Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Space between Stimulus and Response: Finding Your True Self-- Amherst High School Commencement, 2015 Catherine Cook-Cottone

The Space between Stimulus and Response:
Finding Your True Self
Amherst High School Commencement, 2015
Catherine Cook-Cottone



Graduating Class of 2015,

I have a question for you. This question comes from the Pulitzer prize winning poet Mary Oliver. She asks, “Tell me, what IS IT you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

If your attention span is anything like mine was the day I graduated, I will say that for you again- “Tell me, what IS IT you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

How does that question land? For some of you, the answer is easy. You know. You answer quickly that you are going to college and where. Others are less sure. Travel, work, a gap year? Well, it might put many of you at ease to know- that- is not what I am asking about.

I am asking you about something closer, something in the here and now.  I am asking you about a space. A space worthy of your seeking. A space in which you- each of you- can find your true selves.

I continue with another quote. This quote comes from Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School.  During World War II, he spent years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. As a Jewish prisoner of war and medical doctor, he treated other prisoners who had deadly illnesses such as typhoid. He tried to help as best he could. Still, he watched as many of his patients were among the millions that died at the hands of the Nazis. Dr. Frankl lost his wife and much of his family. We would all have understood his choices if he had surrendered into complete dejection and hate.

Imagine yourself in his shoes for just a moment- a witness to the worst in human behavior, to tragic and horrific loss of life, the loss of beloved family- what would you do? Yeah- I don’t know either.

I can tell you what Dr. Frankl did. Instead of giving in to all that at happened to him, following liberation, Dr. Frankl authored 39 books. His most famous book "Man's Search for Meaning" has been deemed by the Library of Congress as one of "the ten most influential books in America." In this book, he makes a keen observation.

It can be summarized like this,

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In this space lies your power to choose your response.
In your response lies your growth and your freedom.”

You see, who you are, your true character lies in this space.  The question I asked you just moments ago….. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?” It can be answered in these spaces. Truth be told, the best-laid plans can change dramatically, in a moment. It is in your interest to own this fascinating, life changing SPACE between stimulus and response.

Class of 2015, you live in historic times. There is no doubt about that. It remains true- just as it was for Dr. Frankl- that who you are, what you choose, what you create is not solely defined by the stimulus- things like your trauma, good looks or lack thereof, family, wealth, poverty, or legacy. Further, it is not defined by reactions, consequences, or rewards- deserved and undeserved- wonderful and horrible. No matter what occurs before and what happens after, who you are- lies in each of your choices. Nowhere else.

You MIGHT even consider that when life throws a challenge your way, a chance to choose, that life is not happening to you, it is happening for you. Yeah- it happens for you-- for you to find out who you are. This one wild and precious life you see- It gives you a chance to seek out and dig into these spaces. Your one wild and precious life gives you the chance to choose.

Often, we don’t see these opportunities coming. We fail to see the gravity of the moments in which choices are presenting themselves to us. Looking back we see- with 20/20 vision what could have been- might have been- if only we had chosen differently. Ahhhh but If we are lucky- we see these moments- these choices- as they present themselves to us. So, today my gift to you is to give you a heads-up. So here we go, a review of eight of the many choices that live in that beautiful, amazing space between stimulus and response.

Choice #1: Be on purpose

When I was little, there was this thing that made anything you did shift from a mild indiscretion to a serious offense- So there is, “Mom! She just hit me! She hit me right in the face!” Okay, that is pretty bad. Maybe that reflects even more than a mild indiscretion. However, if it was reported like this, “Mom! She just hit me. She hit me right in the face!…. (and here is the critical part)… “ON PURPOSE.” <Gasp> Now that is serious.  When you are a kid, it really matters if you do something on purpose.

Guess what, you are all old enough to graduate from high school and it still matters. Being on purpose, means that you live and act with intention. Here is how you do it.  First, breathe- unless it is an absolute emergency- (which very few moments really are)- wait- ground your feet, take a another deep breath and be ON PURPOSE. Yeah- do what you are up to- on purpose. Not by accident, not in a hurry, not mindlessly, not because you were drunk, and not by the seat-of-your-pants. NO! Dig your feet into the earth below you, breathe, and be on purpose.

Choice #2: Consider kindness and compassion

When you are triggered. Notice, I did not say “if” you are triggered. I said “when” you are triggered, with your ON PURPOSE consider filling the space between stimulus and response with kindness and compassion. This is risky yes- but trust that if being kind and compassionate doesn’t work, you can always be a jerk later (pause). Kindness and compassion might show up as giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you consider that each of us is fighting our own battle, that we are doing the best we can, and sometimes, you- me- we all- fall short. And when we do, we need kindness and compassion.

