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The Power of Choice

When I was growing up, whenever there was irritation or anger amongst us children, my Mum used to say – count to ten. I never understood why she said this, or how it could possibly help and I must say, I never took her advice.

Years later I heard of Victor Frankl – an ongoing inspiration for both my Mum and myself. He was a German, a Jew and a psychiatrist in the time of Nazi Germany. He and his family ended up in separate concentration camps.

In the midst of extreme physical and mental suffering in Auschwitz, he came to the profound conclusion that there was one freedom that could not be taken away from himself or anybody else. This was the freedom to choose our responses in any situation, rather than reacting in ways, destructive to both our self and/or others.

Victor′s response was to study people′s behaviour in the concentration camp and developed a way of understanding and working with people called Logotherapy.

Whenever I have been tempted to react in difficult situations these days, I do my best to remember that even though the challenges I′m facing seem incomprehensible and sometimes feel overwhelming – they fall far short of the extreme situations that Victor had to face.

One of my favourite quotes from this incredible man is:

‘In between stimulus and response there is a space, and within that space is the power to choose our response, rather than being carried away by habitual, often destructive reactions.’

If our reaction is to accommodate to, or rebel against what is unpleasant in our lives, we are not free. Whenever we habitually accommodate to others – there is always an underlying resistance, which sooner or later shows up as resentment. And when we rebel, there is an underlying accommodation to whatever we′re resisting. We can very easily lose sight of the big picture, become tunnel–visioned and only focus on what we′re resisting. And to this extent, what we resist persists and gets stronger and can take up our whole mental space.

I′ve been practising Mindfulness for twenty years and teaching Mindfulness Courses for the last fifteen. One of the powerful skills we learn is to create a conscious space between the difficulties that come towards us, so that we can respond skilfully. We are then able to see the situation for how it actually is, rather than some sort of a threat, which may lead to fear, anxiety, anger and often retaliation to what we think or assume is happening.

So although I was unaware of this at the time, I now understand my Mum′s reasoning for counting to ten before responding, when we were angry. If I′d understood at the time, why it was important to create this space, and how to use it effectively, I would have saved myself a lot of bother over the many intervening years.

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