The Art of Non-Reaction

The Art of Non-Reaction

Tweet.  Text.  E-Mail. Instant Message.

Ring.  Buzz.  Growl.  Chime.

By the time you are done reading this post, you’ve likely received multiple requests for your attention.  Perhaps they came in the form of notifications on a shiny new Apple device.  Or maybe they were interruptions from your office environment around you.   If you are not in your office on your Apple device, perhaps you are walking down the street.  Or sitting in a noisy cafe.  I’d venture to guess that, by way of selection bias of you being connected to the internet, you are in a place wherein you are consistently showered with units of new information.

Noise and Silence

The digital age is upon us and humanity is awash in a newfound abundance of information!  Glorious isn’t it?  It is wonderful, we truly do live in a gilded age.  A world of abundance!  Infinite possibilities!  That said, it is perhaps a world out of balance.  As the saying goes “Everything is good in moderation”.  I, for one, do get the feeling that our collective psyche has been struggling to keep up with the pace of digital innovation.  This struggle to keep up manifests as a race to increase output through consistent connectedness, skillful creation, and clever multi-tasking. It’s a struggle that for reasons economic, physiological, and psychological in nature, we 21st-century citizens must endure.

One wonders: Does information ever become just noise?  Is there ever more value in silence than in information?  Does that struggle to keep up ever become a self-destructive habit?  Based upon my own experience, I must answer:  yes, yes, and yes.   I have a friend who brings their radio into the shower because they “don’t like the silence”.   I know runners who jog to music because it “takes their mind off the pain”.  Have you ever found yourself mindlessly surfing reddit or clicking through a high-school friend’s photos? I have.  Every morning I feel the irresistible draw of my iPhone Inbox first thing in the morning.  I must admit that I am addicted to information.

Struggle and Suffering

So if information abundance is a modern reality — one which raises a nations GDP but not necessarily it’s citizens enlightenment — does the fact that we struggle with it mean that we must suffer in the meantime?

Forgive the hippie cliches emanating from my fingers through your monitor — but is there a way to free my mind from the tyranny of this struggle?  If the world won’t stop provoking me through eliciting my reactions to it’s information, then is my modern life condemned to a state of digital bondage?  Am I a powerless automaton floating in a sea of web marketers manipulating my ego for my attention (and my wallet)?  After 5 years of often-thankless 60-hour weeks launching my startup  — I believe there is something practical to be gained by studying my own relationship to information.   Since my chances of changing the media landscape around me are nill, I’ve lately find myself looking for skillful ways to cultivate boundaries within my own life to curtail it.  I know that I can struggle, achieve, even be more productive all the while not suffering.  And I think that it all starts with the mastery of the art of non-reaction.

If you’ve read this far — you must think I am some burnt out hippy.  Maybe I am.  Maybe not.  Let’s continue anyhow.

Undo-ing Conditioned Reaction

If you pay attention to your thoughts, you will find that your immediate reaction to big news, good or bad, is always the most primal.   You’ll see the irrational, sometimes unproductive, response sent directly from your gut to your lizard brain.  Usually it hits me physiologically — just as I hear it, my pulse quickens, my breath skips a beat, and my mind rushes to judgement.

  • “Kevin, the site is offline”.  Fucking fuck fuck – seriously?
  • “Hey Kevin, report X does not match up with report Y.” God damnit – again?
  • “Hey Kee, the registration flow hasn’t worked in IE8 for the past 3 weeks. Our CPA is up 18%”  Srsly?  Christ. Kill me

For the sake of the struggle, it is important to respond.  And to do it quickly.  As lead developer at StepOut, I’m on call 3 days a week — I respond quick as shit.  Being Indias number one dating site, our peak usage time is in the middle of the night and I often have to respond then.  But sometimes if I am not mindful, this habit of impulsive responsiveness compulsively bleeds into situations with less urgency.

  • “Kevin, what are you up to tonight?”
  • “Hey Kee, can you deliver that ERP report by EOW?”
  • “Hey Kev, how was your weekend?  Let’s get the creatives for project Y started.”
  • … and the to-do list goes on and on…

This compulsive responsiveness isn’t just limited to direct queries for my attention.  It  happens with more implicit requests too.  Subliminal cues from my environment also elicit a lizard brain response.

  • See brownie.  Get Excited. Eat brownie.
  • See advertisement.  Want product.  Buy product.
  • Bang knee.  Feel Pain.  Curse Uncontrollably.

Input begets Response.  Action creates Reaction.  Question solicits Answer.  Unless we can de-couple the length of our todo list from our mental well-being, the end result is a stressed mental state.

The world controls you through eliciting reactions. If you get a cookie, you react happily. Therefore cookies control you. If someone calls you a bad word, you react with fury. Therefore words control you. If you hate working, your job becomes slavery. Therefore…I think you get the picture.

But in non-reaction, there is bliss. You can look into the face of a miserable sunny day indoors and sigh contentedly.

How does this work? I’ll tell you.

During meditation, we watch our thoughts. Most people labor under the delusion that you have to clear your mind and push all of your thoughts away to meditate. This is wrong. Instead, you watch your thoughts. They come and go like fish in a stream and, like fish in a stream, you catch and release them.

By doing this, you eventually discover that you are not your thoughts but rather the space they appear within. You find a continuity of self between fleeting thoughts and sensations.

— Lazy Yogi

This month, I’m working on breaking the vicious cycle of stimulus and response.  I’m going to focus on skillful non-reaction.  When I receive a request that is not urgent, it’s going on my to-do list, not on the top of my mental execution stack.


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