The High-Definition Experience of Scaring Yourself Half to Death

I have a love/hate relationship with those giant water slides, especially the ones that go straight down. The hate side is easy. They’re terrifying. At 46, I’m too old to be up there, teetering on the edge, staring down a steep drop that makes my heart race and my palms sweat. Sitting on the top of the slide, ready to plunge, I question my sanity. What am I doing here? I could be relaxing by the pool, enjoying a cold drink, instead of subjecting myself to this self-inflicted torture.

Adventures Life Lessons Meditation

A Meditation on Skiing

We just got back from a skiing vacation. Skiing is a bit of a non-intuitive vacation. Why would a person want to spend their hard-earned money and vacation time in a cold, physically punishing environment? For the challenge. The challenge in skiing is commonly thought to be pushing your body to its limits in harsh conditions, but the real challenge is to ignore all of the distractions and mindfully focus on the mountain.


Making Space for Stimulus and Response

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduces a concept that has the potential to transform lives. There’s a moment that exists between stimulus and response, offering us the freedom to choose how we react. He makes it seem so easy. But in reality, it’s a split second between what happens to us and how we respond, and catching it feels like trying to grasp the wind. As simple and powerful as Covey makes it sound, tapping into this power is no small feat.

It’s far easier to go with our gut, to let our impulses take the wheel. That’s the path of least resistance, after all. But it’s also where we often find regret and missed opportunities. Recognizing that moment of choice, and choosing the path that aligns with our deeper values rather than just reacting, is a monumental challenge. It’s about fighting our instinct to snap back, to lash out, or to shut down.

As we embark on this exploration, remember: this journey isn’t about perfection. It’s about striving, stumbling, and learning how to rise above our immediate impulses to shape a response that truly reflects who we want to be. This blog post is your guide through the tough but rewarding process of finding that elusive space between stimulus and response, and making the choices that lead to growth and fulfillment.

The Story Begins: Early Ideas and Viktor Frankl’s Insight

Back in the day, people thought our actions were pretty much automatic reactions to stuff happening around us. It was like, if something happens, you react in a certain way because that’s just how humans are wired. Early psychologists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner were big on this idea. They thought our behaviors were like reflexes, just responses to our environment, and that’s that.

Then came Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist with a story that would change how we think about our reactions. Frankl survived the Holocaust, an experience that pushed him to look deep into the human spirit. He came up with this groundbreaking thought: between what happens to us (the stimulus) and how we react (the response), there’s a tiny gap. And in that gap, we have the freedom to choose how we respond. Even in the Holocaust, with the horrors he experienced, Frankl still found a way to apply this belief, discovering a profound sense of personal agency and resilience. He realized that, despite the extreme suffering and deprivation, individuals could still choose their attitude towards their circumstances.

Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, where he talks about this. He believed that in this gap, this space of freedom, lies our power to choose based on what matters to us, what gives our life meaning. This was a big deal because it suggested we’re not just creatures of habit reacting to the world. We’re beings with the ability to choose our path, even in the toughest times. Frankl’s idea adds a layer to our understanding of stimulus and response. It tells us our reactions are not just automatic; they’re a reflection of who we are and what we believe in.

The Real Challenge: Gut Reactions vs. Thoughtful Responses

So, we’ve got these instant, gut reactions to things—like jumping when we’re scared or laughing at a joke. These reactions happen super fast, without us needing to think about them. It’s our mind’s first line of defense, reacting on autopilot to whatever comes our way. This quick-fire way of dealing with stuff is handy in a lot of situations, like pulling your hand back from something hot before you even realize it’s burning you.

But here’s where it gets tricky. We also have the ability to stop and think things through before we react. You know when a baby falls down in that moment when it figures out if it’s going to cry. It’s like that. This thoughtful way of responding takes more effort. It’s not the mind’s go-to move because it requires us to slow down, consider our options, and then decide how we want to act. It’s like choosing to walk away from an argument instead of jumping right in.

