I was in Greece recently for a holiday and saw a sign for scuba diving. It’s something I have never done before and I thought it could be fun to challenge myself to try something new and step out of the usual patterns of what I would do on a holiday. I am scared of the water and find it hard to swim but I thought having breathing apparatus and a wet suite would give a different feeling of being in the water, which it did. It was an amazing experience seeing fish just a few inches from my face and moving in the water. I did find it harder to relax and wasn’t as fluid in the water as I thought I might be but it was a fun experience….until I got out.
As I was drying I could feel that my ears felt a little sore. As the days went on this became worse and eventually led to calling a Dr who confirmed I had an ear infection from the water which required a few days of antibiotic drops.
What was fascinating was being present with the thoughts and feeling that arose over these days. Immediately after the dive when I was just starting to feel sore there was the fear of not knowing what had happened: had I damaged my ear drums, the thoughts of “why did I do that”, “this is going to spoil the holiday”, “how long will this last” and other catastrophising, self-blaming statements.
First and Second Arrow – how to end unnecessary suffering
Then I remembered the Buddha’s teaching of the first and second arrow. He said that when suffering arrises – mental or physical – that is the first arrow. It can’t be avoided. There is pain. There is a difficult thought. There is sickness or suffering. All of this just is, it has happened and cannot be made not to have happened. The second arrow is fired when I respond to what is with resistance and anger: why did this happen, how stupid of me, I don’t want this…….
The next day I was walking up a mountain path to visit the ruins of a Roman city when I noticed my ear was still sore. Noticing all of the second arrow inner dialogue of how long, what does it mean, why did it have to happen, how stupid of me…… I reflected that I could add to the suffering of the pain in my ear by being washed away in this flood of thought, or stay with not knowing and holding the one thing that was present in my experience – the pain.
“Unsure, uncertain” – counteracting the catastrophising mind that makes calamity certain and sure
Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master who taught my teacher, used to say “unsure, uncertain”. A lot of the catastrophising mind’s fuel comes from wanting to make the uncertainty of life certain by believing one can know how it will impact on the next few days, weeks or one’s entire life! Resting back into the present moment experience and not knowing feels challenging, but for me it opened up a sense of peace.
As I carried on walking up the trail I noticed what was there in that moment: the sun on my skin, a brilliant blue sky, the excitement of being out on an adventure to find the ruins and the pleasant feeling of physical exertion as I walked up the steep track. And within that there was also the experience of pain. It was not my only experience and was not even the predominant one. It could be held patiently simply as a sensation: a sense of pressure, a slightly warm, burning sensation that had a clear edge in one small area of my body.
Walking up the trail I reflected that just like me there were many people right now who had had a holiday accident and who would be feeling sad and I made the wish that they might recover quickly and find whatever support they needed. This helped to make my experience into something that enabled me to connect out to others with compassion rather than turn in with self blame or anger. I was breathing in the sense of all the suffering there might be of people with similar experiences and breathing out the wish that they might find healing. This helped me to feel more calm and connected me to my heart centre.
Then I noticed how there was a choice to go into the catastrophising thoughts or simply let them be there and pass. Feeling compassion for my own sense of sorrow as I witnessed the thoughts passing by. Sensing that ‘knowing’ that could hold the thoughts without having to be them. And there was a sense of peace.
“Patient endurance is the highest austerity.”
The Buddha encouraged his followers to practice patience, saying, “Patient endurance is the highest austerity.” I always used to be attracted to this and curious – why was it an austerity? In the Buddha’s times various austerities were practiced to try and liberate the practitioner from the ego. It might be eating one grain of rice a day, or standing on one leg. They were all designed to create an extreme experience where self and thoughts could be seen clearly in the hope that ego could then be purged or let go of. Some were based on the belief that the soul was separate to the body so by punishing the body the soul would be liberated.
The Buddha had tried this approach to liberation by eating only one grain of rice a day and almost died. He saw that punishing the body was not the way to liberation but just leads to illness and death without realisation. Patience on the either hand is not harmful. But it does require being present in the middle of the storm of thoughts that arise when a situation causes us to be unhappy with our experience – waiting in a traffic jam, train delays, illness etc. And rather than identifying with the thoughts by rejecting them or merging with them, there is a process of allowing them to be there and watch them as they arise and fade away.
If an austerity practice is designed to help one let go of ego, then this practice of patience, of resting in the eye of the storm when our impulse is to go into the thoughts or find a way to stop them offers a chance to see that we are not the thoughts. In this way there is nothing to fight. There is just the experience that is here right now needing to be held – the frustration of the slow queue, the worry over health, the feeling of self-anger at having made what the mind considers a wrong choice. Instead of fighting or merging there is a sense of being present to what is there. Knowing it as it is.
Through taking this approach I had a great day. The thoughts of worry and self-blame drifted in but they were allowed to pass and instead I was present with the fun of exploring the ruined city. My memory now is of a day full of sun and adventure, where the pain is but a small distant aspect of the day. The next day as the pain was still there I took action and saw a Dr who prescribed the drops and a few days latter it was all clear. Latter on when I was on the dance retreat that I was going onto after my week’s holiday one of the men there got an ear infection from swimming. There was a GP on the retreat and he confirmed the drops would help so I was able to give them to him. So out of my suffering the pain of another was alleviated and I was able to feel the pleasure of this.
The invitation of the practice is to notice when we are adding to our suffering by firing the second arrow of self-recrimination, worry, catastrophising story telling about what might happen, and then stepping into our present moment experience and gently holding that with patient forbearance, compassion and curiosity.