Nonreactivity is cultivated in mindfulness practice. How is this done and why is it useful?
Let's catch up on some recent research, then look at what it all means on a practical level.
In a study, 'Neural Correlate of Acceptance: Relating individual Differences in Dispositional Acceptance to Error Processing' (Mindful, April 2020) Emily Cary et al conclude that mindful nonreactivity is associated with altered neurophysiological responses to errors.
They begin with a focus on 'Error Related Negativity' (ERN), a pattern of electrical brain activity which increases significantly when people make an error in a task involving impulse control. Typically, most people have a negative spike of electrical activity in the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain; it happens milliseconds after they make a mistake.
Researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of nonreactivity, tended to perform better on a task. Nonreactivity was also associated with a less negative ERN.
This is yet another indication that mindful practice makes a measurable difference to the neurophysiology of our brains. Just as we can build and shape a muscle in the gym, we can work in positive, beneficial ways with our brain and its circuitry.
So what does this mean on a practical level? How does it concern us in daily activities? If nonreactivity is beneficial how can we get better at it?
Here's how it happens. It requires deliberate practice in order to be experienced. Don't expect it to be easy, but expect it to bring immense rewards.
We know that THOUGHTS lead to ACTIONS and actions have CONSEQUENCES.
Notice the tendency we have to jump on a negative THOUGHT, to identify a problem that 'needs to be addressed'. We are convinced that much depends upon fixing this problem and fixing it soon! It is vital to do something! ACTION is needed. We may feel a bullying discomfort, a degree of fear, we may 'freeze' with uncertainty and ruminate which eventually leads to exhaustion and a feeling of failure and hopelessness. Or we may leap to do 'something', 'anything' just to relieve the pressure. We act with clouded judgment and a fear driven impetuosity. Our action is later regretted, seen not to be the best strategy. Both with excessive rumination and impetuous action, we are left with unfortunate CONSEQUENCES.
In mindfulness practice nonreactivity is cultivated and valued. Thoughts stream in. They are allowed without unhelpful protest. The task is to see them clearly, patiently and kindly without indulging in any particular clinging or aversion. Initially, this is not easy and goes against our instincts, but with increasing clarity and calm focus we are able to ask ourselves the most important question, 'In which thoughts will I invest?' Seeing clearly, we can now choose which thoughts to act on, and which thoughts to let go, or just let be. We are aware of the impulse to act, to problem solve as a matter of urgency, but we practice standing back and noticing how it feels to observe the problem with the clearer vision offered by nonreactivity. As we cultivate and practice this approach, we begin to experience a kindness, an inner wisdom, a greater confidence and a feeling of peace. We have a place to stand in the storm. The way is now clear to a better solution. We work on the thoughts, rather than the thoughts working on us.
It is most often the 'reaction' to an experience, not the experience itself, that creates a whole mess of extra trouble. That's useful to know, remember and understand.
It is something quite remarkable about the human condition that we don't have to accept every invitation that is thrown up by our thoughts. We don't have to take the journey! We don't have to buy the ticket! We can stand in a safe place where we observe thoughts with nonreactivity. No thought is part of us and no thought is permanent and unchanging.