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March 27, 2024 5 minutes to read ∙ 1200 words

Mindfulness 101: Mindfulness and the Space Between Stimulus and Response

Scott L. Rogers

We are continuously taking action and making decisions—be they actions made on impulse in the heat of the moment, decisions enacted after due deliberation, or even inaction where we refrain from saying or doing anything. A thoughtful comment on the intentionality of our decision-making, often attributed to psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl, provides:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.

The diagram below depicts the metaphorical space between what happens to us in life and what happens next.

Stimulus (what happens in life)    Space    Response (what happens next)

Many of us have an intuitive sense of this space and its influence, though it can seem shrouded in mystery. Just what is it that distinguishes between those moments when we are clear-minded and emotionally steady from those when we are more distracted, impulsive, and emotionally reactive?

In this month’s column, we’ll shine a little light into this “space,” which can help elucidate what it means to be more mindfully aware and why practicing mindfulness can be helpful to our decision-making.

Three Fingers Pointing Inward

It’s all too easy to blame others when things appear to go wrong. Not only do people make mistakes or fall short of our expectations, but they tend to be front and center when things go off. And while we can point our finger at them and feel a measure of relief for thinking that we have identified the cause of the problem, all too often we miss the point—and the true source of our grief. Even when there is no one else around, we can identify something around us that is not quite as it should be, as if that explains the problem. But, as the saying goes, the finger pointed outward distracts us from the three fingers pointing inward, and it may well be that the source of the lion’s share of our agitation can be located within. These three fingers point to three all-too-familiar internal experiences that we tend to overlook at our peril: thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Reconsider the diagram above, but with these internal experiences placed at the center:

Stimulus (what happens in life)    Thoughts/Feelings/Body Sensations    Response (what happens next)

If the space between stimulus and response were physical, it would be found largely between our ears. Within that space, we would find an ever-changing landscape of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. When things happen that are undesirable and unwanted, these thoughts, feelings, and body sensations take shape in ways we experience as unpleasant and aversive. A challenging situation arises that we perceive to be problematic, and we mobilize to take on the alleged threat. Thoughts, feelings, and body sensations are the internal data that alert us that something is wrong and the energizing force that mobilizes us to do something about it. As we do, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations resume a more steady and quiescent state.

Often, due to things as long-standing as our life’s conditioning, as transient as the ambient context, or as irrelevant as how much we slept last night or when we last ate, our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations can be out of proportion to what is transpiring. Is the person who is yelling at us an actual threat to our safety or someone feeling confused or sad and unable to communicate it more effectively? Is the person who cut us off in traffic a menace to society who should have his license revoked or someone who drove carelessly—for unknown reasons—but who is now driving better or at least is long gone?

An interesting paradox is that the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that inform our assessment of a stimulus and help to discern the difference between a real and imagined threat are the very same thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that can be triggered and distort our perception of things.

Fortunately, the space to which Frankl refers is not a physical one, at least not in this sense. While thoughts, feelings, and body sensations arise between stimulus and response, the space refers not to what arises but to an ever-present quality that observes what arises. We can refer to it as mindfulness or as mindful awareness.

Mindfulness and Mindfulness Practices

When our mindfulness is strong, we are better focused, less likely to become distracted, and more able to regulate our emotions. The neuroscientist Amishi Jha writes:

Mindfulness is a mental mode characterized by attention to present-moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.

The present-moment experience to which Jha refers includes the arising of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. To the extent we can assess these phenomena without exaggeration and agitation, we are better equipped to make good decisions. The difficulty arises when our ability to observe thoughts, feelings, and body sensations collapses as we get caught up in them.

When we practice mindfulness, we strengthen our capacity to observe what arises without getting lost in it. For example, the Focused Attention practice trains us to notice when thoughts arise. The Body Scan practice develops our capacity to hold steady as we experience fluctuations of agitation in the body. The Open Monitoring practice deepens our ability to experience a range of feelings and to observe them as they intensify and lessen as they come and go. (This brief description of these three primary mindfulness practices is somewhat oversimplified as all of them reinforce and strengthen similar capacities, but you may find it helpful as a starting point for what to practice. Click here to learn a little more about these practices).

While the object of these practices seems to involve thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, what is really being developed is the ability to observe them. We could say that as this capacity develops, we more fully inhabit the space between stimulus and response.

Frankl’s quote concludes:

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Each time you practice mindfulness, you spend time observing the three fingers of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. As this capacity to observe develops, you become less likely to be triggered by these experiences or captivated by the endless stories you tell yourself about what your experience means and what you need to do about it. Establishing a practice routine sets in motion a slow and steady shift to spending more time inhabiting the space between stimulus and response and less time getting lost in it. This is, indeed, a great freedom and catalyst for growth, personally and professionally.

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Scott L. Rogers

University of Miami School of Law

Scott L. Rogers is a nationally recognized leader in the area of mindfulness and law, as well as a teacher, researcher, and trainer. He is founder and director of the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program, and he co-founded and co-directs the University of Miami’s Mindfulness Research & Practice Initiative. Scott is the author of six books, including the recently released The Mindful Law Student: A Mindfulness in Law Practice Guide.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 13, Number 8, March 2024 . © 2024 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.