inside of that that I can see, hopefully, in myself, “Am I stopping the reactivity or am I going to be a little bit more skillful in whatever comes next?”

And this can happen, like I said, in many areas of your life. I remember pausing for a moment and recognizing that one of the things I was doing … Eight years into a decision that I made, I could see that I was doing this because of something that had happened that made me feel like, “I need to prove myself, so I’m going to do this or that.” In this case, it was my business. I’ll just kind of give you the background real quick.

So I was feeling a sense of … I guess I was having an issue with my sense of self-worth. And I had this view that if I could build up a big company and prove that I’m a great entrepreneur, then I can restore that sense of self-worth. So here I was eight years later, right? I had built a business and it was really successful. And I was looking at that thinking, “Oh, how funny. I can …” I stopped and I could see, eight years later, this chain of reactivity. Here I was because of something I felt eight years before that made me feel like, “This is how I prove myself. I build a business.”

Now, I say that just because the exercise didn’t make me say, “Okay. Well now I’m gonna give it all up.” That didn’t happen. It took a few more years and my company ended up dying of natural causes later that had nothing to do with that moment of introspection. But I was able to see one aspect in my life where I was continuing the chain of reactivity and caught up in this chain of reactivity. And then I was able to pause and say, “Do I really wanna keep going like this? Or can I be more skillful with what I do next?” And it gave me that sense of freedom in my career choice. “What do I wanna do next with my career?” But that insight came from pausing and seeing long, long ago, the start of that specific chain of causes and conditions that I was caught in.

And, like I said, you can look at this in a lot of aspects of your life. But I do wanna emphasize, the purpose of this isn’t to say, “Okay, I’m gonna change everything right now, immediately.” That might not be skillful either. Especially like relationships, right? It’s not like, “Okay. Well, fine. You were my friend but I see I became your friend out of reactivity and that’s it. Now I don’t need your friendship.” And, boom. You get rid of a friend. That’s not it either. It’s putting the gap, wherever you are in the present moment and saying, “Could this be more skillful?” That’s what you’re after.

So, again, why do we wanna mind the gap? Why do we want to break the chain of reactivity? Don’t think of this in terms of right and wrong, or where I am and where I could be that would be better than where I am. Think of it in terms of skillful action versus unskillful reactivity. “All I’m trying accomplish in my life through this exercise is to see in what areas of my life am I caught up in unskillful reactivity. And can I put a pause there and change that to have more skillful action moving forward?”

I mean, just imagine for a moment how much more enjoyable your life could be if you developed the ability to be more skillful in your actions, rather than just remaining unskillfully reactive to everything that unfolds. “This happens and then I reacted this way.” And it might be 10 years later I realize, “Oh, man! I’ve been reactive this whole time.” Imagine preventing that by developing this ability that, at any given moment, you can kind of just start to pause and say, “What am I reacting to? What in my life am I doing out of a sense of reactivity?” And is it skillful, at this point, to pause and say, “How do I wanna move forward next?”” but that’s really what this is about.

And you can correlate all of this with the concept or the teaching of karma, which the word karma itself simply means action. That’s all it means. At any given moment, we’re all acting on the karma that has been set in motion by others, and by life in general, right?

So the central teaching of karma is that we can pause, and we can break the cycle of reactivity. It’s in that mindful pause that we have the freedom to choose a more skillful action to contribute to that never-ending web of causes and conditions that we’re all a part of. So when I start to see that in myself, that life is unfolding in all these complex ways. And yet I am interacting with life as it unfolds, and my very interaction with it affects everyone else.

Now some of the obvious ones, for me, are my kids, my wife, people close to me, right? There’s how I’m handling life, and the things that life throws at me, that are directly affecting their lives. I’m influencing the causes and conditions that they will be working with in their life.

So, for me, there’s a sense of responsibility where I can pause and say, “Am I doing this the most skillfulled way possible?” And again, I cannot overemphasize, it’s not, “Am I doing this right?” Or, “Am I doing it wrong?” None of us are doing anything right. We’re all just trying our best with the very limited knowledge we have of what we’re doing, right?

So what I’m trying to get at is, “Could this be more skillful, the way I’m handling life as it unfolds, or am I just reacting to everything? Everything that happens, I’m just reacting. Do I wanna go through life unskillfully reactive to everything? Or do I want to be more skillful with my actions to life as it unfolds?”

So that’s what I’m trying to get at. The action, karma, it’s the action that’s taken. It’s not the result. I think a lot of times we get caught up with this, about the results. It’s about results. This is kind of flipping it and saying it’s not about results. Sometimes we don’t know what the results are, right? “I do this and that happens. I didn’t know that that was gonna happen.” We don’t know. We don’t know the results. This is where the story of the horse, and who knows what is good and bad, right? We don’t know. This is about the action. “Is the action I’m taking skillful, or is this just a form of reactivity?” That’s the invitation with this overall discussion, that I hope you can listen to this and say, you know, “What areas of my life am I more reactive? And what would life look like if I could swap that reactivity for something that’s just a little bit more skillful and deliberate with my actions? I’d rather have skillful actions than unskillful reactions.”

So I hope that makes sense. And again, this isn’t about getting rid of reactions, right? Again, the example of walking down a path and hearing rustling in the bushes. Like, you’re hardwired to be reactive. So reactivity is not the problem. It’s taking that natural tendency to be reactive that we’ve all evolved with, and extending it into everything. You know, “I’m losing a job.” Boom. “I’m just as reactive as if I’m walking and the bush is rattling.” Well, in one of those scenarios it’s not so skillful to react the way that you’re reacting. So, “Can I put a pause in the reactivity of the reactivity?” Not in the initial reactivity. The pause happens in the reactivity to the reactivity, somewhere in that chain. And like I said, it might be five links in. It might be 20 links in. And then I’m capable of pausing, and saying, “Okay, is this the most skillful way to handle what’s happening? Maybe yes. Maybe no. And if it’s no, then I’m gonna change my course of action.”

That is karma in action. At that moment, the action that I took is more skillful than the action that would have been taken had I continued down the path of reactivity only. So I minimize suffering for myself and others. That’s how it works.

So the misconception is thinking, “I’ll never react.” Don’t think of it like that. Think of, “At what point in my reactivity can I notice that I’ve been reactive? And now I’m gonna be skillful with what comes next in that chain of reactivity.” That’s how I would invite you to think about this.

And if you can start to see that in your life, you’ll feel an incredible sense of liberation. What is the liberation from? It’s liberation from the reactivity. Nobody wants to be caught up in a reactive way of living. That’s not enjoyable. And the moment you can see that, and you understand interdependence, you become liberated from the reactivity. That’s what you become liberated from. And, man, that’s a great feeling to see that in your own life, in different aspects of your life, and say, “I’m not gonna continue this reactivity. I’m gonna try something different.”

So that’s the topic that I have for you. I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode. Feel free to share it, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes.

As always, if you would like to join our online community to continue conversations around these topics, you can visit secularbuddhism.com/community And on that page there are links to our Facebook groups.

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And that’s all I have for now. But I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon.

So thank you for listening. Until next time!

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.