Creating Space Between Stimulus and Response: Insights From Goenka

I found a beautiful talk by S.N. Goenka, one of the most influential vipassana meditation teachers. 

Goenka doesn’t ground the practice of meditation in claims of enlightenment or other exalted states of mind. 

Instead, he focuses on something that hits much closer to home — the challenge of just being kind to people every day. 

This is wise, because it’s possible to be enlightened and still be unkind.

More specifically, Goenka reminds us that we spend a lot of our precious lifetime passing pain to each other:

From time to time we all experience agitation, irritation, disharmony. And when we suffer from these miseries, we don’t keep them to ourselves; we often distribute them to others as well. Unhappiness permeates the atmosphere around someone who is miserable, and those who come in contact with such a person also become affected.  

As Goenka says, we tie ourselves in knots — “Gordian knots” of negativity. 

There’s nothing abstract about this. After sustained periods of emotional negativity, I can feel the tension-induced knots in my muscles and the shortness in my breath. 

Breaking the cycle

“So the question arises,” Goenka says: “how can we stop reacting blindly when confronted with things that we don’t like? How can we stop creating tension and remain peaceful and harmonious?”

This is a big question. Nothing about spiritual practice matters more than this. 

If enlightenment means anything, it includes releasing negativity. 

Conscious distraction

One possible solution, says Goenka, is to purposefully distract ourselves from negative emotions:

For example, get up, take a glass of water, start drinking — your anger won’t multiply; on the other hand, it’ll begin to subside. Or start counting: one, two, three, four. Or start repeating a word, or a phrase, or some mantra, perhaps the name of a god or saintly person towards whom you have devotion; the mind is diverted, and to some extent you’ll be free of the negativity, free of the anger.

I also find that a sudden burst of physical activity — a brisk walk or short session of hatha yoga — takes an immediate edge off the anger. It’s the same principle. 

Distraction strategies such as these really do help. They are band-aids for negativity that stop the emotional bleeding and buy us some time before we find ourselves reacting in destructive ways.

Going deeper

And yet distraction — no matter how sophisticated — works only on a superficial level. Goenka says it well:

In fact, by diverting the attention you push the negativity deep into the unconscious, and there you continue to generate and multiply the same defilement. On the surface there is a layer of peace and harmony, but in the depths of the mind there is a sleeping volcano of suppressed negativity which sooner or later may erupt in a violent explosion.

Dealing with negativity on a deeper level calls for an approach that is harder but longer-lasting — staring our demons straight in the face. 

Avoid suppression and expression

“As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away,” Goenka says. 

The key is stand still in the depths of our emotional storms and simply watch them happen — mindfully, precisely, without judgment, and without acting on them. 

In short, our practice is to avoid the extremes of expressing negativity through our behavior and suppressing it through distraction. And our tools for doing that is mindful self-observation — the essence of vipassana practice. 

The lightning speed of negativity

This direct approach poses a big challenge, however — the faster-than-light speed of mental impurity. Anger and fear can arise and overpower us long before we even notice these emotional states are happening. 

As a result, we react to our knots by acting in mean-spirited ways. We say and do things that we later come to regret. And after the emotional storms pass, we wake up to the damage we’ve done to our relationships. We find ourselves begging forgiveness and promising to change our behavior. 

But before long another wave of negativity overwhelms us and we make the same mistakes all over again. It’s a vicious cycle with a predictable toll on ourselves and the people around us. 

Fortunately there is a better way.

Body and breath as early warning system

Imagine, says Goenka, that you could employ a private secretary for all your waking hours — someone with the supernatural power to observe your mental states as they unfold, moment by moment. 

Look! this person would say. Right now, rage is just starting to arise in you. Notice it now and respond skillfully, before it’s too late.

Of course, this is purely hypothetical. There is no person with such omniscient power that we can turn to for help.

No problem, says Goenka. By virtue of being born into a human body, we have two things even better than an imaginary secretary: We have our breath. And we have physical sensations. 

