Non-Reactivity: The Supreme Practice of Everyday Life

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-5-20-05-pmHigh school gives students lots of opportunities for emotional reactivity –
and for practicing its opposite, non-reactivity.* 

Dear World Religion students,

We’ve been talking about the common message contained within the cross-cultural Wisdom Tradition, which states that the goal of life is to marry the horizontal material existence in time with the vertical dimension of the invisible and eternal. Or more personally, we have said that the aim of life is to integrate Image result for after buddhism batchelorthe small self of daily life with the Larger Self that lives forever. All of these lofty and abstract ideals may be appealing, but what does it mean in real life and how do we get there? And, in keeping with body-mind-heart emphasis of the Tradition, how do we make sure the spiritual journey isn’t just some kind of head trip? The surprising and eminently practical answer to these questions is something that Buddhist writer Steve Batchelor calls non-reactivity.[1]

2015-01-17-15-11-361The Reactive Self

Before getting into how it all works, let’s start with your daily life: when you come to Image result for school stressschool, you are regularly forced to encounter events that make you feel nervous or downright disheartened – a low grade on a test, a long-term friendship that seems to be unraveling, a sense of competition between you and someone else for a coveted leadership position, knowledge of a classmate cheating on homework, etc. Because we are hard-wired biologically for survival – drawn to the things we like and repelled by those things that threaten us – we cannot help but have emotional responses trigger events in our lives.

However, the Wisdom Tradition points out that responding without reflective thinking to these “I like”/”I don’t like” habits mean that we live our lives on autopilot, trapped in the horizontal dimension. These habits affect everything: our thinking – I like high grades more than low grades; our emotions – I like to feel happy rather than feel sad; and our actions – I do things that give me a sense of reward rather than doing things that are likely to put me at risk.

When we are confronted by all the “I-don’t-like” things in our environment, we employ Image result for i don't likeone of three survival strategies: fight, flight, or freeze. The first two approaches cause us to confront or avoid the problem, while freezing means that we endure the unpleasantness, but numb out the feelings associated with the discomfort.

Regardless of the strategy, when confronted by those things that threaten us, the full force of our egoic habits energizes our self-righteousness, which manifests itself in endless internal monologues: “I studied so hard, but then we weren’t tested on the material, ” or, “Cheer up – find your favorite comfort food and indulge yourself – you deserve it,” or, “I’d try harder, but I know it’s pointless.”

How Reactivity and Non-Reactivity Work

My teacher Cynthia Bourgeault explains how reactivity works with the following diagram[2]:screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-3-19-55-pmBeginning at the triangle (1), Cynthia borrows from Father Thomas Keating’s hypothesis Image result for keating and bourgeaultthat all of us have unconscious emotional programs for happiness that run our conscious attention and behavior. This survival self believes that it must get one or more of these three elements to be happy: 1) Power/control 2) Esteem/affection 3) Security/survival. These are the unconscious drivers of our more conscious attachments (or likes) and aversions (dislikes)(2), which create the hidden agendas (3) that enter into all of our real life situations.

Then comes a triggering event (4) – something that threatens our emotional program – and frustration (5) sets in. The ordinary mind generates emotional reactions (6-8) with accompanying internal dialogue that reinforce our unconscious programs for happiness.

It is right after the initial moment of frustration (5A) that screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-11-47-52-pmwe have the opportunity to throw a stick in the spokes of the spinning egoic self. Rather than allowing fight, flight, or freeze to strengthen the small self’s habits, we are able at this precise point to implement a three-fold strategy of non-reactivity.[3]

The Path of Non-Reactivity

The way of escape, then, is to train yourself to put into place a non-reactive strategy that follows right on the heals of a triggering event, which means you attempt to:

  1. Respond with non-reactive awareness: Image result for don't reactconsider yourself a third-person observer who watches your own emotional responses arise and then dissipate. Don’t judge, don’t try to change yourself; just observe! In time this practice will begin to cultivate a third-person perspective inside yourself that sometimes is called the Inner Witness.[4]
  2. Experience emotions in your body: our most basic emotions (joy, grief, anger, and fear) correlate with felt energies in the body. Rather than fighting (confronting the source of discomfort), fleeing (out of sight out of mind), or freezing (numbing physical and emotional responses), this counter-intuitive strategy opens bodily sensations to the experience, again observing with non-reactive awareness.
  3. Breathe and let go: attempt to breathe into Image result for open handsthese challenges, which keeps the body-mind-heart open to the moment – and to the vertical dimension – rather than shutting this full self down in fear and falling back into typical coping behaviors. If possible, attempt to let go of all the ways that we want to energize ego-driven thoughts and emotions (e.g., justifying, defending, indulging, recruiting allies, demonizing). Try to let them go!

