The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Avoiding Added Emotional Suffering (Buddha’s Second Arrow)

When I say in this post to imagine something stop and imagine it, or you won’t get the necessary effect.

First, imagine falling. You catch yourself on your hands, you’re not seriously injured, but your hands are abraded and you’ve wrenched a muscle in you back.

Next. Imagine that you fell unavoidably: there was a small bit of ice, but you were walking carefully and there’s nothing you could have done.

Third: imagine that you were careless. There was an obvious piece of ice, you weren’t paying attention, and you knew there could be ice. Feel this.

Fourth: imagine that you feel on a walkway that someone should have cleared (it’s usually the law in places with a lot of snow and ice.) You were careful, but still fell. Feel this.

Fifth: imagine you feel because someone deliberately tripped you. Feel this.

If you’re a normal person and you took the time to actually feel, these felt different. Either number three (carelessness) or number five (someone tripping you), feels worst: you’re angry at yourself or someone else.

But even with the first one: it just happened and no one is responsible, you may be upset: it’s not just the pain you’re feeling, but your upset.

This anger, upset, hatred, sadness, etc… is what Buddha called the second arrow.

There is pain and nauseau and itching and so on. They feel bad. But unless you’ve got drugs or advanced meditative skills, they just happen, and there’s not much you can do about them.

Everything else is added by your emotional reaction. That’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s the stuff that’s (relatively) easier to control or choose.

Different people have different ways of doing this, but the first concept is simple enough “adding a negative emotion doesn’t help the situation, and it makes me feel worse.”

As someone who spent a lot of time beating themselves up for mistakes or not living up to my ideal self, I eventually realized that not only did it make me feel bad, it didn’t drive long term changes in behaviour. It had no benefit.

As for getting angry at other people, my experience, as someone who spent years and years not just angry, but enraged (long term readers will know I speak the truth), is that it didn’t help the situation, and it made me miserable (and eventually had negative health effects.)

As Mark Twain said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

This doesn’t mean you have to forgive them, though sometimes that brings relief. It doesn’t mean you can’t take the person who didn’t clear the sidewalk to task, even to the police or court. You don’t need to be angry or to hate to act.

Which leads to a point I’ve made before: a lot of our emotions happen because we believe we ought to feel them. We ought to be sad, or angry or hate or love or be sympathetic. (Forcing yourself to feel positive emotions rarely works well, though learning to bring love or happiness or relaxation up is useful.)

If you think you should have an emotion, you probably will and if you don’t, you’ll feel bad because you aren’t being the person you think you should be. So kill the idea that you must feel certain emotions in certain circumstances.

You do this, in my experience, by carefully examining the question “does this emotion help and is it worth it?” Examine it now, and examine it next time you get upset.

If the answer to either question is “no”, stop believing you should have the emotion.

This is as true for simple things like dropping a plate on the floor. It’s done, and being upset makes the situation worse. Sometimes a display of remorse is necessary socially, but in my experience a rueful laugh and apology works fine with anyone who isn’t an asshole.

The second arrow is the low lying fruit. And remember, people who deliberately fuck with you usually want an emotional reaction from  you. They like it when you get angry or upset.

So don’t. If you need to hit them or otherwise retaliate to make a point, do. But don’t bother with the anger or upset: you’re just giving them what they want. They love your anger, especially if you don’t do anything: your powerless rage makes them feel strong and in control.

Give your enemies nothing but hell. Never let them see you sweat. And as for the internal censor who think you should be upset and miserable, dump that guy.

And when you forget or fail, that’s when you forgive–yourself. Just try and remember next time.



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  1. Raad

    Excellent, perfect timing for some internal changes personally as well; this goes in the re-read and act-on pile(s)

  2. capelin

    Heh, good one. I just came in from spending the day saying “fuck off!!” at everything that dropped on the floor or went slightly not-as-planned. It’s my attempt to not have the anger (fairly justified, I would argue, given my big picture) just build up inside, which doesn’t do one much good either.

    And as much as I think anger as an emotion is there for a reason (“let the clear fire of anger burn away the fog of confusion”), ultimately it’s not the best way to go.

