If we assume that action is a given -- i.e. events that come at us from the external world -- then our own possibility for engagement begins the moment the stimulus ends. At this moment our most natural engagement is instant reaction. We see this in the form of emotion, behavior or words that erupt out of us automatically, without the opportunity to first reflect or choose. The rush of happiness when we are praised or the rush of anger of defensiveness when insulted, for example. In this state, we are at the mercy of our pre-programmed understanding of the world, usually based on what we have experienced and learned from the world. While this "knee-jerk" reaction is at times useful and based in survival, it is certainly not always the one that provides the best results. We see this in everyday arguments that erupt from the most mundane of provocations. We also see this in massive world conflict based on a history of associations and experiences.
But what would happen if our reactions weren't so instantaneous? What if we could suspend our programmed instinct and build in a moment of pause, like floating in the brief second of space between a breath's inhalation and exhalation? Or like standing for a moment longer in the doorway between one room and another, having already left the first room but not yet stepped foot in the second?
This golden space is encapsulated by the Japanese foundational, artistic and cultural concept of Ma. It allows those who are aware of it to possess a greater vocabulary regarding how they react to everything that happens in their worlds. And because our options for reaction are actually limitless, nourishing our awareness of this space fosters our capacity to engage with our lives in more meaningful ways.
So how can we build up this capacity? As mentioned, the pursuit of this self-awareness capacity building has no lack of associated practices to help get you there. On a very simple level however, three practices that can help cultivate this space are (1) taking a moment to name actions before engaging with reactions, (2) letting go of expectations, and (3) viewing ourselves as separate from our emotions.
Naming the action refers to consciously seeing and identifying what is happening around us. It means objectively identifying an external impulse as soon as we become aware of it: noticing unpleasant words from someone else just for the words themselves and not the impact they have on you, or viewing a personally successful achievement just for the accomplishment itself and not via the corresponding pride we feel as a result of it. As a process, naming the action extends the space between its occurrence and our reaction to it. It gives us time.
Letting go of expectations references our capacity to recognize that while we all carry with us experiences that influence our views and understanding of the world, we still each possess the capacity to react in fresh and unexpected ways. By doing so we allow ourselves to be present to the actual moment rather than a product of our pasts. While not always easy, building up awareness around this can be incredibly liberating as it allows us to act independent from "what we always have done." Without expectations we allow ourselves to engage with agenda-less being and feel whatever comes to us in the moment while reveling in that void. This is exactly that space previously identified between Action.....Reaction.