Cynthia emphasizes that steps 1 and 2 usually need to be repeated over and over again; and if you never get to the feeling that you can “let go,” don’t worry! Most of the work is already done in being an observer of your mind and body.

Once learned intuitively, these strategies can be used on a daily basis to deal with the issues and concerns that arise, leading to a more relaxed and grounded life lived in the present moment.

Non-Reactivity as the Path to Nirvana

Non-reactivity, Bachelor asserts in his book After Buddhism, lies at the heart of the Buddha Image result for mara buddhastory. When Siddartha sat beneath the Bodhi tree and was attacked by the demon Mara, he came face to face not with an external foe, but his own greed, hatred, and anger. When viewing these internal vices non-reactively, they “are seen for what they are: impermanent emotions that, when left to their own devices, will fizzle out.”[5] In the movie “Little Buddha” (1:20-1:34), Mara’s flaming arrows turn into flower blossoms as they come near to the reaction-less Siddhartha. At the end of the dialogue between the former prince and Mara, Siddhartha states, “I know you.” Siddhartha has befriended his darker inner impulses, a prominent theme in Buddhist teachings and the Wisdom Tradition in general.

Image result for little buddha scenes

Batchelor claims, then, that non-reactivity is the Buddha’s key teaching for attaining nirvana! When “a person’s direct experience [manifests] the suspension or absence of these impulses [of greed, hatred, and confusion] . . . [this] is the definition of ‘nirvana.’ The experience of nirvana marks a turning point in an individual’s life.” [6] Batchelor explains further: “Nirvanic freedom is the result of understanding how reactivity works. It is not the result of uprooting reactivity.”[7]


Moving to the Larger Self

My emphasis on teaching about non-reactivity comes out of my own experience of practicing this strategy in the last several years. The clearest example of the potential benefits of non-reactivity occurred a few years ago when I entered into an unexpectedly intense discussion with my boss about an issue I cared deeply about, and was quite emotionally laden for both of us. As the conversation and tension ratcheted up, somehow my body acted as an Early Warning System, heightening my awareness of being “triggered.” Most oddly, though, the body seemed to then act of its own accord. I felt myself breathe deeply from the belly, providing me with that split-second of awareness to think clearly and with less ego-driven emotion. The conversation remained tense and frank, but not the kind of falling out that can be disastrous between colleagues. What struck me most about the whole event was the sense that my gut breathed me back into a state of awareness rather than the mind as “command center” saying, “Breathe, breathe! You are in a state of stress.”

In this high stakes moment of potential reactivity, then, some aspect of my mind and body beyond my ordinary egoic self provided me with a way of escaping my small self, which wanted to strike out and win an argument at the possible cost of an important relationship. According to Batchelor, this kind of non-reactivity is the path towards nirvana, or as Cynthia would say, this is the mind change needed to enter the kingdom of God.[8]

The Divine Dance of Everyday Life

The Wisdom Tradition’s inspiring vision of moving people from the small self to the Larger Self, that great alchemy of transformation, has as its fundamental vehicle the common-place reactivity events that we experience every day of our lives. Our annoyances and conflicts are the moment-by-moment opportunities to dance Shiva-like in the midst of our horizontal existence, Image result for dancing shivaletting go of reactivity and thereby energizing our interior Larger Selves, interanimated by a celestial ring of fire. On the other hand, if we succumb to the small self’s reactivity, we feed the child of illusion lying beneath Shiva’s right foot. The Wisdom Tradition claims that non-reactivity will result in time in a dance of humility, forbearance, and love. This is no small achievement. Rather, for Batchelor, the ceasing of reactivity is the very definition of nirvana; for Cynthia, it lies at the heart of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God.

