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I first came across the phrase “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional” in Haruki Murakami’s memoir many years ago. It is also one I have found myself repeating aloud in recent days and I think, can provide much guidance at this time.

At a time of a global pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions on us all, how on earth can “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”, be true? Surely our suffering: our stresses, anxieties, uncertainty and fear are very real and not “optional”?

Let me illustrate this with a story.

Last week I decided I would start riding a bike again. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve regularly ridden a bicycle and on my first ride, I fell off the bike and threw myself into some metal fencing. I bruised and cut my leg and my hands. My pride was also hurt and I realised that perhaps I shouldn’t be taking up new hobbies. I’ve always been terrible at cycling and I probably always will be. I’m never going to be able to do it; I’m likely to have many accidents. In fact, I could even get hit by a car next time and have a worse fall, I could end up with a serious injury. I feel embarrassed that I even thought I could do this. I feel like a failure. 

I fell off a bike and hurt myself. 

That’s all. 

I just fell off a bike and got a couple of small injuries. They hurt.

Nothing more.

I’ve had an unpleasant experience. Why am I telling myself this additional story about being a failure on top of it all?

I’ve had an unpleasant experience. Why am I telling myself this additional story on top of it all?

The Arrow Sutta

There is a Buddhist teaching called the Sallatha Sutta, where Buddha describes this type of  experience with the analogy of two arrows:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the… person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & 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… person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

The idea is that whilst we may feel pain, we often accompany this with additional, mental anguish which is unnecessary and something we may have some control over.  In other words, having already been shot with the first arrow of pain, we end up shooting ourselves with an additional (unnecessary) arrow of suffering. 

pain is inevitable

This sutta suggests to us that we can practice letting go of these second arrows rather than shooting them into ourselves. Hence the saying, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”. Perhaps we sometimes make a bad situation worse than it has to be by ruminating over it.

There are many types of pain; there is physical pain but also stress, anxiety, regret and so on. We can even use the word “pain” to broadly mean anything unpleasant. In life there are many unpleasant experiences and no matter how hard we try, we can’t control or avoid them. 

What we can change is our relationship to whatever it is that is going on. Learning to experience the pain minus the additional suffering ultimately leads to a less troubled, happier soul.

How can we stop shooting the second arrow?

Of course, learning to stop shooting these additional arrows is far easier said than done. But there are steps we can take.

Practise self-compassion. We are all flawed human beings. Acknowledge that and rather than judging ourselves or beating ourselves up, respond with respect and compassion.

Be in the present moment, as it actually is, right now. Not worrying about or anticipating the future or thinking about the past, but seeing this moment for what it is. By cultivating mindfulness, we can see more clearly when the mind is creating suffering.

Recognise the thoughts going through your mind; are these useful thoughts? Are they serving me? We don’t have to believe every thought that appears in our minds. 

Let go. Much of life is out of our control; pretty much the only things we can control are our reactions, thoughts and actions. So let go of the things you can’t control.

Understand that the only constant is change and that this too shall pass. 

By cultivating mindfulness, we can see more clearly when the mind is creating suffering

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