The winding road in front of me did not exist. This is the power of thought, it can transport you from the moment you are in, to another place in time. My head was clouded with thoughts of work, duties outside of where I was then. On my small scooter, I took a sharp right turn as a man on a black motorcycle was flying down the road straight towards me.
He swerved out of the way, missing me by an inch, and slammed on his brakes to a screeching ear-piercing halt. My throat went dry and my hands began to sweat. His motorcycle made another horrendous scratching sound as he halted to a hard stop after such an alarming speed. Clouds of black smoke polluted the air around us, the smell of diesel permeated my nostrils. I felt ill.
Although he was driving too fast, it was my fault. I took the turn without looking. I was not paying attention to the road, my head was preoccupied with planning for the future. My mind fell asleep in an unconscious loop until my sense doors brought me back to reality. To the reality that I could have killed both of us.
He got off his motorcycle and strode towards me, anger flashing like a smoldering fire in his brown eyes. I met his gaze and looked hard into his face, the world around us went still. We held each other’s gaze as I waited for him to yell at me first. My adrenaline was pumping from almost crashing and seeing the passionate look of anger spread across his face. I was ready to take it, whatever ‘it’ might be.
But within a few seconds, something in the depths of his eyes softened, the burning forest fire was turning to a steady candle flame. I felt my jaw unclench and my curled up fists loosen and fall limply to my sides. He took a smaller step towards me and opened his arms. The stranger I had almost killed less than three minutes ago was now wrapping me in a warm embrace. We held each other for a bit and I felt my stiff rigid body relax into the sensation of his touch.
“I am truly sorry” I breathed into his chest, his strong arms wrapped around my waist. “I was so occupied with my thoughts I didn’t even see you coming towards me, I am sorry I put us in danger. I will be more careful when I drive.” He looked at me gently and replied “I was going too fast, I need to watch my speed. And you do need to pay attention when you drive, just be careful next time, okay?” I agreed. He smiled at me and walked back towards his motorcycle.
His embrace had meaning to me, and not because it was comforting and kind, or that he had a huge amount of humility. It was because I saw how conscious he was. In his eyes I saw the immediate reaction, the unconscious hot flash of burning anger, transform into something else.
Instead of just violently reacting, he responded. He took two extra seconds to just look at me, to realize that I was in the wrong but it was not intentional. He had enough awareness to see that him reacting violently would just make me defensive. In doing so there would be no dialogue, just fight. He consciously chose not to react.
A reaction is an ingrained method built from past experiences, social conditioning, and habitual routine. In a reaction we are asleep to the present moment, we are acting from a type of autopilot. As human beings, we do this all the time.
A man feels nervous and automatically pulls out a cigarette to relieve himself like he has thousands of times before. The company boss feels agitation rising and projects it onto his employees without hesitation, because this is what he has done for years and what his boss has done to him. People are predictable. Their reactions are the same because they have been doing the same a hundred times before. Behavior becomes repetitive.
The difference between a response and reaction is that response requires a small space between you and the emotion, whereas a reaction has no space. You feel anger and act it out on impulse. It is repetitive, it is known, it is familiar to you. You do not need to think about it. A response has thought, a response has space, a response has a level of understanding in it. A response requires awareness of the present moment rather than acting out the past.
Osho once said,
When you push the button and the fan goes on it is not a response; it is a reaction, it is mechanical. When you push the button and the lights go on or off it is a reaction, not a response. The light, the fan, or any other mechanism has no freedom to choose; it simply reacts. Response means choice. Response means chosen with consciousness.
We as humans must not act like machines, we must not fall asleep into our built-in habits and reactions, because the more we do so, the deeper our self-induced coma becomes. To respond is to be awake to life. And this man I had almost killed was very awake, he was refusing to sleepwalk through life.
I saw in his eyes the way he wanted to react for that brief intense moment. He wanted to scream at me, to ridicule me for not paying attention, and rightfully so. But instead, he took a few extra seconds to see his apparent anger, to look back at me, and then respond.
Many times when we feel an emotion we are unaware of anything outside of it, it consumes us. Responding is seeing, reacting is a type of blindness. In response, we can watch ourselves and our actions.
And his response had a long term effect on me. I remember his words when I drive and am now razor-sharp on the road. My driving becomes my mediation, I am aware of everything going on around me. I do not allow myself to become deluded with thoughts. I do not want to repeat my previous mistake and potentially hurt someone.
And this is how change happens, suddenly and out of free will. Not because somebody shamed me or made me feel guilty. This stranger made me see the potential repercussions of my action in the kindest possible way. He created a dialogue through his response, whereas reaction just creates a cycle of reaction leading nowhere slowly.
Humans want to be better, humans want to treat each other well, humans are not machines, humans hold a consciousness. Let us use this consciousness to break repetitive cycles that separate us from one another and choose to respond in a manner in which we can understand one other and progress.
Progress is simply moving forward. When we react, we move back towards the murky waters of our past. In responding, we move toward the future, a brighter future where we can coexist harmoniously.