With this potentiality in mind, let us suspend the search for once-and-for-all mystical experiences, but rather regard the challenges of everyday life as our daily dance with the divine, appreciating instead the Wisdom Tradition’s transformative power: “The true miracle is that instructions have been given that will lead whoever practices them to the experience of nirvana.”[9]


* This picture comes from a Humanities I in Action simulation 5 years ago about schooling in Cambodia.


[1] Batchelor, After Buddhism: Re-thinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, p. 56.

[2] Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 136.

[3] This explanation serves to introduce the Welcoming Prayer, which Cynthia calls “Centering Prayer’s powerful companion piece for turning daily life into a virtually limitless field for inner awakening (Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 135). To read this section on the Welcoming Prayer in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, hit here. Or hear Cynthia explain this practice on a video.

[4] See Richard Rohr’s comments on the Inner Witness at the end of this post or on Rohr’s website.

[5] Batchelor, p. 308.

[6] Batchelor, p. 41.

[7] Batchelor, p. 308.

[8] In The Wisdom Jesus Cynthia explains that “repentance” in the Greek is metanoia, which literally means “beyond the mind” or “into a larger mind.” Breaking the habit of reactivity is metanoia, the repentance that ushers in the Kingdom of God.

[9] Batchelor, p. 166.

Works Cited

Batchelor, S. (2015). After Buddhism: Re-thinking the dharma for a secular age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bourgeault, C. (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley.

Bourgeault, C. (2008). The wisdom Jesus: Transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message. Boston: Shambhala.

Keating, T. (1992). Open heart, open mind: The contemplative dimension of the Gospel. New York: Continuum.

Rohr, R. (2016). “The Inner Witness,” in Daily Meditations Archive, October 10, 2016.

Additional Information

  1. Just One Thing: Hold Wants Lightly,” by Rick Hanson, January 8, 2018.
  2. Two well-known voices in the field, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman claim in their book Altered Traits that meditation makes people less self-focused, dampening the like-dislike habits of the brain. According to a summary of their book:
  3. Here is a beautiful description about the difference between reactive and non-reactive responses to stimuli from one of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Schools:

“If we respond to a stimulus in the outer world with an initial negativity or inner constriction, the stimulus will be processed through the amygdala, the evolutionary bedrock of the human brain, governing our most primitive fight and flight responses. “Danger, danger, danger!” its alarm bells warn; the adrenaline flows, and we prepare to defend ourselves.

If we respond with an initial relaxation and can maintain an interior spaciousness, the stimulus is processed through the more evolutionarily advanced parts of the human forebrain – neo-cortex and prefrontal lobes- and amazingly, the rhythms of brain and heart come into entrainment. We move into an inner coherence which makes possible an outer coherence: a response marked by intelligence, creativity, and compassion.”

4. Meditation helps us to feel lighter and less self-focused

Though related to compassion, this is a more specific finding about how mindfulness helps you to stop seeing yourself as the center of the universe. According to studies, activity in the “default network”—the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activity, ruminates on thoughts, feelings, and experiences—quiets down in longtime meditators, suggesting less rumination about ourselves and our place in the world. Long-term meditators also seem to have a smaller nucleus accumbens—a part of the brain associated with pleasure, but also addiction. According to the authors, “These regions very likely underlie what traditional [Buddhist] texts see as the root causes of suffering: attachment and aversion, where the mind becomes fixated on wanting something that seems rewarding or getting rid of something unpleasant.”

2. “How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity

3. Cynthia Bourgeault comments in her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, “Once this fundamental union [of the horizontal and vertical dimensions] is in place, all other unions flow rightly: the reconciliation of masculine and feminine, of male and female, and of flesh-and-blood men and women in a sacred embrace that encompasses all dimensions of their being . . . . Once they have “awakened in this life to that in us which does not die” (in Leloup’s words) and become living conduits of Eternity flowing into time, then every one of their actions is umbued with transparency and grace. They become sacraments of wholeness. . . .” (p. 131).

