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You are here : Home > Reading Room > The Second Arrow : The Practice of Emotional Awareness
The Second Arrow : The Practice of Emotional Awareness
by Ken Jones, Secretary of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists

When afflicted with a feeling of pain those who lack inner awareness sorrow, grieve and lament, beating their breasts and becoming distraught. So they feel two pains, physical and mental. It is just like being shot with an arrow, and right afterwards being shot with a second one, so that they feel two arrows.

Thus the Buddha explained the distinction between pain - an affliction - on the one hand, and, on the other, our suffering from pain, -- how our experience of pain can discomfit, frustrate or agonize us. We can see this on any hospital ward, where the responsive of patients to much the same affliction may vary very widely, from depression and despair to a buoyant and inspiring good state of mind.. This is an extremely important distinction whether in helping ourselves, in offering help to others, or in trying to do something to remedy the injustices in the world. In the ancient practice of emotional awareness our first step is to lean to distinguish between the two arrows in the experiences of our own lives.

In our high-resource, high-tech culture it has become more difficult to perceive this distinction between the two arrows because as soon as we are discomfited we are able in most cases to reach for some external fix to remove or alleviate the affliction. In traditional cultures, without the quick fix mentality, there was more opportunity to reflect on how an affliction was experienced, and from such reflection evolved magic and spirituality. Let us consider two present-day examples, of a person diagnosed with cancer, and an old age pensioner suffering from poverty. The cancer may be fixed by treatment, but perhaps still not curable. The poverty may be reduced by welfare payments for which the pensioner had not known she was eligible. But in both cases the second arrow may continue to be felt.

"Suffering I teach, and the way out of suffering" was the Buddha's fundamental teaching. The ancient meditative practice of bare awareness (or mindfulness) which he taught can enable us to experience our afflictions at least so they feel less acute and more manageable. And more, it can enable us to work with our afflictions so that we begin the experience the whole of life in a radically different way - the "way out of suffering".

For a start, we can develop a positive frame of mind for this work by reflecting on how illogical it is for this self to be so unique and special as to expect to be free from affliction. We can then determine to make a transformative use of our suffering, instead of just being a confused, complaining victim.

Once we can distinguish between the two arrows in our own life experience we can move on to the next step. What is it that most discomfits us or gives us pain in our life ? Where does the shoe pinch ? Probably in several places, in which case with what particular affliction do we feel able to work ? It may be something relatively small, like the annoyance caused by the chronic untidiness of someone with whom we share a home. Or it may be some flaw of personality which, we believe, afflicts us. Again, it may be persistent problem in a personal relationship. It maybe something that has for so long been a part of our life that we need to take time to identify it and get the feel of it.

Awareness practice is learning to open up to some such powerful emotion without either letting it discharge itself (as anger or self-pity, for example), or suppressing it. This, incidentally, is not to deny that anger may be a healthy response to some injustice out there - but when angry we can often sense how much is in fact coming from some gutsy ego frustration. This middle way of creative containment is not easy to describe, and harder still to do. It requires a lot of personal experimentation.

John Welwood, a transpersonal psychologist, writes of "befriending emotion" which, "by neither suppressing emotions nor exploring the meaning in them, teaches us a way to feel their naked aliveness and contain their energy." Some further explanation from teachers in different Buddhist traditions may help to get the measure of awareness practice. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, Nyanaponika Mahathera writes that "by the methodical application of Bare Attention . all the latent powers of a non-coercive approach will gradually unfold themselves with their beneficial results and their wide and unexpected implications." "Let yourself be in the emotion", wrote the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. "Go through it, give in to it, experience it .Then the most powerful energies become absolutely workable rather than taking you over, because there is nothing to take over if you are not putting up any resistance." Zen philosopher Hubert Benoit warns as follows: "If a humiliating circumstance turns up, offering me a marvellous chance of initiation, at once my imagination strives to conjure what appears to me to be in danger. It does everything to restore me to that habitual state of satisfied arrogance in which I find a transitory respite, but also the certainty of further distress. In short, I constantly defend myself against that which offers to save me; I fight foot by foot to defend the very source of my unhappiness !"

Pain, whether emotional or physical, can be very threatening when we try to look it straight in the face. It is like spilling cold water on a hot stove: the bubbles run in all directions and turn to steam. Anything to escape ! For this reason it may be best to begin with whatever might be our favourite evasions of a specific discomfiture. We can begin by examining possible evasion in terms of lifestyle, as described earlier, like the escape into busyness or into fussy and petty preoccupations. Next we can move in closer and try to get a taste of the inner, psychological evasions that lie beneath what I have called lifestyle evasions. For example, Elizabeth Kubler Ross identified a sequence of successive attitudes to death and dying as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

We each have our favourite evasions when blocked, frustrated or frightened by some circumstance that threatens our control over our lives. In my experience, strongly masculine personalities often fixate on "my problem out there" and may find it very difficult to get in touch with "how it feels in here". Another first line of defence is denial ("I'm not really ill at all !"). Or we may try to rationalise and intellectualise painful feelings (like kidding ourselves we are not really in denial, or burying ourselves - thanks to the internet ! -- in study and discussion of the minutiae of our illness). Or, again, anger and frustration may be projected onto others or the world in general ("Young people today .."). Even feeling guilty is evasive, in that by punishing ourselves we do retain a perverse kind of control. The same can be said of self-pity, often a final resort. Here we are getting down to very basic emotions, stripping away successive self-protecting layers. Anger itself, for example, is an evasion which protects us from what we eventually discover lies beneath it and fires it up - root fear.

