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.”