  1. “The Inner Witness” by Richard Rohr
    Monday, October 10, 2016

We each carry a certain amount of pain from our very birth. If that pain is not healed and transformed, it actually increases as we grow older, and we transmit it to people around us. We can become violent in our attitudes, gestures, words, and actions.

We must nip this process in the bud by acknowledging and owning our own pain, rather than projecting it elsewhere. For myself, I can’t pretend to be loving when inside I’m not, when I know I’ve thought cruel, judgmental, and harsh thoughts about others. At the moment the thought arises, I have to catch myself and hand over the annoyance or anger to God. Contemplative practice helps me develop this capacity to watch myself and to connect with my loving Inner Witness. Let me explain why this is important.

If you can simply observe the negative pattern in yourself, you have already begun to separate from it. The watcher is now over here, observing yourself thinking that thought—over there. Unless you can become the watcher, you’ll almost always identify with your feelings. They feel like real and objective truth.

Most people I know are overly identified with their own thoughts and feelings. They don’t really have feelings; their feelings have them. That may be what earlier Christians meant by being “possessed” by a demon. That’s why so many of Jesus’ miracles are the exorcism of devils. Most don’t take that literally anymore, but the devil is still a powerful metaphor, which demands that you take it quite seriously. Everyone has a few devils. I know I’m “possessed” at least once or twice a day, even if just for a few minutes!

There are all kinds of demons—in other words, there are lots of times when you cannot not think a certain way. When you see certain people, you get afraid. When you see other people, you get angry. For example, numerous studies show that many white people have an implicit, unacknowledged fear of black men. Thank God, most of us are not explicitly racist, but many of us have an implicit and totally denied racial bias. This is why all healing and prayer must descend into the unconscious where the lies we’ve believed are hidden in our wounds.

During contemplation, forgotten painful experiences may arise. In such cases, it helps to meet with a spiritual director or therapist to process old wounds and trauma in healthy ways.

Over a lifetime of practice, contemplation gradually helps you detach from who you think you are and rest in your authentic identity as Love. At first this may feel like an “identity transplant” until you learn how to permanently rest in God.

4. Here is the worksheet I used in class to teach this lesson


The Heart of Buddhist Spiritual Growth

World Religions – Schmidt                                         Name: _________________

 List and analyze three triggering events that really “push you buttons” and cause you to react.

Triggering event

How do you energize this

event in your thinking?

(energy goes where attention flows)

Your reaction

to that event

  1. Buddhist Teaching on Non-Reactivity in the Horizontal and Vertical Dimension
  1. How does one practice non-reactivity? (“Little Buddha” scene)

 Create a Skit

  1. Explain the triggering event
  2. Freeze frame: explain the choices that present themselves in the moments after the triggering event in which you choose to react (out of your small self) or respond (out of your Larger Self). Aspects of this small self:
  • Likes and dislikes (attachments and aversions below)
  • Hidden agenda
  • Emotional turmoil
  • Internal dialogue (endless self-talk)
  • These feed into our subconscious desires for what we really want in life: power/control, affection/self-esteem, and security/survival.
  • 3. Demonstrate the two different paths – reactive and the place where the cycle can be broken – that proceed out of this event. This breaking of the cycle is the path to INNER AWAKENING.4. This is the assignment I gave to students as follow-up homework to this lesson:

Choose one event to analyze in your daily life:

  1. Describe the triggering event.
  2. Analyze the mental and emotional processes that happened at that moment. Keep in mind what we discussed in class about energing the small self’s beliefs:
  • Likes and dislikes (attachments and aversions in Cynthia’s chart)
  • Hidden agenda
  • Emotional turmoil
  • Internal dialogue (endless self-talk)
  • These feed into our subconscious desires for what we really want in life: power/control, affection/self-esteem, and security/survival.
  1. So what happened?
  • Did you react (out of your small self)? If so, explain how your reaction supports you and your larger unconscious goals (power/control; affection/self-esteem; survival/security).
  • When the trigger event happened, were you able to: (1) have a non-reactive awareness (2) experience emotions in your body (3) let go/breathe deeply?
  • If you were able to non-react, how did that FEEL? Did it feel better or worse? Did it make the situation better or worse? (Did it feel like a Larger Self in any way?)

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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