I also ask you to consider being kind to yourself. Us parents have spent years trying to help you kids have a good self-esteem. As it turns out, researchers have discovered that self-esteem is nice, but it is difficult to maintain and not all that helpful. First, to get self-esteem you need to succeed, win the game, be the best, or the prettiest, funniest, and most popular. “Perfect,” you say, “that is a plan! I just need to win and I will have high self-esteem and that is good. I am good.” Okay class of 2015, look to your left and to your right. Those are your competitors- stare them down. If they win, you lose. (Pause). So, this begs the question,  “How can we all win?” We can’t and won’t. When one of us wins, a lot of us- simply as collateral damage- lose. So what now?  To fix this, we started giving everyone trophy’s. The parents say, “Wow, you got a trophy. Look at that!” The kid shrugs and says, “So- everyone got one.”

The good news is the research tells us that having self-compassion is more helpful than self-esteem and you don’t need to crush your friends to get there.  Self-compassion correlates with less anxiety, better academic performance, and higher achievement of goals- and many more really great things. Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself no matter what. It means honoring your struggle, hard work, and effort. It means knowing that we all try and we all fail and it is part of the common human experience. It is being able to look clearly at what you could have done better and giving yourself the talk, “Look Catherine, you tried. Today was a hard day. We all have days like this. So, you were a little nervous, maybe a little sweaty. It’s hot up on stage. You wore that robe and the hat. Let it go. Your next speech, well that speech will be fabulous!” Self-compassion looks like that.  So, choose kindness and compassion it will serve you as well as those around you.

Choice #3: Do the right thing, not the easy thing

When we are lucky, the right thing is the easy thing- and reality is, the more times you choose the right thing- the easier it gets. In 2013, I took a team to Kenya to research the Africa Yoga Project, a program employing almost 100 Kenyans as yoga teachers offering yoga to nearly 5,000 Kenyans a week. We conducted some of the research in the Kibera slums. About 1 million people live in Kibera, which is the size of New York City’s Central Park. Kibera is jammed with row after row of tin huts, each housing up to eight people. There is no plumbing or running water. There are no streets, lighting, police, or medical facilities. Urine and feces run in the ruts of the walking paths. Life expectancy in Kibera is 30 years of age and one out of five children do not live to see age 5.

When my research team returned from completing Phase 1 of our study in Kibera, a few team members approached me and said they did not feel safe enough to go back. We had hired security, but the truth was, I could not ensure everyone’s safety. I was in one of these spaces. On one hand, I wanted the study to be successful and- on the other hand- I wanted my team to feel safe. I was tired and frustrated. I took a deep breath, waited, grounded my feet, and with my ON PURPOSE-- I approached the team. I told them that the choice was theirs to make. Sure, I wanted the help. Yeah, it was critical for us to find out more about the effects of yoga in the Kibera slums. And No, my desire to collect these data were not more important than the security and well-being of any one member of my team. The next day, a smaller group of us went to Kibera and completed Phase 2. I have a photo of my husband working with a child on the clay floor of the Kibera school, no roof or books, and a chicken running by. We had a truly inspiring day. And the team members that stayed back, they happily prepared our materials for the next few days. They were uplifted by their power to choose. The easy thing would have been to express my frustration and argue with the team. The right thing was to allow choice even if it meant I might lose data. I did the right thing.

Choice #4: Choose love over fear

This is a big one. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl described a forced march, prisoners starving and freezing, holding each other up. He had this realization, he said, “…for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth— that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.”

I have my own, smaller story. I had moved around a lot as a kid. When I was about the age you are right now- class of 2015. I told myself that I would not get attached to anyone, ever again- because it hurt too much to say goodbye. Well, that was a bad plan- the world is too full of amazing people to not fall in love. And against my best-laid plans, I met my husband and then worse, I had two daughters. It all came down to this moment, one of the most difficult moments of my life. It was an early Saturday morning. My husband had gone for a run and my daughters had climbed up into our bed to cuddle. I was snuggling with them and all of a sudden- I was overwhelmed by how much I loved them. I started thinking about what it would feel like if something happened to them. I was terrified. I had an overwhelming urge to run miles away from the fear I was feeling. Instead, I said, “Catherine- stay. Stay here and feel what you feel.” And at that moment, I chose love over fear. My girls did not understand why tears were streaming down my face. They were tears of joy- because I let myself choose love.

You will have these moments because one of the scariest things you will ever do-- is to love. I promise. You will have instants when the words, “I love you” will lift a parent’s heart, bring joy to a grandparent, light up a child’s face, and mean more than you can imagine to a dear friend. Don’t be afraid to say, “ I love you.” I chose love over fear and I hope you do too.

