At 3:00, my cell phone rang and I recognized the number as my Human Resources contact. She asked when I thought I might be arriving, and I told her that I would be there in about 30 minutes, or so. Plenty of time, I said, since I wasn't scheduled to start until 4:00. She then informed me that I was actually supposed to begin at 3:00! My mind immediately took off in about six different directions, none of them positive or productive. Included in this mindstorm were such well-worn thoughts as "you idiot," "this is totally my fault," and that old favorite, "I'm a loser."
What I was experiencing, of course, were my habitual reactions to the information that my presentation was supposed to be starting right then, coupled with the fact that I was nowhere near my destination. In that moment, I was being hit by what the Buddha called the "second arrow," as he described in the Samyutta Nikaya:
When touched by a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.In the next few moments, however, I was able to right myself and see that everything in that moment was just fine, and that there was nothing I could do about the situation now except just keep pushing on. In fact, I received a call a few minutes later from my HR contact telling me that she was mistaken and the starting time actually was 4:00. I would be right on time. The moment of adjustment I just described was explained by the Buddha like this:
Now the well-instructed noble disciple, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast of become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed noble disciple does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental. (From "Sallatha Sutta: The Second Arrow" SN 36.6, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009.)The obvious point of this (no pun intended) is that one pain is better than two pains. When faced with an unpleasant event in our lives, the mistake would be to fight against it. This would be the same as shooting ourselves with the second arrow. In other words, pain comes from outside (the aptly-named "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"), but suffering comes from within us.
Homer summed up this human condition quite nicely in the Odyssey when Zeus declares:
Ah how shameless - the way these mortals blame the gods.The antidote is to face things as they are; to find some way to accept that this is the way it right now, and that there may be no choice available than to acknowledge the experience, and then just allow it to be. This can prevent us from turning a small event into a catastrophe.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.
(Book I, Ln. 37 - 40, Translation by Robert Fagles)