I have been a student of Buddhism for more than a decade. It’s been personally useful and has influenced the way I practice psychology. Just this morning, I was reading from The Issue at Hand, Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice by my teacher, Gil Fronsdal. The chapter was titled, “Mindfulness of Emotions.” It seemed so relevant to thriving in a pandemic that I was moved to summarize it in this post and add a few thoughts of my own.
The story of two arrows: The Buddha is reported to have asked a student if it would hurt to be shot by an arrow. The student said it would. The Buddha then asked if it would hurt even more to be struck by a second arrow. Once again, the student agreed. The Buddha then explained to the student that it is not always possible to control that first arrow. Or to anticipate it. But the second arrow—a metaphor for how we react to the first arrow—is within our control.
Human experience is full of painful events, many of which, like a pandemic, are not within our control or even within our sphere of influence. When we react to these events in ways that add pain to our lives, it is like shooting ourselves with another arrow. A less elegant way to say this, one that is entirely my own, is that it makes no difference who kicks you down the stairs or why; you’re the one stuck with the limp.
We humans are great at shooting ourselves with that second arrow. We do it all the time. It’s the equivalent of kicking ourselves when we’re down. We wouldn’t do that to someone else, so why do we do that to ourselves? Buddhist teachings, according to Fronsdal, suggest four ways we can stop.
1. Recognition: Recognize the range of your emotions, from blatant to subtle. Just recognize, don’t condemn or judge. The more familiar and comfortable you are with your emotional repertoire, the less hold these emotions will have over you.
2. Naming: Making a mental note or naming your current emotion gives you distance and objectivity, allowing you to move to a more neutral place. Just saying “This is fear” or “Here is fear” instead of “I am afraid” will help you to disentangle from the emotion.
3. Acceptance: Let your emotions be. Observe them as you would a passing cloud or a bird flying overhead. Don’t identify with them or take them personally. Ask yourself what conditions have come together to produce these feelings. It’s understandable that a lot of us, myself included, are feeling pretty anxious these days. We’re facing an uncertain future and fighting an invisible enemy. Our lives and the lives of our family and friends are at stake. Our financial well-being is in peril and our way of life is in jeopardy. If these things don’t make you anxious, as the joke goes, you are probably a Golden Retriever. Accept that you are anxious. Be kind to your fear.
4. Investigation: Our emotions are made up of many moving parts: bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and attitudes. The relationship between our emotions and our physical sensations is particularly strong. Investigating the relationship between mind and body allows us to stay with our current experience without the need to judge or fix ourselves. Scan your body for tension. Observe your breath: Is it fast and shallow? Or calm and rhythmic? Remember to move, exercise is a great antidote to anxiety and depression.
Finally, a few of my own thoughts. Be well, wash your hands, keep your distance, wear your PPE and take every precaution available. My deepest thanks to you and your families for taking risks so that the rest of us can feel secure.