Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Mindfulness: Minding the Gap.


The guy in the bright blue ute who cut me up on my way to work this morning, did not act to make me angry and reality would say that absolutely nothing happened.

I had to brake a bit harder than I wanted and the action disturbed my reverie and highlighted my being absent from what I was supposed to be doing at the time – driving. My mind flashed onto this event bringing to bear all the other times when I have felt discounted, unvalued, taken for granted, ignored or other similar experience. This results in a flash of rage bursting out “How dare he treat me so!” “How dare he put my life in danger.” And I am even further detached from the present moment, in my car, driving, right here right now.

I have no idea about the other person’s intent, motivation or anything. Remembering the recent news story here in Perth about the police pursuing a car that was being driven badly, jumping lights, speeding and failing to stop when instructed to do so despite the red and blue lights and sirens which were clearly in hot pursuit.

Rather than being some juvenile joy-rider on a rampage this particular car stopped in the car park of the local hospital’s Emergency Department and the police discovered that the driver’s partner had literally just given birth on the back seat.

We have well developed systems designed to help us to stay alive and our bodies are designed for wandering around as hunter gatherers in an ecosystem where, for most of our species existence and development, we have been prey in the foodchain and not the top predators that we have become. Actions that our body perceives as threatening trigger an automatic response aimed at improving our chances of survival both as individuals and as a species. The main one of these is commonly called a “fight or flight” response (but which also can contain a freeze element and a nurture element depending on gender and circumstances). This does exactly what it says on the tin and is designed to get us ready to either fight or flee or both.

Evolution has added an extra survival level to this by additionally switching off our thinking in such circumstances. This means we respond much more automatically as we are less likely to survive if we are too busy trying to decide whether it is an Indian, Sumatran or Siberian tiger that is trying to eat us while we admire it’s pretty stripes. Our bodies want a simple response. “Tiger, Run Tiger RUN.”

This is the same response that kicks in when someone else impinges umwanted and uninvited into our world and personal space. Particularly in a bright blue truck. The result is our anger erupts in full flow ready to fight to escape the danger. This response is much stronger in those who have been previously exposed to such behaviours themselves and in the same way, those of us who have been raised in less angry surroundings, will tend to react much less in similar circumstances if at all. There is an elemet of learning here alongside an inherited tendency to react strongly in danger situations.

Between every such stimulus and response there is a gap, no matter how small it is, this gap is still there and can be used to diffuse our negative states. Awareness of our inner lives, past experiences and the conditions that have given rise to our current situation or response, not only allows us to make this gap wider and give us the chance to delay acting so automatically out of anger, but also helps us to gradually reduce our sensitivity to such happenings. Meditation can help us become much more aware of our inner drivers and so help us to control them.

Ill will is an important creator of negative Karma. No matter how exhilarating an angry outburst might be, it leaves long term negative effects on our minds, our physical well being and our relationships.

As the Buddha teaches in the Dhamapada:
An enemy can hurt an enemy,
and a man who hates can harm another man;
but a man’s own mind, if wrongly directed,
can do him far greater harm

He also teaches about anger being a weapon that wounds twice, the person against whom the anger is directed and the person who is angry.
Not for nothing is anger one of the three poisons that drives the wheel of life.

Metta is the antidote to this poison, and the way to widen the gap. Metta and mindfulness meditation in combination can help us to gradually reduce and hopefully finally overcome such a response.

As is also stated in the Dhamapada
For hate is not conquered by hate,
Hate is conquered by love.
This is law eternal.

The London Underground was originally built for carriages that were much shorter than those those which are now standard. Combined with the curving nature of some of the platforms there are frequent announcements “Mind the Gap”, as there can be sizeable spaces between the carriage steps and the edge of the platforms. This space is sufficient to trap an unwary traveller – as witnessed by events on the Perth rail system recently when a man became trapped between the train and the platform.  Fortunately his fellow travellers were able to tilt the train away from the platform just enough so that he could escape.

His fate might have been much worse in London where a live third rail is used to supply electricity to the trains.

It is important to be mindful of the gap between stimulus and response. this will help to reduce the chances of our anger overwhelming us. Being aware of this gap enables us to avoid the trap for the unwary that it represents.

As the Buddha is also reported to have said:

Watch for anger of the body:
Let the body be self controlled.
Hurt not with the body, but use your body well.

Watch for anger of words:
Let your words be controlled.
Hurt not with words, but use your words well.

Watch for anger of the mind:
Let your mind be self controlled.
Hurt not with the mind, but use your mind well.

But most of all


Back to actually trying to practice what I preach.

Sandy Seton-Browne

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Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

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