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You ALWAYS have a choice

Choices, change, and mindful self-awareness

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius

Life is full of challenges, most of which we have no control over. This might sound a little disheartening, but grasping this fully can save you a lot of pain.

Why?

Because we ALWAYS have control over how we respond to challenging events, even extremely difficult ones.

During his 27 year prison sentence, Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his time on Robben Island where he was made to work under torturous conditions. His cell was tiny, measuring only 8 x 7 feet, and had nothing but a bucket and a straw bed. Instead of letting external circumstances control his behaviour however, there was lots of reflecting, contemplating, and meditation, which he used to sharpen his mind. He even kept his wit and cool according to his Lawyer, George Bizos.

Holocaust survivor and famous psychotherapist Viktor Frankl used similar tactics to survive the abject misery of four concentration camps. He was subjected to horrific crimes, including torture, starvation and the expectancy of hourly extermination. He had lost everything, including his entire family who perished in the camps. Yet Frankl continued to exercise the most important freedom of all, the freedom to control his own his inner-life, as he alone decided how he responded to the appalling circumstances.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl

These are extreme examples, but provide powerful demonstrations of our capacity to be the masters of our own faith.

So how do we mere mortals respond in such a way?

The key is to stop trying to control external events, and focus on our response to them.

This we can influence.

Ironically, if we do this, our influence over external events will expand. This is what Nelson Mandela done, and through his composure, charisma, and dignified defiance, even the most heartless prison guards eventually bent to his will.

Concern Vs Influence

In his best-selling book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey distinguishes between things in our Circle of Concern and things in our Circle of Influence.

The Circle of Concern (blue area) primarily consists of external events, things we have little influence over.

The Circle of Influence (white area) consists of things we have lots of influence over.

Each circle shrinks or expands depending on where you put your efforts.

The question is – where should you focus your time and energy?

Proactive people (i.e. people who make things happen) tend to put their energy into the things in their Circle of Influence; and as a result, expand their Circle of Concern. For example, a proactive person who is worried about world suffering might learn skills to help people with mental health issues. Similarly, an individual who is troubled by what people think of them might work on developing their own self-worth. In this way, they are responding to external events by working on things they can do something about. This results in positive energy.

In contrast, individuals who put their efforts into their Circle of Concern tend to focus on things they can do little about. They might complain about the weather, political issues or the behaviour of other people. This results in blaming, accusing, and dramatizing, and they might even act like the victim. This produces very negative energy, and typically causes their Circle of Influence to shrink.

The point is…

We are entirely capable of deciding how things will affect us and how we will respond.

If we focus on the Circle of Concern, we empower the things within it to control us. If we focus on the Circle of Influence, we are the ones in charge.

“People are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them” Epictetus

We ALWAYS have a choice.

First and Second Darts

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami

Life is challenging, and we all struggle from time to time.

But if you look closely…

Is it the challenge, or your reaction to it, that causes most of your suffering?

In his New York Times best-selling book Buddha’s Brain, Dr Rick Hanson provides a superb description of this process in terms of first and second darts.

First darts involve somewhat unavoidable discomforts, both physical and mental. For example, the pain from putting your hand on a hot stove is a sure sign that you need to take urgent action. Similarly, feeling distressed when a loved one is suffering is an inevitable reaction because you are emotionally invested in your own tribe.

These inescapable and uncomfortable experiences are the first darts. They are indeed unpleasant, and as long as you live and love, some of these will land on your doorstep.

In reality however, most of our suffering is not about first darts, it is about our secondary reaction to them.

Second darts are the darts we throw at ourselves. They are the reactions we have to the first darts, and most of our suffering comes from them.

Consider these examples:

You walk into your sitting room and stub your toe off your child’s/sibling’s toy; that’s the first dart. The second dart, anger, immediately follows: “what the hell did you leave that there for”. Second darts frequently trigger more second darts. You might now feel guilty about your anger, and sorrowful about your guilt.

Take another example. Your heart sinks when a close friend changes plans to do something more exciting. This is the first dart; but now you feel rejected (second dart) as a result of past experiences. There might even be valid reason for your friend’s behaviour, but you are completely absorbed in your sense of rejection, the second dart.

It is these secondary reactions to distressing life experiences that are often more destructive than the experiences themselves.

First darts result in wounds, second darts keep them open.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Secondary reactions are not set in stone. It’s not easy, far from it, but you ALWAYS have a choice.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius

This also works for relationships, which Viktor Frankl puts best: “No one can hurt you without your consent.”

So how can we avoid, or at least limit, these second dart reactions?

Instead of resisting or avoiding first darts, we can accept them for what they are. It is our resistance to pain that creates more pain.

We can stop obsessing about the initial painful experience (first dart). Thinking about what you should have done won’t change a thing.

We can sit with and feel first dart pain in mindful awareness. This might sound contradictory, but focusing on the pain actually diminishes its power more rapidly.

Take Away Message

We ALWAYS have a choice over how we respond to challenging events.

Yes, it can be extremely difficult. It might even seem impossible, but this is not the case.

Practice is key, especially with smaller challenges, and when it comes to tougher tests you will be much better prepared.

So the next time you sense a first dart, accept it for what it is. Don’t dwell on how you might have avoided it. Sit with the pain, feel it to its fullest. Go inward instead of outward. You might just be surprised by the results.

I have personally found mindfulness to be enormously helpful when faced with challenging and painful events. A daily practice of mindful self-observation has proved particularly powerful in this regard. When challenges arise, as they always do, there is now a space, and it greatly reduces the suffering that comes my way.

I’ll leave you with a favourite quote of mine. It was spoken by Victor Frankl, and in my opinion, conveys the essence and fruits of mindfulness in term of choice and freedom.

“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.” – Viktor Frankl

I write regularly for A Lust for Life, but feel free to follow my articles on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You will also find a collection of my articles on publishing platforms Thrive Global and Medium

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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