This Buddhist Parable Can Ease Your Suffering During a Crisis

Consider the real meaning of nirvana next time you face a crisis. 

 

Stephani Elizabeth. Publicdomainpictures.net

A breakup or divorce, the death of a loved one, being diagnosed with a serious illness, or losing your job, all of these crises can cause tremendous suffering. How we handle such things is important. Will we show self-compassion or ruminate over the fact that this wasn’t supposed to happen?


In the parable of the arrow, sometimes called the second arrow, you picture yourself walking through a forest. Suddenly, you’re hit by an arrow. This causes you great pain. But the archer isn’t done. Can you avoid the second one? That’s the arrow of emotional reaction. Dodge the second by consciously choosing contemplation. It will help you avoid a lot of suffering.

When talking about esoteric Buddhist philosophy, it’s important to lay down a few clarifications. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. In truth, Siddhartha Gautama was the son of an elected chief, born in India near the Nepalese border around 400 BCE.

He isn’t exactly a religious figure, as he’s sometimes portrayed. Buddhism is a philosophy, not necessarily a religion. However, as it spread out in Asia, local beliefs often got mixed in with the philosophical teachings.

Even so, you can very well be a religious person of any faith, an agnostic, or even an atheist, and follow Buddhism or adopt some of its contemplative practices. And in fact, there’s a small but growing interest in what’s called secular Buddhism. Of course, the object, according to the Buddha or "Enlightened One," was to reach nirvana. So how can it not be a religion?

The Buddha wasn’t a deity or a prophet. He was just a guy who “woke up.” By: terimakasih0. Pixababy.

Alan Watts was a famous 20th century philosopher who elucidated many of the differences between Eastern and Western thought. In particular, he educated Western audiences regarding Zen. Watts said that in Sanskrit, nirvana means “wind.” In meditation, it is the breathing that's often focused upon. It's through this practice, particularly when breathing out, that the word is evoked.

In other words, the concentration is on this phase of breathing where the person is meant to let go. You let go of your wind and it comes back to you, it's said. But if you hold in your breath, you’ll struggle. So nirvana isn’t a spiritual realm. It’s simply the act of letting go, when our natural reaction may be to feel anxiety and grip even more tightly.

Nirvana isn’t heaven, it’s the act of living life without craving, and without holding on too much to our own expectations. It’s not that Buddhists shed their emotions. Practitioners have feelings and thoughts but they don’t cling to them. It’s this clinging that causes suffering, in this view. Instead, they try not to be too attached.

In life, we almost never consider terrible things befalling us. We know that we’ll get sick sometimes, we'll fail, that people will die around us, and that we’ll die ourselves, someday. But any such event is an abstract notion, until something bad happens. Then we’re knocked off kilter. It becomes real and we’re devastated.

We can’t believe we’d been so unlucky. Or perhaps, we think it’s completely unfair and we look for who’s responsible. That’s the second arrow, exacerbating the issue. Part of it comes from the fact that the truth doesn’t square with our preconceived expectations.

The parable of the arrow helps us understand how our emotional reactions sometimes make matters worse. By: Jakub Jankiewicz. Bow and Arrow. Flikr.

After telling the two arrow parable, the Buddha said, “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.

This is often summarized as, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” It begs a thoughtful approach to the first arrow, which is difficult to do. But if you can accomplish this, it’ll help ease your pain and avoid suffering.

The ways we often react are complaining, pointing the finger, condemning ourselves, or over-analyzing. Sometimes we even seek refuge in pleasures or distraction. Consider those who drown themselves in TV, food, sex, drugs or alcohol, when something painful occurs. Unfortunately, none of these offer lasting comfort and in the end, usually make things worse.

In The Arrow Sutra the Buddha said, "We cling to diversions, rather than observing what is actually present, the arising and passing of feelings.” So instead of turning away from emotions, turn towards them. How do you really feel about the situation really? Are there motivating emotions underneath that which you are allowing yourself to recognize or feel? If so, what new awareness arises from their acknowledgement?

Mythologist Joseph Campbell. By: Joan Halifax (Upaya) [CC BY 2.0]. Wikimedia Commons.

Instead of knee-jerk reactions, allow the time to let yourself feel your emotions and explore them, curiously, without judgment or fear. That’s not easy to do. You should pat yourself on the back if you can do this successfully.

Letting your past expectations melt away and see the situation as it truly is. This can help you process the event and even gain some insight. It may also allow you the space you need to find the right perspective and develop a plan for righting the situation or at least, mitigating it. In psychology, this is sometimes called learning to respond instead of react.

According to the late, world renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his series of talks called The Eastern Way, in Sanskrit, the word nirvana literally means “no wind.” As opposed to Watts’s example, here Campbell brings up a different interpretation. This is the place of no wind. While looking into a pool of water, you can see your reflection. When the wind blows the water ripples, distorting the image. You don’t see reality as it is.

So what nirvana is, is the place without wind. It’s the ability to see things clearly without distortion. If when confronted with a crisis, we can clear our mind and choose the proper way to respond, rather than lashing out, which ends up hurting others or ourselves, we can take action that’ll help the situation rather than making it worse.

To learn more about avoiding the second arrow, click here: 

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…