THEOSOPHY, Vol. 88, Issue 1, November/December 1999
(Pages 5-10; Size: 12K)


[Article number (6) in this Department]

What is the difference between reaction and response?

Beyond semantics, the question delves into how to practically apply what one thinks. The two words, one with more negative connotation than the other, indicate actions driven by external stimuli and to some degree involve feelings or senses that lead to action. But they are not always interchangeable. Responses to an allergic reaction, for example, are to get away from the source of stimulation and to relieve the suffering. More often, a reaction can be privately or reflexively experienced (often in opposition) while a response is generally an external expression based on reaction. Complex issues of control, habit, change, and choice arise. The comments below, offered by several students, throw light on who we are and the art of living, as viewed through different facets of inquiry.


Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Newton's law of the conservation of momentum is recognized by many in theosophy as an aspect of the law of karma. Many reactions have little or no moral consequence, however. A girl throws a ball to the ground; the ball bounces back up. Many others have considerable moral consequence. A man on one side strikes another; the man on the other side strikes back. Unfortunately, many of our moral reactions are done automatically, without rational thought. Why? Over many lifetimes we have developed skandhas, tendencies or habits of thought, feeling, and action. They are like grooves along which our thoughts, feelings, and actions automatically proceed, as water automatically flows along the irrigation channels dug by the farmer. These skandhas can be deep, powerful, and tenacious.

A response is a kind of reaction wherein we deliberately intervene and try to rise above the pre-established skandhas. The higher nature attempts to break the old patterns of the lower nature to create new ones in their stead. What if, instead of automatically striking back, the man who was struck injects a series of rational thoughts: this fellow and I are not separate; he and I are one; if I strike him I strike myself; if I strike him I merely perpetuate in myself the tendency to strike back; if I desist from striking back and summon feelings of compassion and forgiveness, I establish a new tendency; therefore, I will not strike back; I will love this man instead. This is going from automatic reaction to deliberate and rational response.

Why are so many of our actions reactions instead of responses? One important factor is that, untrained, our thoughts are too fast. Just as the driver of a car zooming along at 120 mph has no time to react appropriately to events as they occur and so causes one accident after another, so the speeding mind of the average person causes such "accidents" as impatient gestures, "thoughtless" words, sudden outbursts of anger, and even, sometimes, violence. Conversely, just as when a car is slowed to a more reasonable 50 mph the driver has time to respond to events that occur and thus can avoid accidents, so when the mind is slowed there is sufficient time "between the thoughts" for the higher soul to intervene, for it to break the old conditioned patterns and establish new and better ones. When we forge for ourselves a slow, one-pointed mind filled with a satisfying inner vision of the underlying unity of life and infused with boundless affection for all creatures, we eventually attain the ability to respond wisely and lovingly to every situation.


The implication of a reactionary is to effect an opposite action. We envision one who reacts to anything contrary to one's own opinions, that is, one who acts in defense of one's opinions. So, we might ask, what is wrong with defending one's opinions? Simply put, opinions are limited and should be on their way to a greater awareness. Thomas Taylor clarifies this when he cites Olympiodorus on the four modes of knowledge:

The first of these results from opinion, by which we learn that a thing is, without knowing why: and this constitutes that part of knowledge which was called by Aristotle and Plato erudition. ... But the second is produced by the sciences; in which, from establishing principles as hypotheses, we educe necessary conclusions, and arrive at the knowledge of the why (as in mathematical sciences); but at the same time we are ignorant with respect to the principles of these conclusions, because they were merely hypothetical. The third species of knowledge is that which results from Plato's dialectic; in which, by a progression through all ideas, we arrive at the first principle of things, and at that which is no longer hypothetical; ... But the fourth species is still more simple than this, because it no longer uses analysations or compositions, definitions or demonstrations, but by a simple and self-visive energy of intellect speculates things themselves, and by intuition and contact becomes one with the object of its perception; and this energy is the divine reason which Plato speaks of in the present passage, which far transcends the evidence of the most divine revelation; since this last is at best founded in opinion, while the former surpasses even the indubitable certainty of science. (Intro. to The Phaed, pps. 249-250.)
"All is consciousness and its states," according to HPB. This process and its rationale are further explained by Wm. Q. Judge in "The Sheaths of the Soul":
... the Soul has constructed for its own use various sheaths, ranging from very fine ones, near to its own essential being, to those that are more remote, ending with the outer physical one the most illusionary of them all, although appearing from the outside to be truly real. These sheaths are necessary if the soul is to know or act....

By this I mean that whatever the Soul initiates, it has to pass along through the several sheaths, each reporting, as it were, to the one next below it; and in like manner they report from below upward in the case of sensations from natural phenomena and impressions on the outside. [Note: For those who would like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to WQJ's "The Sheaths of the Soul" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]

These sheaths of the Soul are, in fact, states of consciousness, and the depth that we reach in our perceptions are representative of the degree of illumination expressed. That is, a reaction originates from the lower manasic part of our being while a response will have the insight of higher manas and, when joined to Buddhi, will express a Soul perception. Patanjali (Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, p. 26) states, "the Soul is the perceiver ... and looks directly upon ideas."


Reaction and response, however we might define the terms, have their source within, that every outer action has an inner impulse and that impulse is intelligent. This means that thought or ideation is at the root of all human action. Not only our conscious life but the whole human physical system is guided by intelligence.

There are two basic seats of action in the human being: One is related to instinct and habit. This is the seat of reaction. The other is intuition (higher mind), the seat of what we will call response.

On the plane of reaction, the workings of the various physiological systems and organs are seemingly automatic. The lives that make them up have been trained through the evolutionary process (directed by higher intelligence) to work together and for the benefit of the whole. We blink without thinking to protect the eye from dust. In hot weather, we perspire to help keep the optimal body temperature. This is reaction in its most positive manifestation. On the animal level, instinct rules and works for the good of the whole. But we are not essentially animals. We are spiritual beings in animal bodies. And thus our thoughts and feelings become habitual due to the mind getting mixed up with our animal aspect. We often act in a reactionary mode according to our likes, dislikes, desires, fears, prejudices and what we believe to be true. When this happens, for all intents and purposes, we have become the puppet-like creatures of all our previous thought. As we said before, this is all due to our inner intelligence.

But just because it is intelligent doesn't mean it is very smart. What distinguishes us from the animal is our manasic (self-conscious) intelligence, the power to perceive, to choose, to understand the ramifications of our choices. We have the power to change our minds and do things better, to see clearly and consciously, to be as the adage goes, "a conscious co-worker with nature." We have the capability to respond to life rather than merely react. Response comes from our higher nature, the seat of intuition, universal ideas, love, compassion, and creativity. In this sense response is causal, reaction merely effect. When we act as cause, we cease to be "poor miserable sinners," mere biological accidents, and assume the Promethean responsibility as one of the creative gods. Our job is to respond to the call expressed in all Spiritual traditions, "Man, know thyself." And in that knowing become one with All.

[Note: Here's the link to WQJ's article, entitled "The Sheaths of the Soul", that was quoted from in the above article by one of the students.--Compiler]

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