When any mental impurity arises, two things happen. One, our breathing loses its natural rhythm. Two, biochemical reactions take place within the body, and these create physical sensations. 

Breathing and sensations are our private secretaries. As soon as our emotional states shift, they alert us: Look. Something is changing. Notice it now — before it possesses you.

Once we’re alerted, we can hang out in a peaceful way with negativity. Instead of repressing or expressing it, we can patiently watch it rise and crest like a great wave. In its own time, the wave of negativity will pass and we can return to a state of emotional balance. 

Benefits of the practice

There’s nothing to fear about this process. Any emotion is an interplay of breathing and sensation. Unpleasant? Yes, sometimes. But permanent? No, never. 

There’s also nothing abstract going on here. One perk of vipassana practice is getting something concrete to work with. 

Taken as concepts, anger, sadness, and fear are difficult to observe. But breathing and physical sensations — those are different. Those we can notice. They are something we can hang our practice on. 

Giving it time

Observing breath and body sensation is not an immediate fix, of course. Like any skill, it takes coaching and practice. 

You begin by practicing in a low-distraction setting such as a meditation retreat. Basically, you put yourself in a room with a bunch of other people who are not talking and not moving. They’re all doing the same thing that you are — just sitting there quietly with your eyes closed, observing your breathing and body sensations. 

If you do this for a while, you might go through some pretty nasty mind states — boredom, resistance, anger, sadness, and whatever other sh** bubbles up the surface. 

What happens, though, is that eventually you get better at sitting through all those emotional storms. No matter what arises, you learn to meet it with mindful attention. You build the muscle of patient observation. You develop “negativity chops.”

Non-reactivity as a superpower

In fact, you get so good at self-observation that the skill eventually spills over into the chaos of daily life. When your child screams at you or your boss chews you out, you silently and reflexively slip into “watching mode,” becoming an impartial Witness of breathing and body sensations.

Eventually you can learn to do this more often and in more circumstances before reacting in mean-spirited ways. Between stimulus and response, you create a space for conscious choice about how to respond. 

Suddenly it occurs to you that all those hours of sitting on your butt are worth it. You gradually acquire a secret superpower of non-reactivity. And eventually it becomes something that no one can take away from you.

Finding a stillpoint

Another perk of vipassana practice is that it mercifully redirects our attention. Instead of looking outward to the faults of other people and blaming them for our misery, we look inward at our patterns of breathing and physical sensation. 

The resulting change of perspective is a miracle. We learn that the source of our suffering lies inside ourselves. It’s not about external events. It’s not about what other people say and do. Misery is about how blindly we *react* to all that stuff.

Taking refuge in the Witness — our developing powers of self-observation — unlocks a still point of serenity. No matter what happens in life, we don’t have to get permanently knocked off-center. 

We get closer to the heart of spiritual practice — a “peace that passeth all understanding” that does not depend on  getting the circumstances of our lives just “right.”

Keeping the practice in perspective

Vipassana practice does not mean that we have to passively accept whatever happens to us. Nor do we have to become punching bags for people who are acting out their negative emotions.

Instead, we can do what’s needed to change our circumstances whenever possible. We can set healthy boundaries with people and ask them to change their behavior when appropriate. 

The point is that we can do all those things without emotional impurities on our end. We can behave from a place of peaceful presence rather than blind reactivity. 

Again, this does not happen all at once. Even with meditation experience, I still lapse into emotional reactivity when feelings run strong. 

But to break the cycle of emotional reactivity — even over minor incidents, even once — is truly a miracle. It makes the practice worthwhile. 

Emotional detox

There’s more to vipassana than this — insights into emptiness and non-duality, for example. But for me the ultimate fruit of the practice is to serve the world by acting as an emotional “detoxifier.” People can treat me with rudeness, hostility sarcasm, indifference — whatever. No longer am I compelled to respond on the same level. 

On my end, emotions bubble up to the surface as discrete changes in breathing and physical sensation. 

I wait and watch, allowing those to changes to pass and hitting the pause button before I respond to what other people say and do. 

Whatever happens, the pain stops with me.