Choice #5: Choose joy

During our second trip to Kibera, we saw devastating hardship and we saw something else. We saw children playing, laughing, and running into the arms of their mothers. We saw smiles and dancing. We saw, in the midst of devastating hardship and poverty, what could only be described as joy. When we got back to our room that night, my husband and I talked about all we had in our lives, a house, fresh food and water, and healthy children. Yet, despite all that we had- it was so easy for us to get caught up in what we didn’t have. We sat in silence. Then, Jerry said, “I know what we learned today. We learned that you choose joy. It is not about what you have or don’t have, at a certain point- you- just- choose- joy.” He was right. We choose joy. Choose to step into the dance, the laughter, the love, the do-it-anyways of life. In your spaces, choose joy.

Choice #6:  Choose meaning

And in this choice lies the critical question, “What is your purpose?”  Some believe that were all born with a purpose- a dharma- a reason for being. So, start today and live the question, “What is my purpose?” When you consider your answer, dare to dream. You’ll know you have found the right answer because it will feel right in your gut and your heart and it will make sense up here. Other things will happen too. You will get excited to go to work. You will laugh with your colleagues during the hardest of days. You will cry because you can’t make a difference fast enough. You will see setbacks as part of the mission. And you will get up everyday, ready to carve out the next steps. Then there is this one- this one is really important Class of 2015- you will look to your left and to your right and see your comrades, not your competitors. You see, when you find your reason for being, you will change this world in ways that bring you closer to others not further away- because that is what reasons-for-being are all about. They are about the WE and not the I. Choose meaning.

Choice #7: Get out of your comfort zone

It is said that, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” We all have our comfort zones. For some of you, it’s on the couch binge watching your favorite show. For others, it’s the same old friends, your routines, and the things you know you’ll get right. It’s the place where we feel safe, yes. However, magic happens outside of your comfort zone. Right now, ask yourself, “What would I do with my life if I wasn’t afraid to fail?”

I am living it now. With a not-for-profit I founded, Yogis in Service, I have committed to building a yoga studio on the East-side of Buffalo. Why? because I believe in social justice. I believe that all of us should have access the safe places to exercise, learn to breathe, and cope with stress. I was there this morning teaching yoga. In fact, that is my reason-for-being- to give others access to the tools of self-regulation. To build this studio, we need to construct a wall and put in both a subfloor and yoga floor. We don’t have the money or supplies….. yet. In fact, I am not exactly sure how we are going to pull this off. And as I share my goals with the world, I am nervous, really nervous. Some days I am down right scared.  Just like I was when I applied to my master’s and doctoral programs, when I defended my dissertation, when I fell in love with my husband and had my daughters, when we bought our house, when I started putting together the team to go to Africa, and now standing in front of you giving my first ever commencement speech. This, my friends, is outside of my comfort zone and this is where the magic happens. Come join me in the space outside of your comfort zone.

Choice #8: Consider that you are worth the effort

This is the last one, and perhaps the most important. I am going to tell you something not too many people know, I failed/dropped out of college. Yes. I did. I was going through what some people call a “rough patch” that involved a break-up and a lot of bad choices. Truth is, I went through a period of time when I was hurting and I did not believe that my self, this self, or my dreams were worth the effort. Hurt and loss can be confusing that way. The good news is that during this time, there was a small voice inside that kept reminding me that I had something valuable to offer. That even though I had messed up, there was more to me than my mistakes. I can tell you right now, as someone who has pulled herself up by her bootstraps, that it is never too late to turn it around and there is no dream too big for me, you, or anyone.

Digging into the place between stimulus and response in not easy. It can be a pretty intimidating notion to really get it-- that life happens for you and not to you. Yeah, it requires effort, looking your worst choices right in the eyes, and moving forward anyway. There will be times when you will fail, you will be hurting, and you will feel like giving up and it- is- at- exactly- these moments that you will need to remember that YOU are worth the effort. Choose you and when you choose you, you will be choosing all of us too.  You see, I believe that we are all inextricably interconnected and if anyone of us gives up on his or herself- on his or her reason for being- well, we all lose. So for you, for me, for us- please know that you are worth the effort. Choose you.

There are many more of these choices that you will face during your one wild and precious life. As you have other things to do today-- beyond listening to this speech-- I cannot list them all. And trust me, I would love to. There are really good ones, like-- value the journey as much as the destination, look for the big picture in the tiniest of moments, find humor, never forget your friends, be humble, see beauty in the quirks, send thank you cards, and as the words to one of my mom’s favorite songs plead, “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”

Ultimately, I am asking you to be a seeker. Look for the choices that live in your spaces- those beautiful spaces between stimulus and response- where you will come face-to-face with your true self, eyes wide open, and heart ready.

Class of 2015, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life? In my day, this would the time to say, “May the force be with you.” But that was 32 years ago. I could also say- “May the odds be ever in your favor” but that is too 2014. So one last gift to you class of 2015—I give you your own tag line-

Choose well-- my friends-- choose well.  


Thank you! And Congratulations!



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