Zen stones row from large to small  in water with blue sky and p

We all have plenty of experience of how it feels to be awash with a negative emotion – anger, impatience, frustration, desire etc. You are sitting at a cross roads and the driver in front seems to take an age in moving out on to the other carriageway and “impatience” sweeps through you; someone queue jumps at the airport security check and “anger” takes hold; you get rejected again for a new job and you sink into a state of frustration; or you pass the cake shop window and you are filled with desire!

We spend our days bombarded by emotions; the vast majority of which are unhelpful and often lead to a compulsive “reaction” that only worsens the situation – we gesticulate to another driver; we insult the queue jumper; we send an email that we really shouldn’t have to the boss of the company that didn’t hire us; or we scoff down the cream cake and derail our plan to shed a few pounds!

What we need to do is learn to recognise them in the very moment they arise, let them pass and then choose consciously a more appropriate and positive response.

Before we can do that, skillfully and “mindfully”, we need to understand a little about where and why we are where we are and, equally, where we want to be!

Karma – everything arises from cause and effect

Wherever we might be, here and now, is not a matter of “chance”, it is all about your past karma (actions), which exist, and can’t be changed. There isn’t much you can do about it except, very importantly, accepting that reality (NOT resignation, but rather positive “acceptance” and understanding of why you are experiencing what you are!)

The positive spin to this reality is that just as your past actions have led you to be where you are now, your current actions will determine what your future will be like i.e. with your reaction to each experience in the present moment you create the karma that will colour your future. It is up to you whether this new karma is positive or negative. You simply have to pay attention at the right moment.

The hard thing is that not only do your past actions (karma) create what you will live / experience, but also they are inextricably linked to how we will react to those very same experiences, and so does the circle of suffering continue (where the actions are negative)! Karma creates not only experiences BUT also habitual patterns of behaviours / reactions that in turn produce another round of similar experiences. The key is recognising this and ensuring that the actions we undertake are “positive” and thus the arising experiences AND habitual behaviours / reactions are also positive ie what we want! Breaking this cycle all depends on us finding the space in our mind between when we confront a situation, that we perceive as negative, and when we react.

Again this isn’t easy as we will be invariably working against “hard wired” habitual patters including the “instincts” of our “fight or flight” protection mechanism! When someone shouts at us we feel threatened (just as we did in the past when we lived in the jungle and a lion appeared in front of us!) but the threat is no longer to our physical integrity rather a threat to the mentally construed “I”, or the “ego”, and thus the fight or flight based reaction is unlikely to be in our best interest (or indeed the person who has shouted at us if we shout back or give them a bloody nose!!)

A good starting point however is to look at how thoughts arise in our mind and what I have seen described as the “three moments”. These 3 moments are at the heart of Mindfulness practice and indeed Buddhist practice generally.

Which are the three moments?

When analysed we can see that life is made up of a series of experiences, and each of these experiences can be broken into three moments.

The First Moment – Sensing In the first moment, your sensory organs—your eyes, ears, nose—perceive some sort of input. This is the moment between, for instance, the view of something reaching your eyes and your eyes perceiving it. It is something instantaneous and effortless, because it is hardwired into your system. In this moment you have seen something, or heard a sound etc BUT you haven’t yet recognized what it means / is.

The Second Moment – Recognising It is in the second moment that you recognize the sight, sound, taste etc eg a bird flying in the sky or a drum beat or whatever. Again this is an instantaneous subconscious reaction. The problem is that at the same time that you recognise the object, sound etc you also classify it as good, bad, or neutral. Again this is automatic and derives from our “catalog” of past experiences which in turn are made up of memories (conscious and sub conscious) along with a whole series of ingrained socio – cultural beliefs. This all happens so quickly that the first and second moments often appear to us as if they were one.

The Third Moment – Reaction Now we come to the critical “third moment” where, if we use mindfulness skillfully, we open up a window in which we have the choice of accepting the emotion (and beliefs) served up by your memory or not. This in turn helps us to decide what “reaction” is most appropriate, be it mental, verbal, or physical.

How we “classify” things is critical in this context as this will determine how we react. For example if we class something as “good” we will be drawn to it, even though it may not be beneficial either to us or others. When we do the alternative ie class something as “bad”, our usual reaction is to push it away, often with more force than is appropriate or necessary. The key is that the reaction is invariably an automated response – reaction based on our hardwired program of beliefs and memories, and it does not take into account firstly whether those memories and beliefs are well founded (true / realistic) or whether the “reaction” is appropriate. As a consequence many, if not most of these “habit” based reactions, lead to negative karma being created.

The third moment provides you with the space to analyse the situation with the mind of wisdom and determine the response. It is also an important moment to get to know, and come to terms, with all these emotions rather than just letting them come and go as they please.

In so doing we start to really take back control of our lives rather than being victims of instinctive reactions arising from the environment in which we play out our lives. We start to make choices about the kind of life we want to live. If we seek to change the environment we will have a never ending battle trying to change everything and everyone we come into contact with, while if we decide to choose our responses in order to achieve our desired outcome, happiness and peace of mind, we will have all the control not others!

How to put into practice living in the third moment

The objective is to use the third moment not to “react” spontaneously but to watch in a very conscious and specific way.

The key is to notice the very instant that an emotion arises and to “pause”. We need to take the emotion being experienced into our awareness. This is all about timing. You need to catch the emotion before it has time to “take hold”. You simply need to see the emotion for what it is – an emotion of anger, of frustration or whatever.

The tendency is to try and analyse from where the emotion arose from – the source / cause / “reason”, but this is not helpful. Instead of focusing on who did what to whom, simply look into the emotion for what it “is” – anger, desire etc. Again avoid separating yourself from the emotion, as if it were somehow external and instead simply take awareness of the experience and the emotion and try to feel it directly.

Feel the emotion as if it were filling you up inside (like a balloon). Take note of what it feels like, but don’t seek to analyse or reason. Now consider the reality of what is at the centre of the balloon – nothing, just empty space. We are not saying that the emotion has become “space” rather we are taking into our consciousness the fundamental awareness that the emotion itself does not exist in the way we believe it does, as something fixed and solid. That reality is profoundly liberating and although it will take time and practice, as this awareness grows so you will begin to feel greater inner peace and maybe even “joy”!

In this way we start to prevent these emotions ruling our lives and in turn we take back the reins of our life and all we experience. The beauty of this approach is that it is something you can practice at any time of the day, indeed that is the aim, and by so doing it becomes a new and positive habit! Not only will you start to find greater inner peace, but that very peace becomes the bedrock for the development of loving kindness and compassion!

As remembering all of this in the heat of the moment can be difficult, one can practice using visualised and imaginary situations that you know “provoke” certain key emotions and then apply the approach when they arise, although nothing is better than practicing “in the field” with real live situations!


The key thing to remember is that this third moment, when the emotion arises, and when we need to take consciousness of it, happens very quickly so is easy to miss. It all happens in the space between the negative experience arising, you’re feeling of the emotional response AND when you react – physically, mentally or verbally.  This is the time to stop and practice Mindfulness.

It is all about practice and once you start to do it, and feel the results, you won’t want to stop!! You will find mental calmness and a much more open vision of life and all the people and experiences we encounter. You will recognise that your emotions aren’t “real”, rather something that simply arises from your erroneous perceptions of situations and experiences, and empty of inherent existence.

You will live with a mind of non judgment and one that accepts the “here and now” for what it is – all arising from cause and effect – our karma.

Version en español – Atención plena: elegir cuándo y cómo responder en lugar de solo “reaccionar”

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