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Reactions Don’t Mean You Have to React

Once upon a time, a yogi was walking in the woods enjoying a beautiful early spring morning. The woods were so quiet that she could hear the birds singing, the creek in the valley below burbling, and even the breeze rustling the brand-new leaves just a little bit. The yogi was deeply engaged in the act of listening when, quite suddenly, a massive deer leapt out of a hedge and across the trail. …

Samadhi helps us respond to life’s events

What happens next depends on the yogi’s level of presence.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, defines samadhi, the final frontier of a yoga practice, as a state in which a  yogi maintains an even attitude no matter the circumstances.

When I am teaching my yoga philosophy university students about samadhi, I ask them to imagine responding the same way to criticism from a professor as they do to cheers from the stands when they score a goal in a soccer match. Doing so would certainly take a great deal equanimity!

Response and reactivity

For a long time, I imagined that if the yogi in our story was walking in a state of samadhi, fully absorbed in the sounds of the woods, that she would not even notice the deer bursting across the trail. I’m less sure of that now.

Now I imagine the yogi pausing her rhythmic strides to absorb the magnificence of the leaping deer – his silence, his strength, his size – into her awareness of the woods around her. After all, he is suddenly part of her present moment. For the yogi, the deer becomes one more feature of her experience of NOW in which to revel.

I can also imagine myself on that trail (full disclosure, I don’t have to imagine. I’ve been on that trail in that exact moment). I jump almost as high as the deer. I almost succeed in stifling a shriek of surprise that is loud enough to drown out all other woodland sounds. My heart is pounding. I have to stop walking for a second to get a grip. I lose all sense of everything around me (a.k.a. my present moment) because I am completely consumed by a reaction as massive as the deer.

Reactions can overwhelm us or flow through us

What is most interesting and most instructive, is that in the moment of the deer’s leap both the yogi and I experience the reaction of surprise. Let me repeat that: we both have a reaction.

On the one hand, I allow my surprise to overwhelm all my senses. I am no longer aware of the burbling brook, the soft breeze, or the birds singing in the trees. I also allow my surprise to take control of my actions. I shriek. I jump. My heart pounds. I stop walking. I am 100% at the mercy of my surprise.

On the other hand, the yogi allows her reaction to flow through her. She is surprised because the deer appears quite out of the blue, but if her surprise is visible, it is a smile or a quiet inhale. Her surprise does not take over. It does not dictate her actions at all.

She pauses her stride because her present reality is that a massive deer is – midair – in front of her, so close that, if she keeps walking, they will collide. She remains absorbed in the moment, and takes in not only the deer’s surprising presence, but his breathtaking size and beauty. The deer, for her, is a new aspect of the beautiful morning – simply another part of her experience.

We must notice our reactions to weaken their power to dictate our responses

The moral of this little story is that we are human beings. As long as we are living and breathing, we are going to experience reactions. We are not practicing yoga to eliminate reactions. We are practicing to weaken or (maybe … one day …) even eliminate the power our reactions have to dictate our responses to life.

The first step in developing this equanimity is to notice our reactions and their aftermath. Afterall, unless we’re aware of something, we cannot hope to modify it. Therefore, it is OK to begin this practice of noticing with hindsight. With time, you will discover that you are noticing when you are in the throes of a reaction (shrieking, jumping, heart pounding).

With more time and practice, moments will start to arise when you notice a reaction rolling through you and realize that it is not eliciting an outward reaction. You will be witnessing your reaction rather than reacting. This witnessing stance frees you to choose your response – pause on the trail to avoid colliding with the deer or walk on. You’re in charge of you.

These moments will be tastes of samadhi. They feel so right and so healthy, that experiencing one or two is enough to inspire continued practice so that they multiply – massively improving the way you experience the moments of your life.

If exploring how yoga philosophy applies to real-life situations interests you, check out my self-paced Yoga Philosophy Master Class or replay my Zoom class Demystifying the Yoga Sutras course. And stay tuned for more courses to come!