Saturday, October 1, 2011

Of Trees and Arrows

Tasks appear on your to~do list faster than you can cross them off. Time vanishes. Pressure builds as deadlines draw near. Or maybe you’re struggling with something far more critical. Perhaps you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness or have had a recent heartbreak.

Whether our difficulties are mundane or profound, how do we manage them? For starters, we can choose to not make things worse.

At a recent retreat, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh shared a teaching of the Buddha’s known as The Second Arrow that speaks directly to this issue. A person is hit by an arrow that pierces the skin. It is removed, but immediately afterward, a second arrow strikes the same spot, intensifying the pain and complicating the healing process.

Metaphorically, this is often what we do with our own difficulties. Story~making creatures that we are, we take our original hurt and embellish it. Using our considerable creative powers, we expand the wound.

In the first example above, I may tell myself that I’ll never get it all done and spin a tale of being incompetent or helpless. I may unwittingly convince myself that I am a victim of a deadline or that finishing the task to perfection is a reflection of my worth. In more serious situations, I might tell myself that my anguish is more than I can bear. I may blame myself or others for my misfortune or conclude that I’m jinxed or powerless.

I can, in other words, shoot myself with a second arrow. Heck, I’ve been known to shoot myself with a whole quiver full of arrows, each one furthering the original distress and limiting my ability to respond appropriately and effectively.

The wise person stops with the first arrow.

This teaching encourages us to stay with the original experience, simply as it is. It warns against both exaggeration and avoidance. It advises against spinning into anger, despair and blame. It urges us to attend to our difficulties without complicating matters further by piling on additional layers. In this way, our wound remains just what it is. Nothing more. We are then better able to take constructive action.

This teaching is often used to illustrate the subtle distinction between pain and suffering in Buddhist thought. Pain is a reality of this world. Suffering comes from how we relate to that pain. Looked at in this way, pain may happen to us, but suffering is what we do to ourselves. For most of us, our pain turns into suffering automatically.

Another image offered at the retreat has helped me interrupt this habitual response. The branches of a tree blow wildly in fierce winds. The trunk, however, is unmoving, particularly as it nears the ground. When we are in crisis, we are like the branches of the tree, flailing around to beat the band. But when we move down into our trunk, into our root even, we touch stillness.

I find this image instantaneously helpful. When my thoughts and emotions are running amok, I remember the branches. And I choose instead to identify with the trunk. While it’s difficult to describe, I energetically pull out of my mind and move down into my torso. Feeling the rise and fall of each breath in the abdomen can have the same effect.

Immediately I am calmed. Not happy perhaps, but no longer thrashing about. A much wiser choice, indeed. And besides, while I’m busy makin’ like a tree, I won’t be shootin’ myself full of arrows!

So to all you magnificent trees out there who may, in certain situations, believe yourselves to be branches alone, get ye to your trunk! And leave the quiver full of arrows on the ground!


Loanne Marie


Anonymous said...

I feel like that quiver of arrows is stuck in me, As for the branches, I feel as though I've fallen from the tree and have been cut into pieces to be thrown away. Help me!

Loanne Marie said...

Wow! I am so sorry you're having a difficult time! These metaphors certainly gave you a graphic way to describe your suffering!

As far as help, I have three suggestions. First, hold your suffering gently, supporting yourself at this difficult time. When you find yourself ready to shoot yourself with another arrow, stop and return to holding your suffering gently in your awareness. Remind yourself that, tho you feel cut into pieces, that is not true. Go to your center, the place that's whole and healthy and waiting, the center that's there (to mix metaphors) within the tornado.

When I read your comment, I also immediately remembered an article I recently read in an old issue of Shambala Sun called "It would be a pity to waste a good crisis." Since hyperlinks don't work in this comment section, you can find it by googling Shambala and the title of the article. It had some helpful suggestions.

And you can also email me. You can find my email address on my website, which you can get to by clicking on the photo to the right of my blog.

Consciously cultivate compassion for yourself and what you're going through, okay? And here's some compassion coming your way right now...Zing! Did ya feel it?

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Leia Marie