Yesterday I was talking with a friend about how our own thinking around a situation can cause unnecessary suffering. Whilst this might be obvious when we are stuck on a negative thinking ride or sleepless with anxiety, it is also true when we get hung up over things, events or people being not as we would like.
I have personally spent a tremendous amount of time and mental energy, inventing reasons for why someone behaved in a particular way. Whilst I might feel satisfied having come up with a reason for their behaviour – it didn’t change the fact that they had acted in that way. I had to accept it whether I liked it or not.
I have wound myself up about decisions made by local authorities, workplace managers, loved ones, friends and strangers. In the end, I realised the only person experiencing pain was me.
I have also been just as wound up over my own actions; berating myself for losing control, saying the wrong thing or replaying a conversation. In other words judging, judging, judging.
Some have trouble accepting train delays; they fuss and fume whilst I stand on one leg using the time to practice standing like a tree. Fussing and fuming does not make the train come any sooner, eventually you have to accept that you will be later than planned. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you too can marvel at your balance ability.
As my relationship broke down, I was extremely concerned with how the rest of my life would be. I tormented myself over paying bills, moving to a new house, being alone. All of that was emotionally draining, not just for myself but for those who lived those moments with me and, none of it improved the situation. Eventually I realised I would deal with that when it came.
When a family member fell and broke their wrist, there were many things they worried about including Christmas which was three months in the future. Their anxiety didn’t change the fact that they had to cope with having a broken wrist but it did cause them tremendous angst and sleepless nights.
Today it is raining hard here. Very different weather to what we have been having. Whilst I am enjoying the change, I am sure there are others who are wishing it was otherwise. Lamenting and complaining about all the things they cannot do today. Once they have run through this list, perhaps more than once, they will acknowledge that today is wet and windy and get on with it.
These are all examples of how our reaction to a situation can cause harm. The Buddhist two arrows parable illustrates this very well.
The Two Arrows Parable
The Buddha said "When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.
"Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows."
The Sallatha Sutta
Accepting and allowing
The message of the two arrows parable is often shortened to pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Whilst the story focuses on dealing with physical pain more wisely, it is just as relevant to dealing with emotional pain. In both cases, we can recognise that we cannot always control the first arrow but the second arrow is always fired by ourselves.
As human beings, it is natural to want to move away from things that are uncomfortable whether that’s physically or emotionally. We find ways to distract or distance ourselves; this might be finding cause, fretting over effect, soothing with food, going on a spending spree or sitting in judgement, sometimes of ourselves.
Yet such activities are really delaying tactics. Eventually we must face whatever caused us to look the other way and that usually means acceptance or allowing.
I say usually because accepting things as they are does not mean accepting unacceptable behaviour or being passive receivers of abuse. We still maintain our personal boundaries and change what is within our power to change. And yes, we sit with the pain. We just don’t get stuck in our heads on things that are outside our influence and thus save ourselves from that second arrow.
As my mindfulness practice deepens, I increasingly recognise that it is the stories we tell ourselves about happenings that cause suffering. Mindfulness has enabled me to not only take a witnessing stance and see how I react internally to events in my external environment and hear the commentary I play but also the tales I weave to worry myself with.
It is enlightening to discover how we cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary distress.
Bhikkhu, T. (1997, January 1). Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow Retrieved July 28, 2018 from http://buddhasutra.com/files/sallatha_sutta.htm