Freedom is: the gap between stimulus and response

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems. First, he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol. Next, he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Last week I discussed mental practice as the means Alexander used to learn his new protocol. This week I’ll address Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol.

Stimulus and response

Once FM had created his new protocol for speaking, he still found that he didn’t successfully use it as he intended. As we discussed last week, one issue he identified was that his old instinctive protocol was well-learned and thoroughly practised, and so dominated the new plan he’d made. But there was another issue, too. Alexander realised that

…an immediate response [to do the old protocol] was the result of a decision on my part to do something at once, to go directly for a certain end … with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.[1]

Alexander was acting at once to the stimulus to use his voice. His response was immediate. He was a bit like those people – you probably know one – who will answer their phone the moment it rings, no matter how inappropriate the situation. There was a stimulus (to speak / the phone rings) and his decision was to respond immediately.

What’s between stimulus and response? It’s your decision

That’s the most remarkable part of this section of Evolution of a Technique, in my view. Alexander realised that he had made a decision about the manner of his response, and that decision coloured everything that came after it. He had decided to prioritise doing something at once.

But there is no need for us to do that. Often we treat stimulus and response like they are some variety of German complex noun:

We treat stimulus and response like a German complex noun - no gap between the words

That’s our decision. There is no reason why that should be the case: there is no actual causal link between a stimulus and our response to it. We can, in fact, choose to give ourselves time to respond, in order that we can also choose the manner of our response. Alexander came up with the following formulation. It functions as a useful tool in training oneself out of responding instantly to stimuli: make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.[2]

We can use this formulation ourselves. When we receive a stimulus – whether to speak or answer a phone or anything else – we can make the experience of receiving that stimulus and refusing to do anything immediately in response. That gives us the opportunity to choose the manner or our response. As Stephen Covey points out, we can even choose whether we wish to respond at all![3]

So no matter what the next couple of weeks hold for any of us, we can receive a stimulus, make an experience of refusing to do anything immediately in response, and then choose whether we do what we originally intended, or something else we’ve planned, or nothing at all. And that is true freedom: knowing that we always hold the key to our our reactions.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.40-41.

[2] ibid., p.40.

[3] Covey, S, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Melbourne, Business Library, 1989, p.69.