By Dr. Carlos Salazar
You look around a mildly packed compartment riding the Piccadilly line to Arsenal, unsure if the stale, sour odor of one too many pints and kabobs is native to the cart, or hitching a ride on someone’s coat. In either case, your nose wrinkles at the slight affront to its senses. The train comes to a slowing halt, a squeal of the brakes ringing through the cabin as your momentum arrests, but not before being slightly jostled in the reverse direction. The doors open and the scent redoubles its efforts on your nose with a warm whoosh of air, now carrying the smell of slightly damp concrete. What was once a nuisance is now a foul insult. Seems everyone had too good a night. As you step from the train into Arsenal Station, careful not to step in a puddle of… well, you’d rather not guess, you see the famous words on the floor: MIND THE GAP. Finally, you step up the stairs, grateful for a breath of fresh air.
Take a second before we go over what all this has to do with mental wellbeing, and think about any reactions you just had.
Maybe you shrank back a bit at the smells. Or you identified with the physical feeling of coming to a stop in a train cart. Maybe the sounds connected with you. Whatever it may have been, chances are you put yourself in a London Underground cart as best you could. If I did this right, you had a genuinely disgusted reaction. Let’s focus on that. Did your stomach drop or flip a little? How about your salivation, does your mouth feel a little drier than it did before? Yes? Why? “Well that story was gross!” Ok, yes. But. Why? Where are your feet right now? This particular Underground ride never happened, none of us were there. It wasn’t real. Really think about that. Your mouth dried up because for a few seconds, your mental environment was more real than wherever you may be now.
You see, we tend to prioritize what happens in our mind over what is actually happening in real time. This has been a boon to our survival as a species. No other animal can “what if” their way through a problem. But do you mind the gap? How many times have you acted out in anger? Or been so happy, you splurged on something? Been so sad that you cancelled all your plans for the day, or the week?
You didn’t mind the gap! It is worth repeating, your mental environment is more real than your physical one. If you experienced a reaction from the brief exercise above, imagine what you do to yourself from hours of worrying and ruminating day after day.
Austrian neuropsychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, is credited with this quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Noticing and connecting with that space is minding the gap! To be more precise, we are talking about being mindful of the gap between a stimulus, both external and internal, and our response. Dr. Frankl was being generous in calling our behavior a “response.” A response, to me, requires choice. If you are not mindful of the space, then I would say you react to a stimulus, not respond. A reaction is mindless, it’s when you set yourself to autopilot and fall back to base programming. And our base programming is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain. When we mind the gap, we have the ability to acknowledge the situation as it is, acknowledge our own internal experience, and then choose how we want to respond. So, how do we mind the gap?
Wait. That thing where you breathe and pay attention to your breathing? Yes! I love mindfulness, but far too often mindfulness is given as the solution to helping cope with anxiety, depression, fear, that terrifying last minute when you’re pulling into your home and really, really need to use the bathroom.
Here’s the deal though, mindfulness is a means to an end, it is a vehicle, it is a tool, it is not the goal. Mindfulness exercises help you be more aware of the gap, so the next time you get upset, or start down the rabbit hole of “what ifs,” you are more likely to stop, pause, and consider how you would like to respond, instead of react to the situation.
So, how do you engage in mindfulness?
The simplest exercise is to sit back and breathe. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest and shoulders. To the air coming in and out your nose and those pesky thoughts that interrupt you. Yes, really. Notice the thought, give it a second of attention and bring your attention back to your breathing. If anything, be happy that you noticed that thought! You can’t notice that you are distracted without being mindful, so every time you recognize you are distracted, you’re working out that mindfulness muscle.
Practice this, do more challenging exercises and soon enough you will have built up the mental muscle memory to bring your attention back when you want to. Check back next time for a few resources for you to take advantage of and get your (mental) workout on. You can do this.
Just. Mind the gap.