The Gap – between stimulus and response

– ‘Slow down your moving to fast’

Between stimulus and response

– ‘Slow down your moving to fast’

Habits and the point of freedom

Stimulus and response, let’s unpack this a little by looking at a really really important concept in Buddhism– the gap, or the point of freedom – that allows us to escape from the prison of habitual response.

The ‘Gap’ is a mental space between sensations and the feelings that arise from these and the response if the mind in terms of emotions and actions. For the most part the response of the mind is pretty automatic and from the guts and might feel intractable. But it isn’t intractable. We can train our minds to respond creatively, with awareness.

Have you ever been in a situation where you said something and wish you hadn’t, or even done something that you later regretted, or not done something that you wish you had, well this is the working ground of the ‘Gap’. We can soften and train our minds, through the application ethics principles and meditation, so that we are more warm and aware in the ‘gap’ between this and that and chose more positive and helpful emotional responses.

The idea of the ‘gap’ is clearly seen and embedded in the Tibetan wheel of life. Its a complex image covering many stages in the developing and changing consciousness. It describes the ultimate vicious circle. Describes the way that, if we don’t do anything about it, our past determines how we act in the present, and the way we act in the present creates our future. Which becomes our past. Which determines how we act in the present. Which creates our future. And so on. Like an endless wheel.


We are not going into the rich detail of the wheel yet, we will focus our attention on the magical point where the emotion-action response arises from the sensation-feeling perception. Turning our attention to what arises in the gap opens it up and helps us choose more creative and satisfying responses that lead to well being and happiness.

Past self and world -> responds to present situation with -> present actions (of body , speech and mind) -> future self and world -> Past self and world …

We can focus in a bit on the part where ‘responds to present situation with -> present actions’. If we allow the past to determine how we act now, our patterns and habits just get deeper and deeper, we are not the boss in our life, we are living on automatic pilot, we are being lived rather than living.

Actions -> habits -> a personality -> a life -> RIP

Cycles become habits. Habits accumulate into a personality. Personality manifests as a whole life, a whole world we live in.

This life may be boring or painful, may make us ill or unhappy, but if someone suggests we might be different our response is often to defend ourselves, to come up with reasons why we can’t do this.

But it is possible for us to take charge of our life, become aware of how we are responding, reflect on the sort of person we want to be and the sort of life we want to live and what responses would reflect that. We have the possibility of training our responses and becoming more the boss in our life.

To get clearer about how we do this, we need to look at the one part of the Wheel of Life in more detail:

The relevant bit of the wheel of life is down at 7 O’clock on the image. Its hard to see, but its between feeling (Vedanā):- depicted rather dramatically by a man with an arrow in his eye – and craving (Tṛṣṇa): – depicted by a drinker receiving drink.

The Gap detail

Old self and world -> Present Situation -> Sensations-Feeling-> Craving / Aversion-> Usual Habitual Response -> Same old self and world-> and round again.

Awareness and reflection increases gap -> new response-> new self-> new world

Take comfort eating or any other addictive cycle. We can think of plenty of examples where what is going on is a vicious circle. Coffee break comes around, we feel a craving for a cigarette or a biscuit. Craving is composed of wanting the pleasant feeling we get from indulging our habit, and wanting to avoid the uncomfortable feeling we get from not doing so, or just having the same safe experience as yesterday. We go for what feels comfortable and pleasant, so we have a cigarette. This means that we will want a cigarette even more strongly in the future. The more times we go round the circle the deeper is the rut that we dig, and the more difficult it is to get out of.

Easy to see for say smoking or comfort eating, but an awful lot of our behavior consists of going round in circles, reacting in much the same habitual way to the same stimuli, and digging ourselves a deeper and deeper rut. The world pushes our buttons, and we react, automatically.

And this often happens in much more complicated ways than we’ve seen with the smoking example. This is especially the case in our relationships with other people. So say for example there is someone at work or in our house that we don’t get on with. We are irritated by something they do. So we behave in a certain way when they are around. So they think we don’t like them, they are a bit unpleasant or defensive around us. So they behave in the same old familiar way. So we get irritated by them. So we behave in our usual way. So they think they don’t like us. So they behave in their usual way. Etc.

The Gap, or the Point of Freedom

But there is a way out! The gap in the wheel of life, the point where we can break out of old patterns is between feeling and craving. This is what we sometimes call the gap, or the point of freedom.

The gap->new creative response->new self and world

We find ourselves in the same old situation. The world pushes the same old button. We get the same old feeling. But we choose to do something new, something creative, something that breaks us out of the wheel.

When we stop being ruled by our momentary feelings and acting like preprogrammed machines we can break out of our vicious circle. When we do this we start setting up creative spirals. We start creating a new self and a new world. We break out of our ruts and habits, so we start to transform our whole personality. And as we change, the whole colour and flavour of our life changes, so that eventually it is as though we were living in a completely different world.

When the aggressive person starts responding with kindness rather than aggression, they start experiencing less aggression from others,so their world becomes a less aggressive place. When the shy person starts behaving in more confident ways, other people feel less uncomfortable around them, and become more approachable and easier to get on with, so their world becomes a less threatening place. And so on.

This is the technology of change, the way we use the fact that we can change to become happier and alive. We do this by being in The Gap as much as possible. By expanding our point of freedom.

But it is not always easy

…to be in the gap. Often requires us to do things that feel uncomfortable – our usual responses are a way of avoiding the discomfort of going against ingrained patterns.

Also: Often it seems like everything happens in such a rush that we have responded before we are aware of what we are doing. This is one of the ways that meditation is very useful. In meditation we get a chance to slow things down and get a much clearer picture of the way our mind works.

Life is like a rapids. Most of the time we are just tumbling along, and every now and then our head comes out and we can look around. Meditation gives us a stable rock we can climb onto, from which we can observe the current of our inner mental world much more clearly.