Have you ever seen what toddlers do when life bumps up against them unexpectedly? Think about what happens when they have just fallen over on their padded bottoms or experienced some other small event that didn’t entirely delight them. They haven’t hurt themselves, they’ve just been given a bit of a surprise. What happens next is very interesting — and every parent, grandparent, aunty, uncle or anyone who’s had anything to do with toddlers will recognize this — they don’t do anything. Just for a second, they pause. It’s as if their minds are doing a little damage report: What just happened? Am I hurt? Is it bad? Should I cry? Should I scream the house down?
And what we do next can make all the difference. If we react, run to them, start fussing over them, then you can guarantee that yes, they will start crying and yes, they will probably scream the house down. But if we don’t react, if we stay calm, if we go on with whatever we’re doing, they will almost always pick themselves up and within moments, be exploring and laughing again.
We can learn a lot from toddlers. What happens when life bumps up against us? Sometimes, something that we want hasn’t happened. Sometimes, something we didn’t want has happened. A friend lets us down. Our boss berates us. Someone we don’t even know is rude to us. We get cut off in traffic. We have to wait way too long in a queue. We don’t win the prize, the girl, the accolades, the contract. What do we do?
We react. We defend, justify, complain. We go on the attack. We try to make the other person feel as bad as we do. We plot our revenge. Or we pretend to shrug it off —“Nothing to see here, folks” — while inside, we’re seething in anger and resentment.
And so here we are. Something bad has happened. We’ve reacted. And now we feel even worse. We are that toddler screaming and crying. We are not having fun. We are not free to explore. We’ve turned that little bump into a major catastrophe.
So, what’s the alternative? We can pause — like that toddler. There is a small space between experiencing something in our lives and reacting to it. For most of us, that space hardly exists. Something happens to us and we instantly go into reaction. Once there, we are left with no choice. But if we pause, if we give ourselves that space, we have choice, and that is a powerful thing.
We don’t have to react. We don’t have to paint ourselves into a corner. We don’t have to be left shaking our heads thinking, Why did I do that – again?! Instead, we can choose how we respond and what we do – if anything. We have the choice.
How do we learn to do this? How do we give ourselves that pause, that space? How do we even become aware of that space? And how do we learn to expand that space?
By doing nothing. Yes, by doing nothing. And just by practicing doing nothing.
Meditation teaches something that toddlers already know — sitting on their padded bottoms, running through those damage reports. And that is everything we experience, we experience as a sensation. Every sight, taste, smell, sound, touch, every emotion, every thought creates a sensation on or in the body. Some we label as good — beauty, love, chocolate. Others we label as bad — anger, weeds, chocolate. But all sensations have a common denominator. They’re ephemeral. They don’t last. They will pass, some slower than others, but they will change and they will end. So, why cause a fuss? Why make things worse? Why scream the house down?
Through meditation, we learn that we don’t have to be driven by automatic reactions. We come out of the habit pattern of our minds, the endless treadmill of cause and effect, and get enough space to look around and go “What do I really want to choose here?” Meditation works because it gives us more space, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath. Space to be and space to choose. Just like that toddler, with a world of infinite possibilities to explore and enjoy.
My hope for you is that you become more like a toddler. Not in all respects, of course. Being toilet-trained and the ability to cook are two great attributes. But in taking that pause, in being in that space that is yours and yours alone, that small pause gives you power. The power to be anything and to be anyway you choose.
Mary-Lou Stephens’ meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the true story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband.
This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.