Wisdom from the Buddhists on Suffering

November 16, 2020

The  challenges of 2020 have been profound and unprecedented. 

I know and am extremely grateful for how fortunate I’ve been to remain well and safe with a secure income this year yet, even so, there are times when the uninvited upheaval to every-day normality has taken a toll. 

When I fled London nearly two weeks ago to take refuge for lockdown II, I warmly remembered some wisdom from the Buddhists which brought powerful, positive and productive perspective for the weeks ahead. The wisdom comes in the following metaphor.

The Buddhists say that any time we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the actual bad event, which can, indeed, cause pain. The second arrow is the suffering. That’s actually optional. This second arrow is poisonous. It weighs you down with frustration and sadness and blinds you from the gifts of the present moment. 

This year, the world has felt the first arrow. Devastating numbers of lives have been lost and encumbered by Covid. Families and friends have been separated, people have lost significant income and some their livelihoods, and far too many people have felt grief-stricken, isolated and afraid. The uncertainty over the future, the disruption to “normal life” and the loss of being able to enjoy the halcyon days of freedom we’ve been so accustomed to – and with no known end in sight – has hit us all hard. 

What would the Buddhists do?

The Buddhists would stay  present with their feelings and emotional and physical pain without judgement. This is the time to allow yourself to feel any grief, fear, loss, disappointment. This is the time to allow the pain and be as gentle, loving and kind to yourself and others as you can. 

How do you avoid shooting the second arrow?

Step One: If you’re currently finding yourself ranting and raving, feeling upset and wishing things were different, you’re shooting yourself with the second arrow. Maybe you want to yell at someone. Or complain. Or look for someone to blame. Or focus on all that’s bad. Just become aware and notice your reaction. Are you allowing the first arrow? 

Step Two: Now ask yourself, “Do I need to shoot the second arrow? What could serve me better?” You can ask this either before you shoot the second arrow, or just after it’s been shot. What’s important is that you catch yourself adding more pain. That’s really expending more painful energy that doesn’t need to be added. You can also ask yourself, how can I be within myself (i.e. mindful, connected, still) and what action can I take that will actually serve me best right now? 

Step Three: You’re doing great! Give yourself kudos for catching yourself with the second arrow in hand, either before or right after shooting it. Your brain is learning a new, improved response which will allow you to free up more energy for situations that you can control. You can always adjust your reaction, even if you can’t control what happens to you.

Finally: Consider what sensational shifts will you make by not shooting the second arrow?

How do you use this approach at work? With your family, loved ones? In traffic? In any stressful situation?

As for how I’ve applied this Buddhist wisdom:

I’ll admit, news of lockdown II hit me with the first arrow bringing up slightly uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and disappointment – heightened when inevitably my upcoming speaking events that I’d worked hard to prepare got cancelled. I allowed these feelings to be with me noticing what my visceral experience was too, without judging. I then noticed what these feelings were telling me and what state of being and what action I could take, both in the present moment and in the month to come, to give myself the best outcome. I also thought of the potential gifts as well as the drawbacks of this second lockdown and felt gratitude for all the lessons it could teach me which could help me evolve. 

At times I’ve felt the threat of the second arrow – mainly wishing things were different –and I’ve caught myself here and brought myself back to the present, letting go of what I can’t control and keeping in mind what I’m grateful for. Slowing down, once again, has given me space and time to get more present and connected to those close to me and myself which has enabled me to live my life with more mindfulness, focus and give more attention to the the areas which can get pushed aside when the pace steps up. My focus has improved and my sense of purpose has been heightened. As for my speaking events that got cancelled, these are being rescheduled. 

My intention for sharing the above isn’t to paint the picture of the pandemic with a rosy brush, but rather, to encourage a mindset that will help us all to get through in as good health and prosperity as possible. This is Buddhist wisdom that’s worth remembering – always. So, allow yourself to feel all the emotions and feelings of the first arrow, then let go of what you can’t control and make life as optimal as you can. Life is a blessing and each day – lockdown or no lockdown – is a gift in itself. 

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