An Inquiry into Avoiding Unnecessary Suffering

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on September 11, 2016.

When I was asked to speak on 9/11, the inference was that I would be the right person to speak on this particular day. At first I wasn’t so sure. Then I recalled the Buddha’s teaching on the second arrow of suffering. I’ll get to that.

First, I’m going to begin with a light-hearted story that I wrote called Bear Trap.

A man watched a nature special on television, where grizzly bears grizzly-bearapproached the film’s narrator. The bears seemed aggressive, way too close for comfort. The closer the bears got, the more intense the situation became! Later, the bears attacked each other, showing just how vicious they could be. After the special, the man was nervous.

“You can’t trust grizzly bears,” he said to his little dog. He knew that the dog could not protect him, so he purchased bear mace illegally on the Internet.

The next day he saw a documentary where a young man tried to live with grizzly bears, but at the end of the film a bear ate him.

“Will they never stop?” he cried. Since the mace had yet to arrive by mail, he drove to Walmart and purchased a rifle, which he then stored under his bed.

It must have been grizzly bear week on television, because the next night he watched a special: WHEN GRIZZLY BEARS GO BAD. As you might expect, the film detailed grizzly bears attacking tents, coolers, cars, cabins, dogs, and (of course) people.

“This is getting out of control!” he said to the television. There had to be a way to protect himself. He was desperate, and decided to use magic. He placed four objects in his lawn that he felt would ward off evil. Then he took up a vigil in his spare time. Rather than watch television, he kept an eye on his various magics so that he could be certain they were actively protecting him.

A week went by and he had not seen a single grizzly bear. Finally, a curious neighbor stopped by.

“What are you up to – sitting out here all the time?” asked the neighbor.

“I’m using magic to keep grizzly bears away.”

“But there aren’t grizzly bears anywhere near these parts,” responded the neighbor.

“See, the magic is working!”

Now, we might observe that perhaps the magic did work. He was able to avoid getting eaten by his television.

Sometimes we worry about the improbable. It’s like the Mark Twain quote: “My life is filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

But misfortunes do happen. Among the first observations from the Buddha is that: Life has suffering. But it is not the last observation. What follows in Buddhism is a methodology for letting go of unnecessary suffering. One of those strategies is to avoid being re-wounded by unavoidable events.

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”

When something difficult 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, when we encounter unavoidable suffering – that’s the first arrow. Our mind and body can become reactive. Our automatic responses do not always help to bring healing and harmony. We may blame ourselves, or blame others. We may re-live the tragedy. We may become defensive and fearful. That’s the second arrow.

On September 11, 2001 I was on a spiritual retreat. I was isolated, without electricity or phone. In addition to its intrinsic value, a spiritual retreat also tends to separate one from the everyday events of your life.

I heard about 9/11 on NPR driving back to my home. Several days had passed, but the topic was still red-hot. I took some moments to feel compassion for the national grief. Then I determined that I would not watch the news. Our news media often specializes in what is sometimes called “limbic system news,” news targeted at stirring up our survival instincts.

So, I went out of my way to avoid seeing the video replay that I knew was likely to be shown over and over again. The first arrow was bad enough. But I was certain that Americans across the country were being shot with that second arrow. As time went by, it occurred to me that the second arrow was going to cause more damage than the first – artfully shot at the public in order to help justify a full-out war with Iraq.

In November 2014 One World Trade Center, which is roughly the same height as the Twin Towers, opened for business. And today, one-world-trade-center-3despite a staggering financial and human cost, many feel that the Middle East is less stable than in 2001. It might seem that the second arrow has done more damage than the first.

The second arrow of suffering can be the result of fear, anxiety, anger, or a disconnection to the ongoing flow of experience – which includes both joy and sorrow.

There’s a joke about a man who took his son for a walk on the beach, and they came across a dead seagull. The boy asked what happened, and his dad said, “well, the seagull died and went to heaven.” The boy was puzzled and said: “Did God throw him back?” When we don’t feel in touch with the natural cycles of Nature or the inevitable stress of unpleasant experience, we may develop strategies of resistance or denial.

Another way that we can react to stress is to become wed to a very busy lifestyle that is pulling us out of the present moment because we are constantly in a hurry. That makes it difficult to take a moment’s pause to pay attention to the Beauty that may be right in front of us.

Here’s an experiment done by the Washington Post.
In Washington, DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32. After 1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This experiment raises several questions:
How much are we missing as we rush through life? How often are we distracted from the present moment by worry – either something nagging us from the past or by anticipating terrible misfortune that hasn’t happened – getting hit by the second arrow of suffering?

Granted, we do live in a world that seems to be speeding up on its own. We live in an industrialized world that often devalues the individual. DH Lawrence made the same observation in the 1920s. Here’s a quote from Lady Chatterley’s Lover – his post World War I response to the disharmonies in the world:

It is a question of relationship. We must get back into a nourishing relationship with the universe. For the truth is, we are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs, we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great-uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the Universe.

That metaphor of an uprooted tree is still powerful today. It speaks to the long-term effects of greed and global warming. It speaks to being disconnected from the nourishment of the heart/mind, and vulnerability to the suffering of a second arrow.

