Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
The Buddha told a parable and the teaching was:
“If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?”
As we move through the day, when something happens, when we have pain in our body, when somebody treats us in a way that feels disrespectful, when something goes wrong for someone we love, that’s the first arrow. Our mind and body go into a reactivity that does not help to bring healing. We blame others, we blame ourselves. That’s the second arrow.
When hit with discomfort, the conventional reaction is to complain, regret, blame, and doubt. So we feel two afflictions: 1) the inevitable, physical feelings (a first arrow the world blasts us with) and 2) the additional, mental reactions (the second arrow we shoot into ourselves). This second, and often more painful arrow, is our reaction to what life throws at us.
Sometimes our self-aversion is subtle; we may not be aware of how it undermines us. More often it is not so subtle - we hate ourselves for the way we get insecure and frustrated, for feelings of jealousy or inadequacy, for feeling tired and unproductive. Rather than attending to the emotions underlying the first arrow, we shoot ourselves with the second arrow of self-blame.
We may fail to note any relief or escape from uncomfortable feelings [the first arrow] other than to distract ourselves temporarily with sensual pleasure. So we cling to diversions, rather than observing what is actually present - the arising and passing of feelings.
These optional, second arrows of torment can play out in different ways:
1. We can blame and denounce others for shooting us with those first arrows [their rejections, insults, dismissals, wrongs of all varieties] and feel picked on by the universe.
2. We can castigate and condemn ourselves for being human and not avoiding life’s inescapable disappointments, reaching the conclusion we are particularly damaged or fated to misery.
3. We can obsess after short term distractions and pleasures: stuffing our feelings with food, retail therapy, burying ourselves in work, seeking refuge in television or sex, drugs and alcohol.
The spiritual solution is to put aside the distractions and to attend to the uncomfortable feelings directly after being hit with those first arrows. How does it feel to be rejected? fired? dumped? abandoned? Not good, but if we hold the sensations in our awareness, it turns out they’re not as overwhelming as we thought; with compassion and care the body softens, the mind becomes less agitated, the impressions arise and pass. It turns out we can survive being hit by an arrow, so long as we don’t shoot too many into ourselves in return.
—The Buddha, The Arrow Sutta
I write about human behavior, meditation, body awareness, and a variety of other things that pique my interest.