In life, when something (usually unexpected) pops up, there’s two ways we can proceed: we can react, or we can respond.
They may sound the same, but they are different. A reaction is an automatic impulse that usually is aimed directly back at the incoming force. It, at best, resets the situation. At worse, our automatic flailing further mires us or even might make things worse.
To respond, however, is to take what’s coming in and move it where we want it. We listen, we engage, we reflect, we direct, and we bring it to a place of resolution. In responding we have both agency and flexibility.
Perhaps the best way I got to experience this difference – and thus learn to distinguish them for myself – was through Sifu, especially through our push hands exercises. With an incoming force, to react is to resist and push back. Again, at best this might stop the incoming force, resetting the situation and allowing things to start anew. More often than that, however, reacting causes us to stiffen or to overreach, leaving us spent, off balance, and open for an exploit. And against someone with good sensitivity (ie, someone who is trained in responding), our reactive energy can even be used against us.
But when we learn to respond, an incoming force is not a crisis. It is just an incoming force. We can feel it, sense it, know its direction, know its intent, recognize what could be done, and then guide it to a place of safety – or beyond, harnessing it for our advantage.
No surprise, so too it goes in our lives. With mindfulness and practice* we gain access to the beauty of responding. A world of equanimity opens up, and with it the ability to create outcomes that empower and enliven ourselves, those around us, and the community at large.
* Especially in dealing with and doing the work to remove our “buttons” and worries and concerns and etc that have us freak out or get defensive, things that very much almost force us to react forcibly…