4. The Trouble with Reacting…

ChemicalFinal_smallHow does it feel to be really relaxed and calm?  What are the features of this state?  In order to tease out this question I would like to offer the following hypothesis:

“Calmness is any moment where I do not need to react in order to get rid of anything that is here, or react in order to get anything that is not here.”

Basically, everything is groovy and I am chilled.  If this hypothesis is correct then our reactions must play a significant role in the generation of a lack of calmness.

Human Reactor

We humans are constantly, often automatically, reacting to all aspects of our experience. We react with our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and ultimately, our behaviour. Often these reactions are helpful and appropriate, however sometimes they are unbeneficial and cause us extra problems.  For this reason, in the mindfulness courses that I run in London, we spend a lot of time becoming more curious about the mechanisms of how we react.

Yum and Yuck!

Think for a moment about the things you react to most, the people, situations, thoughts, etc, that get you all fired up.  Is it true that these are either things you want to get rid of (those deemed unpleasant) or things you want to get or keep (those deemed pleasant)?

The first of these is an aversive reaction to how things are in the moment.  I’m bored, boredom is unpleasant and I want to be entertained.  I might react with a physical fidgeting, then feelings of restlessness, followed by thoughts about what I can do to escape and finally behaviour such as going to the fridge.  My moment is impoverished because I do not want what this moment is serving me up.  I am stressed and we are out of ice cream!

The flip side of the coin is when I want something I do not have and need to react in order to get it.  I might see an advert for my boyhood-dream car, which elicits a warm fuzzy sensation, followed by a feeling of lust, and then thoughts of how poor I am as a mindfulness teacher.  Again I am distressed, this time by what I do not have in the moment.

Awareness Gives us Power

On the mindfulness course we start by training our minds to notice our very subtle reactions.  We do not try to change them or stamp them out, we just bring awareness to the myriad reactions that are automatic and below the radar. This facilitates a process where we naturally develop more control over them, learning which are unbenificial and which are helpful.

Equanimity and Calmness

Being given the gift of life means that we encounter a measure of challenges and difficulties as well as the good stuff.  While both these are inevitable, through minding our reactions we can learn to enjoy the pleasure more and not add the layers of extra suffering that we tend to heap on the fire.  We may find much of our suffering is actually voluntary and not necessary.

We can learn to develop equanimity and the experience of this supports our earlier hypothesis.  Maybe calmness is the ability to hold whatever is here with balance.  Maybe I can gently hold my boredom with kindness and gentleness.  Maybe I can care for it and give it my attention.

Maybe I do not need to suffer the ignominy of desperately searching for an ice cream shop at 4am…




Christopher Gaia is a mindfulness teacher, teaching courses in Chelsea, London.  He has a 5 year MSc. Training in Teaching Mindfulness Based Courses from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University. He has over 20 years of experience of mindfulness practice and has completed post graduate research into mindfulness and self-compassion. He is also a registered Osteopath, working in Chelsea and Balham.