“Between stimulus and response there is a space, “ writes psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl in his unforgettable memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When we practice mindfulness meditation, we enter the conscious space between stimulus and response. We join a great resistance movement. We resist the automatic flow of reactions and thoughts, turning the light of attention towards our experience. The Zen master Dogen taught: “Take the backward step and shine the light inward.”
The usual meaning of resistance is an opposing force. It can also mean the capacity to withstand outside influences, to ward off a cold, say, or tolerate certain drugs. The English word comes from the late Latin resistere, to hold back. People speak of “the path of least resistance.” The path the Buddha brought was “against the stream,” the path of most resistance. Viva la resistance!
When we enter the still space, when we turn back towards ourselves, we discover that what we really are deep down inside is not a fixed identity, but awareness—an awareness of being alive. This awareness is direct and simple and wordless: in breath and out breath, the sense of being present in a body. And yet, it is quietly amazing. Without any words at all, it carries the sense that we are connected to Being. We can feel as if we are participating in a shared awareness. We can feel as if dust is being blown off an ancient part of our heart that knows what is sacred.
In Parabola, Viktor Frankl’s grandson Alexander Vesely explains how generous Frankl was. He once bought a radio for a stranger because he overheard the man say he couldn’t afford to buy one. How surprising this might seem in a man who endured and witnessed the lowest humanity has to offer. Wouldn’t he save his money? Wouldn’t he do everything he could to wall himself off from strangers and protect himself? Yet he explained to his grandson that buying that radio brought more meaning to his life than saving that $50.
As paradoxical as it might seem to an outside observer, sitting down and turning the light of attention to ourselves, connects us to the shared world. In the still space between stimulus and response, we remember who we really are. We go from there.