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a case of reactivity

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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. This second arrow is optional.”

I looked for this story early this morning, after waking up with the “I missed the boat with that presentation” on my lips. Yesterday morning  I gave a short talk on the Buddhist perspective on spiritual care to a group of new hospital volunteers. I’d been given three questions and prepared a two-page handout on suffering and impermanence, as well as pointers on how to be with a person in long-term care. But my actual talk went off course as I spoke mostly about my personal experiences in visiting patients. Afterwards, and still this morning, I felt as if I’d let down the inviting teacher and his students: that I’d failed, provided a dis-service.

That’s why the arrow story: first a mistake, then recrimination. To make a mistake (if indeed that what it was) is one thing, a reasonable assessment. To then criticise and shame is unnecessary, feels like abuse. As Gil Fronsdal writes in The Issue At Hand, “Many times the first arrow is out of our control but the arrow of reactivity is not.” And– 

Mindfulness itself does not condemn our reactions. Rather it is honestly aware of what happens to us and how we react to it. The more cognizant and familiar we are with our reactivity the more easily we can feel, for example, uncomplicated grief or straightforward joy, not mixed up with guilt, anger, remorse, embarrassment, judgment or other reactions

I got up early to write this post and then to sit on the cushion — to find the space between what happened and what my ego is making of it. Between feeling incompetent and just being. “Freedom,” writes Fronsdal, “is not freedom from emotions; it is freedom from complicating them.”



11 responses »

  1. I’m thinking a lot about reactions recently, and especially today as the UK are reacting in their hundreds of thousands in peaceful protest in the streets of London against the deeply unfair and unnesessary cuts the Coalition government are making on the welfare state, public services, pensions, national health service, etc etc. It is called the March for the Alternative – take a look here

    I am really happy that so far there has only been 1 arrest, the march has been going for close to 4 hours, everyone heading to a rally in Hyde Park.

    I am angry. I am proud. I am frightened. I am frustrated.

    I am also trying to stay in touch with the part of me that observes all these emotions and is not caught up in them all.

    • Emotions and thoughts are what they are, fiona. as you say, not to get caught up in them is the practice, to see them for what they are, to find refuge in the clear spaces in between.

      p.s. I did a bit of reading about the Cameron business and demos. Our coalition government fell on Friday, with elections soon. Similar prospects here with multi-billion deficit. Social programs always get the short end, rarely fighter jets. Throwing yourself into the fray may not be healthy for your body and soul. Please look after your/self, please. May your heart be at ease.

  2. Someone may have gotten exactly what they needed from your talk exactly as it was.

    • Spot on, Jomon. My recollection is so skewed (so ego-informed) that there’s little room for such a possibility. of course. Several people came up afterwards, thanking me for this or that I said.

  3. I’m with Jomon. I have to say I learn the most when people illustrate through their personal experience. It’s like the old thing in writing “show me, don’t tell me”

    As we know feelings are not very good star charts by which to steer ourselves. They arise often, from old stuff. It might be that no matter what you said, you would have come away feeling that you didn’t do well enough. No pleasing that little self!!

    And the important thing is that you were courageous enough to do it! a bow to you Peter.

    • thank you, carole. courage i have — the word has coeur in it, heart. also an aspect of abandon (as in abandon previous plan in the face of given circumstances), as well as foolishness. As someone said: “He dares to be a fool, and that is the first step in the direction of wisdom.”

  4. i think in the trade what you did is called ’emergent design’ a highly evolved process only the most learned and skilled use well… congratulations.

    • thank you nancy for seeing things through this much larger lense.

      as a guest speaker i had no say over the setting, both physical and political. in the spur of the moment I shunned the microphone and formal podium. Awaiting my turn, I observed 20 particupants sitting passively. Asking questions or sharing from experience didn’t appear to be part of their role.

      ‘situated learning’ (a precursor to emergent design) speaks to education as transcending abstract transmission of decontextualised knowledge from one individual to another. It calls for a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed. By disclosing aspects of my personal experience on the fly, I intuitively aimed to reach them at an intimate level.

  5. “Do your best and forget the rest” is what came to mind reading your post. I am certain your students learned a great deal from your presentation. In the moment you gave them your very best. Well done.


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