Last night at our sangha meeting we had a really interesting discussion about the differences between reacting and responding. Hearing people's thoughts helped me clarify my own about what this means.
When we react, we're on autopilot because our behavior is governed by repetitive conditioning that took place in the past. Something happened in the outside world that wasn't to our liking so we formed a reactive behavior of one sort or another to act as a shield against any potential misery that might come about if things don't go just as we'd like them to. As kids, we'd scream and carry on when we had a parent tell us we couldn't have that cookie before dinner or stay up past our bedtime. We carry our automatic reactions into adulthood, only we've cleverly adapted them so that they seem more justifiable and socially acceptable.
We're only truly free when we're able to pause for a moment before responding to someone or something that pushes our buttons. There is no freedom when we react like a robot: when we do that we're nothing more than a prisoner of our past conditioned experiences.
Those moments of anger are the most difficult to control because when we're angry we often thing we have to respond NOW and in the loudest, boldest way possible. But if we just sit with our anger and get really up close and personal with it, we can see that it doesn't necessarily require the extreme and hurtful behavior we're normally so tempted to attach to it.
As we sit and practice each day, we create more spaciousness in our heads and therefore in our lives. When we function with a mind that is bigger and calmer, we're not as likely to be hasty and hurtful and counterproductive.