Anyone who knows me knows how obsessed I am with psychologists. I think everyone should see one at least once in a while, regardless of your situation. A therapist can be both a sounding board and a voice of reason, helping you to untangle your thoughts, or, as mine so beautifully put it, “to hold your hand as you walk through life”.
Which is why when she texted me some recommended homework after a session earlier this year, I took note. “Watch ‘Learning to Respond, Not React’ by Tara Brach on YouTube,” she wrote me. I immediately pulled it up.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was watching. An American woman sitting in front of a Buddha statue and lecturing in a hall. Her talk seemed spiritual. Why did my therapist want me to watch this? Wasn’t psychology based on science?
Fast forward to now and it’s a video I think about nearly every single day—and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s impacted not only everything I do, but also how I interpret the actions of others. So, what’s it all about?
As the title suggests, the clip focuses on training yourself to respond, not react—a concept that’s been around for centuries. In fact, in ancient times, a Chinese philosopher was quoted as saying: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?”.
To explain the concept, reactions are instant. Knee-jerk behaviour. They’re driven by beliefs, prejudices, biases and fears determined by our subconscious mind whose main goal is our survival.
Responses, meanwhile, come more slowly. They’re based on information from both the conscious and unconscious mind and have taken into account the long-term effects of your actions. When you respond, you’re taking the emotion out of a situation and seeing it for what it is. As a result, you’re acting more rationally.
To give you an example, recently, a friend of mine had invited me and another friend over for dinner. I was looking forward to it all week. When he cancelled the morning of, saying he didn’t feel comfortable having us over with his new housemate and asking us whether we could do it somewhere else, I was annoyed. “I could’ve had it at mine if I’d known earlier, but now I don’t have enough time to prepare,” I texted back. The dinner didn’t end up happening.
A couple days later, I saw my friend. He explained that, since his new housemate had moved in, he’d had a few friends over and she’d seemed irritated. The night before the planned dinner, she’d closed herself in her room. He hadn’t wanted to further rock the boat.
My friend didn’t like that I’d seemed to take the cancellation so personally. I hadn’t even bothered to ask about why he thought having us over might be uncomfortable for her. Or tried to help come up with a solution. I’d reacted, rather than responded. And, in the end, I’d lost out.
So, how can we learn to respond?
In the YouTube clip, Brach, a psychologist known for blending together Western psychology with Eastern spiritual practice (hence the Buddha), offers three key strategies. She calls them “invitations” and explains that they’re designed to “free ourselves and wake ourselves up out of the chain reactions”. They are:
- Don’t believe your thoughts,
- Pause and come back into presence,
- And remember love—in some way, whatever way.
“By de-conditioning habitual reactivity, we are increasingly able to respond to our life circumstances in ways that serve healing and awakening,” she writes in the video’s description.
If you’re reading this thinking, “Woah, boy, this has gotten way too hippie-dippie for me,” I get it. The first couple of times I watched the video and learnt about the concept, I thought that too.
But while there are elements of spirituality to it, it’s mostly based on science. In recent years, more and more research has been done on mindfulness (becoming aware of your thoughts) and its impact on our bodies and brains.
I’ve only skimmed the surface here, but if it’s piqued your interest and you’re keen to learn more, I’d recommend you listen to Tara Brach’s podcasts on Apple and Spotify. And another one of her talks on YouTube: Rewiring for Happiness and Freedom, Part I.
And of course, here’s the video that first introduced me to it all: