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  • Writer's pictureDr. Vin

The Second Arrow

BACKGROUND: The revered Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has been hospitalized in poor and failing health for the last 3 years. He is bedridden. A Buddhist nun stays by his side most days.

PROBLEM: How does one cope with failing health, facing death, facing loss and other life crisis that can lead us to despair? How do we cope when feelings try to drown us?

SOLUTION: Being present in the here and the now. I know it is hard. I find it most difficult when the past pulls at me for attention, a future event takes all my focus, or when I get angry. Here is a small scale, every day example. Today my husband and I were both making lunch and I was in charge of cutting the avocados. He looked over my shoulder and said, “I don’t cut them like that”. Feeling insulted, I tossed the knife in the sink and left the room. In the next room, I began to imagine riding the waves on a surfboard, as I paid attention to slowing my breath. This calmed me down and allowed me to be more thoughtful about my reaction. We listened to each other, had a good discussion and eventually ate some avocados!

This is a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh from No Mud, No Lotus: the Art of Transforming Suffering:

"If an arrow hits you, you feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit; and then if a second arrow comes and strikes the same spot, the pain will not only double – but be at least ten times more intense…The first arrow: rejection, loss of an object, a failure, injury…they cause pain. The second arrow – fired by our own selves, is our reaction, storyline, and anxiety. These magnify the suffering (and can include) fear of the unknown, judgment (how can I be so stupid?), fear (what if the pain does not go away?), anger (I hate that I am in pain)…The art of suffering well is to learn not to magnify the pain and get carried away in fear, anger or despair. Do not throw good energy away on condemning yourself or obsessing. Be present in the suffering moment."

TIP: Be present without judgment. (I felt angry, I stayed with the anger and breathed until it transformed into something productive). Attend to breathing no matter what your stage of physical or emotional distress. As you breathe in, focus on your breath as a reminder you are alive in this moment, fine just as you are. As you exhale, look for any beauty, the shapes and colors around you to take in as a gift in this moment.

POSTSCRIPT: The Buddhist nun by Thich Nhat Hanh’s side says that she often will recite some version of the following prayer to him, “ I have arrived. I am home. In the Here and the Now. I am solid. I am free. In the Ultimate I dwell.” And though he is no longer able to speak, he whispers these two words along with her, “here, now.”


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