    Last week CBC Ideas was on non-violence, featuring a really charismatic Christian guy who walked the walk amounst the third-world death squads. Looks down at the machine gun jammed into his chest and sees a “Jesus Loves You” sticker on it; thinks, great, just freakin’ great.

    An old guy I used to work with was fond of saying “don’t get mad, get even”. And i’ve always liked the expression “the best revenge is living well” (when someone fucks you up).


  3. Harry Haller

    Excellent post. It took me a stupidly long time to learn how to let go of the anger and resentment I had built up against certain individuals in my life. (The depression and self-pity that came with these emotions was bad too.)

    In my case the negativity I’d been nurturing for years began to manifest itself physically until I could barely walk and needed a cane to hobble around.

    One night while in the process of dragging myself from my bed to the washroom I tripped over something and went sprawling. Sitting there on the floor grimacing in pain and humiliation I had an epiphany that told me if I didn’t get the fuck over myself and let go of my anger and rage I was for sure going to die an early death.

    The next morning I stopped actively nurturing my resentments and started making serious changes in how I approached life. A week later I no longer needed the cane to walk and three weeks later the pain was gone completely.

    I still experience resentment and other potentially harmful emotions from time to time but I can now let them go as soon as I notice them and they no longer hold me hostage.

    (I’ve heard resentment described, very aptly IMO, as “taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Can’t recall who said it though.)

  4. Trinity

    “people who deliberately fuck with you usually want an emotional reaction from you. They like it when you get angry or upset.”

    This is so true, and unfortunately (but not surprisingly) includes some of my family members. The main one is my oldest brother. Every time I visited him, at some point he would say something to deliberately upset me or cry. Every single visit. It took me years to learn what this was about. Part of it was that I was taught that this is love (i.e., starved for attention/affection as I was, and being told this is “love”). Needless to say, he’s blocked via all channels now. I haven’t spoken to him in years.

    I do want to add, though, that what I went through as a child and young adult with many of my family members is exactly what we are all being subjected to on a daily basis. They are manipulating our emotions through every channel they possibly can. This is so timely, Ian.

  5. Jason

    Trinity, I’m just here to say hi and wish you well. I am currently “working on” my relationship with my father, who is close to 80 years old, and “still the same” as Bob Seger might say.

    I sometimes wish that it were so bad that it would actually be easy to just cut ties entirely without “guilt” or debilitating negative emotion. But that’s not our situation.

    A few years back, I did a “deep dive” into Alice Miller / Athur Silber territory. The other extreme. It just made things worse.

    I hope you are as well as can be, given the circumstances.

  6. Trinity

    Hey Jason, thanks so much. I am well, I’m moving out of crazy town to what I think (hope) is a more sane part of the country. I’ll also be close to my son, for the first time in years. I’m getting old, and this is a huge relief.

    With parents it’s always much, much harder. As bad as things were with my mother, I still miss talking to her. She passed away in the late 2000s. We had many conversations that were normal, especially as she aged and as more of my siblings ignored her, she turned to me. Sometimes those conversations were really weird, but I tried to help her when I could.

    The problem for me was that her actions were almost always the opposite of our conversations. I was the scapegoat of the family, so all blame for bad things came to me. That’s actually the healthier role to have, as being sidelined and “left out” you can begin to see the overall dynamics at play and can draw conclusions about what they say is reality and what is actual reality. And the more one truth tells, the more sidelined you become!

    Okay, I just wrote too much, but I think the key is to accept them as they are. One of the last conversations I had with my mom is when she excused her bad behavior toward me by telling me I ruined her life being born a girl. They can never, ever return that acceptance, they don’t even accept themselves. The point is that accepting them as they are may help you, in the same way that forgiveness isn’t about letting them off the hook, it’s about allowing you to move on and beyond from the bad experiences.

    My mom had already passed when I got to this point, this knowledge, this understanding, so you have a chance, Jason. I think if you can accept him as he is, and only take away the good stuff (which may be slight, but still) then just let the rest of it go. This is a monumental task, I know. Keep the shields up and in place, and only let any good stuff in. But always, you always know what is best for your situation, rather than me, a random stranger on the ‘net.

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