Changing our gut reactions to be more thoughtful is tough because these quick responses are a big part of who we are. They’re shaped by our past experiences, our beliefs, and even how we see ourselves. Trying to change these reactions means messing with some deep-seated parts of our identity, which can feel pretty uncomfortable. But, the cool part is, every time we choose to pause and think before reacting, we’re taking a step towards becoming the person we want to be. It’s about using that space between stimulus and response that Viktor Frankl talked about to our advantage, making choices that reflect our true selves.

Learning to Be Okay with Being Uncomfortable

One of the biggest game-changers in how we react to things is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It sounds a bit odd, right? But here’s the deal: that moment when we decide not to just go with our first reaction, to not immediately snap back or make a sarcastic remark, can feel really awkward. It’s like there’s a tension in the air, and every part of you is shouting, “Just do something!” But if we learn to hang tight in that tension, to breathe through the urge to react right away, we open up a new world of choices.

This skill, being okay with not jumping to a response, is called distress tolerance. It’s about being able to feel that discomfort, acknowledge it, and not let it boss you around. For example, when someone says something that gets under your skin, and you feel that immediate heat of anger or irritation, that’s your cue. Instead of lashing out, you take a moment. You notice the feeling, you feel the itch to react, but you choose to wait. Maybe you count to ten, take a few deep breaths, or even just walk away for a minute.

Here are some techniques that can help you:

  1. Recognize the Tension: First off, know that it’s okay to feel this tension. It’s part of growing. Think of it as noticing a big wave coming your way. Realizing it’s there and why it’s there can help you deal with it better.
  2. See Discomfort as Growth: Feeling uncomfortable isn’t always bad. Like how your muscles ache after a good workout, or you feel hungry when changing your eating habits, this tension means you’re stretching your limits, growing.
  3. Stay Present: Instead of trying to run from these feelings, try just sitting with them. Pay attention to what’s happening right now—your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. This helps create a little pause, giving you a chance to choose how to react.
  4. Take It Slow: Rushing through life makes it hard to think things through. Slowing down lets you reflect on your choices and make decisions that really align with what’s important to you.
  5. Try Meditation: Adding meditation to your daily routine, even just 10 minutes in the morning, can make a big difference. It helps you stay calm and centered, making it easier to face whatever the day throws at you.
  6. Get Support: Walking through this internal tug-of-war can be tough. It’s okay to seek help from a coach or therapist who gets it. They can offer advice and support, helping you navigate through these choppy waters.

Facing this inner conflict between immediate wants and thoughtful decisions is challenging but also a chance for deep personal growth. By recognizing the tension, embracing discomfort, staying present, slowing down, practicing meditation, and seeking support, we can learn to navigate these waters, shaping ourselves into who we aim to be. This journey turns the daunting wave of tension into a manageable flow that guides us to our true potential.

Building up this tolerance to discomfort doesn’t just help us avoid saying or doing things we might regret. It actually strengthens us. It’s like mental muscle-building. Every time we choose to pause, to stay with that uncomfortable feeling without letting it push us into an automatic reaction, we’re training ourselves to respond in ways that are more aligned with who we want to be. It’s not about suppressing what we feel but about choosing how we express those feelings. And that choice can make all the difference in navigating our relationships, our goals, and our self-image.

Conclusion: The Power of Choice

Wrapping up our journey into the space between stimulus and response, it’s clear that this tiny gap holds immense power—the power of choice. Stephen Covey highlighted it, and Viktor Frankl lived it, showing us that even in the darkest times, we can choose our response. This isn’t just about controlling our immediate reactions; it’s about recognizing that in every moment, we have the opportunity to shape our destiny.

Understanding and embracing this power can transform how we interact with the world. It’s not about denying our gut reactions or pretending they don’t exist. Instead, it’s about acknowledging them and then deciding if there’s a better, more thoughtful way to respond. This choice is what defines us. It’s what separates the person we are from the person we want to be.

As we move forward, remember that every reaction to every stimulus, no matter how small, is an opportunity to practice this power of choice. It’s about seeing that space between what happens to us and how we choose to respond as a canvas, one we can paint with our values, beliefs, and aspirations. The more we practice, the more skilled we become at creating a life that reflects our true selves.