Always this practice is about deepening our physical awareness of how affliction feels. What are its physical sensations ? Its colour ? The taste of it? Getting in touch will be easiest in sitting meditation, when the surface of the mind has become still and the deeper feelings can be observed. And we may again confront ourselves with the question; "Yes, but what does it truly and deeply feel like ?"

When the root fear in which our evasions originate does itself become transparent we become that fear (or whatever it is that is afflicting us). The self ceases to put up a resistance and we begin to experience our affliction in a radically different way. The self just gives up trying to sustain its illusions (sometimes in a state of extreme despair) and is freed at last into acceptance of the "suchness" of things, of "just how it is", "just how we are". Reality appears without our need to colour and shape it, to make pictures, and hence we become more open to other people's realities. Indeed, it has always been there, trying to break through to us, but obscured by the clouds of self-protectiveness. There is here a sense of liberative joy, of gratitude, freed of the constant strain of trying to make our condition as we vainly desire it to be. Note that "acceptance" here signifies a positive liberation instead of the grudging putting up with things that the word might otherwise suggest.

Similarly the "empowerment" we experience is not a self-empowerment, but the empowerment of a universal energy that floods in when we give up our futile attempts at self-empowerment. When all our evasions become transparent they lose their compulsive power. We see more clearly how to respond to our problems, which now appear more open and manageable. And if there is little we can do, for example, about our eventual decrepitude and death, in that deep hearted acceptance lies liberation.

Stacking firewood
this winter evening
how simple death seems

Freed of self-preoccupation we are freed wholly to respond to others' needs. The wisdom of bare awareness thus manifests itself as compassion in the world. Laughter and tears mingle when we become aware of the tragi-comedy of our unavailing struggle to be free of this or that without being able to see that struggle as itself the greatest of our problems.

If we work with others who are also suffering - and preferably in the same way as we are -- this can, in turn, help our own awareness practice. For example, if you suffer from loneliness and despair then volunteer to work with the Samaritans.

When we befriend others as equals, hang out with them and share and feel what they are going through, a wondrous chemistry can take place. Together there grows warm and positive acceptance of our suffering human condition, releasing a new sense of possibility.

For Buddhists working for peace and social justice the parable of the two arrows also has great value. The first arrow is the underlying angst of being a vulnerable and mortal human animal. Throughout history people have struggled fruitlessly to fill this sense of lack by banding together by race and gender and as clans, nations, states, social classes, ideological movements, political parties, and a host of other groupings. This sense of belongingness identity has been boosted by strongly differentiating between us and them, and by projecting the "Three Fires" of rage, greed and fear-driven ignorance upon alien groups. All this tragic folly is for humankind the "second arrow". Both history and experiment have shown that this antithetical bonding can kick in at the slightest pretext sometimes with murderous consequences.

Buddhist activists need to summon up all their intellectual and, especially, their emotional awareness if they are not to be caught up in the push and pull of this process. The analyses, theories and policies required by any movement for social change need to be distinguished from the tendency for these to solidify in self-affirming dogma and ideology -and their subtle variants. Similarly it is necessary to distinguish between mutual support and the belongingness which breeds a uniformity of outlook and erodes individual judgement.

It requires a trained emotional sensitivity to detect and avoid these often quite subtle evasions and to sustain an authentic spirit of inquiry and independence. Thereby we expose ourselves to the elusive and complex nature of social realities and must find the courage to act resolutely amidst uncertainty. Further, it can be deeply unsettling to open with empathy to the feelings and views of our adversaries, beyond the black-versus-white mentality of many people with whom we may be working.. And when we see through what are often self-serving illusions about the effectiveness of radical movements we then expose ourselves to previously masked feelings of powerlessness and frustration.

All this may precipitate a mood of despair ("burn out") similar to when we open in full awareness to some personal affliction. And, similarly, this practice can gift us with the same calm clarity and the same inner strength. We become more effective as activists but also we begin to experience self and reality in a radically new light.

The Buddha's parable of the two arrows can be found in the Samyutta-nikaya, xxxvi.6 (the Sallatha Sutta), from which this is a free translation

Ken Jones is a Zen practitioner and teacher of some 35 years standing.. He is Secretary of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists www.engagedbuddhists.org.uk and author of The New Social Face of Buddhism, available through Wisdom Books. His pamphlet Ageing: the Great Adventure - A Buddhist Perspective can be obtained by sending a £3.50 cheque (made out to "K. Jones") to Troedrhiwsebon, Cwmrheidol, Aberysrtwyth, SY23 3NB. Also from this address you can obtain details of his books of haiku and haibun (haiku prose) .

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