The Buddha explains whenever we experience pain in life we are being hit by a metaphysical arrow. This may be an arrow of illness, grief, injury, a mental or physical ailment. It’s a situation, circumstance or something that has just “happened.”
However, following this first arrow we usually find ourselves being hit by a second arrow: which represents our emotional and mental response to whatever’s happened. This is where the real suffering lies.
It’s the reaction we give to the illness, injury, accident or so on that causes our suffering. It’s our internal dialogue that questions despairingly “why has this happened to me?” and tries every which way to get out of it. It’s our resistance to whatever has happened or is happening that causes so much discomfort.
It is perfectly natural in certain situations to feel intense emotion and therefore to “suffer.” But there are also other times when our suffering becomes a self inflicted habit. This happens when we become so used to thinking negatively about ourself and the world around us.
I was reminded of this when I came across a book recommended through the Mindful Everyday site, “At last a life” by Paul David. The author, who has recovered from ten years of severe anxiety, explains how once he stopped fighting his condition he found himself well and truly on the way to recovery.
To clarify, anxiety sufferers, through no fault of their own, often become stuck in a cycle of fear and anxiety because of their obsessive worries and tendency to focus so much on how they are feeling. Simply by ruminating about their anxiety and their battle with it they become trapped in a world of their own, silently fighting their demons and unable to reach out to the world around them.
Paul David’s advice is simple but immensely wise. The trick – he says -is not to fight the anxiety whenever it arises but to notice it and move our attention away from it. We therefore begin to believe it’s not such a big deal when anxiety arises and we realise our thoughts are only thoughts. They’re not facts and they can’t harm us – no matter what we’ve previously been telling ourselves.
By explaining what anxiety is and how it works, David takes away anxiety’s power and reminds the reader that it’s time for them to reclaim their lives once again; hiding away from the world until you “feel better again” is never going to work.
In short, what I love about David’s writing is how much he is endorsing not just a change in behaviour but also a change in attitude. By encouraging anxiety sufferers to no longer be afraid of their symptoms he is actually teaching them to no longer hurt themselves with the second arrow that the Buddha refers to.
For it is always the emotional and mental response to the ailment that causes us so much suffering, and not -ironically- the ailment itself. Learning to detach from negative self talk and cultivating a calmer attitude towards the symptoms are the best and bravest things you can do to begin to recover from anxiety.
This can be applied to many things in life. Chronic pain, illness, loss and tragedy can all be accepted and moved through gracefully if we no longer torment ourselves with fearful, negative thoughts. We can move away from the victim mind set and reclaim our power once again.
One last thing to remember in regards to anxiety is that we cannot think our way out of a problem that was caused by thinking in the first place. This is where the mindful wisdom of moving out of our heads and back into our bodies comes into play too.
So once we give up the mental battle of fighting or resisting our circumstance, we open up to a world of possibility and potential to change.