So, next time you’re faced with a situation that triggers an automatic response, take a moment. Remember the space of freedom you have to choose your reaction. It’s in these moments that we grow, learn, and ultimately, define who we are. Let’s make the most of this incredible power of choice we all possess.


When a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

This story was inspired by the first episode of Invisibia and written in collaboration with ChatGPT (here’s the link for ChatGPT+ users). It’s about how to take the power out of the negative thoughts in our head.

I’m on a bit of a self-improvement kick these days. Today’s post is about getting rid of those annoying thoughts that pop up and derail you during the day.

Life Hacking Meditation

It Works in Practice but Does it Work in Theory OR The Fairy Tale of John Sarno and The Miracle Cure

Once upon a time, there lived two brothers, John and Steve. John was a television reporter for ABC’s 20/20. Steve was on the faculty of Harvard Medical school. They both had horrible back pain.

They’d searched far and wide for a magical solution to cure their back pain.  They tried every contraption and theory supplied by doctors. Unfortunately, nothing helped.

One Contraption That Steve Is Using to Ease His Neck Pain 

One day John met a shaman (doctor) named John Sarno. John Sarno had a magical cure for back pain. If you just said the magic words and believed them, your back pain would be cured. You had to say:

  1. There is nothing wrong with my back.
  2. The pain is all being generated by my head. It’s my brain trying to distract me from the emotional rage that’s I’m feeling based on repressed Freudian memories.

When John woke up the next morning his back pain was cured.

“Steve!” said John, “I have the most amazing news! I found the miracle cure. You just have to say the magic words.”

“John, you know I can’t do that,” said Steve. I’m a doctor and don’t believe in magic. Besides, Freud’s theories on repressed emotions were discredited long ago.”

So John lived happily ever after while Steve stayed in back pain.

(End of fairy tale)

This story is a close adaptation of reporter John Stossel’s segment about John Sarno on 20/20  from 1999. His brother Steve was teaching at Harvard Medical School at the time.

When I first heard the story, I remember thinking that Steve was right. John Sarno was obviously blowing smoke. In the years since then, I’ve realized that it’s not quite so simple.

The basic problem here was that what Sarno said seemed to work even though his theory was tragically flawed. Sarno theory involved Freudian repressed rage — a theory that was discredited a century ago. He was clearly grasping at straws.

But the part that made sense was that the pain wasn’t anatomical. It was coming from your head. This article from Vox does a good job summarizing Sarno. In the article, Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of the book Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery says, “What he recommended as treatment was essentially cognitive behavioral therapy — elimination of fear avoidant behavior and catastrophizing — before anyone had ever heard of it and it’s exactly what is being used now to treat patients with central sensitization.”

My experience with chronic pain started around 2000. I had horrible wrist pain that wouldn’t go away. Luckily all my doctors told me that I didn’t need surgery. Though they didn’t give me any options of what I should do. Luckily I found Lisa Sattler who is one of the world’s best physical therapists for carpal tunnel. After a year of physical therapy with her, the pain went away.

Though the pain came back, as back pain, a few years later. I found the book Back RX to be very helpful. But as the back pain persisted, I got an X-Ray that showed a bone spur in my hip, “Aha!” I thought, “I’ll have surgery and pain will go away.”

“Not so fast,” said the surgeon. “Why don’t we inject some strong painkiller right into your hip. If the pain goes away we’ll do the surgery. If it doesn’t go away, the surgery won’t help.”

So I went into the doctor’s office and lo and behold, the pain didn’t go away with the painkiller. That got me thinking about Doctor Sarno again. I started to realize that the more stressed I became, the more my back hurt. Also, the pain would move around a lot which doesn’t make a lot of sense from an anatomical perspective. At this point in my life, I still don’t think Sarno’s theory makes sense; however, if I sit down and meditate, I can make most of my soft tissue pains go away.

Note 1 (August 2023): There’s an interesting parallel mechanism for quitting smoking in Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. It’s a similar placebo pseudoscience that works. There’s a good discussion of this in This American Life’s I Can’t Quit You Baby.

Note 2 (September 2023): David Pogue’s Unsung Science has a very interesting episode on placebos which is spot on for this. The scientists talk about how chronic pain is related to messed up nerve pathways and that placebos can help cure these issues.