But I’m going to be honest, it’s not so easy to just let go of unnecessary suffering. We’ve got to decide it’s worth the effort. We’ve got to decide to listen to pathfinders. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by Rumi, who spent the second half of his life pointing out the potential of being connected to our roots. You won’t get this on the nightly news. He states:

You were born from a ray of God’s majesty
and have the blessings of a good star.
Why suffer at the hands of things that don’t exist?
Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.

I’m not suggesting that we ignore the injustice in the world, but that we attend to the calling, to the quests of our life, with mindfulness and Love. In order to attend to what is meaningful, it is useful to understand what we can accomplish – what our gifts, medicine, and purpose are for a life. Generally, we can do more than we often think we can, but we do not possess godlike powers.

There’s a good Nasrudin story about this. Nasrudin was a satirical Sufi, but a tradition of whimsical teaching stories using his name took on a life of its own.

One day, the King called over Nasrudin and said to him, “Teacher, you claim to have mystical powers. Use your powers to catch fish for the starving people in our town.”

“Your Highness,” replied Nasrudin, “you’ve got me confused. I said I have powers. I never said I was a fisherman.” Sometimes, skillful means is a fisherman.

We each have unique gifts for the world, and we can actualize those gifts in Beauty. Thomas Merton said: “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or fable, it is true.” My own experience would suggest that Merton is telling us the truth. We can participate in the practice of walking in Beauty, of walking in Harmony. We can choose to honor the connection with our transpersonal self and the task of making our way selflessly through the world. We can train ourselves to pay attention to Beauty and to the sacred aspects of life. We can train ourselves to ignore fear-producing manipulation.

Beauty for me is a well-rooted tree, an actual tree or a metaphor of steadfastness and belonging. Any one of us at any moment can cultivate harmony, can investigate our unique gifts for Life – the purity of our vision – and can become nourished and well-rooted to the path of our lives.

Again, DH Lawrence:
If we think about it, we find that our life consists in this achieving of a pure relationship between ourselves and the living universe about us. This is how I “save my soul” by accomplishing a pure relationship between myself and another person; myself and community; myself and humanity, myself and the animals, trees, and flowers; myself and the earth, sun and stars. And yes, pure relationships with the activities of our lives, the very motion with which I write or knead dough for bread.

Establishing this near infinity of relationships may seem like an endless task.aurora-on-water

Here’s the poet Rilke expressing the same challenge of living openly. He states:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it.

No one expects perfection. What is suggested, I feel, is compassionate effort. DH Lawrence brings his quote back to everyday living – writing or cooking. He may not know it, but he is talking about mindfulness.

When we start paying attention to what is available in the moment, we come home to the heart’s will. From a place of presence we can respond to a situation with compassion instead of fear.

This is similar to what we do in a meditation practice, we begin to pause, recognize and open to the space that’s already here. Let’s say you’re beating yourself up about a mistake you made, wounding yourself with that second arrow. This is a good time to practice discrimination with a lightness of touch – with compassion. You can say to yourself:

Okay, I made a mistake and could live my life more skillfully. I see that, and now it’s time to let that go. This is a good time to pause. Can I recognize what is going on here and now? There’s nothing to be gained by drowning in the past. I’m prepared to move forward with the fullness and harmony of Being. I am prepared to re-establish that feeling of connection, of being well-rooted to the path of my Life.

Contemplative moment:
If you’d like, let’s share a contemplative moment, exploring the possibility of getting hit by the second arrow. Pain is pain, do we make it worse by creating drama, anger, guilt, recrimination…all the ways we humans enlarge pain?

At the sound of the bell, I’m suggesting a brief and compassionate exploration. This is an introductory exercise, uncritical, with a lightness of touch. If you discover an area where you might be stuck or over-reacting, ask yourself: can I give it a break? Can I pause? Can I let go, even just a wee bit for Now? Can I be kinder and more compassionate with myself and others? At the sound of the bell, explore the possibility of unnecessary suffering, and the potential to be more compassionate with our human nature. Of course, you can also choose to use this time to simply relax and renew.

Bell: If you’d like, open yourself to the possibility that there may be second arrows – unnecessary suffering – in your life. Be gentle – pause and reflect with compassion. Pursuing skillful means can always come at a later time.

Pause, and re-establish a feeling of connection to the roots of your life.    End Bell

I’d like to conclude with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist book of changes.

Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until right action arises by itself? This quote is not suggesting negligence. It is suggesting that we act in harmony with the flow of experience. A reactive mind might constantly stir the muddy water, making clarity difficult. Through pausing and patience, it is possible that equanimity can clarify our vision.

Thank you for this sharing opportunity.

PS: I can’t resist this little joke (compliments of Laura): I watched as someone shot an arrow into the air, and wondered why it was getting larger. Then it hit me.
(What would the Buddha say?)


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1 Response to An Inquiry into Avoiding Unnecessary Suffering

  1. Irina says:

    Thanks for the words of wisdom, Jim.
    Too often do I allow myself to be hit not only by the second arrow but by the third, fourth, fifth… and more. Time to renew my commitment to mindfulness.


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