At the congregation where I serve as minister, we recently had the opportunity to hear a sermon from a Buddhist monk named Bhante Sujatha titled “Suffering Is Optional.” A week after that Dharma talk, our world shifted in the D.C. Metro area (as it has around the country and the world) due to increased restrictions related to the Coronavirus. For our current situation, I would like us to reflect a little more on how the wisdom Bhante shared from the Buddhist tradition can continue to be a source of guidance. In the midst of a pandemic, what does it mean to say that, “Suffering is optional?”
I’ll start with a story. The meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg was once co-leading a meditation retreat with her colleague Joseph Goldstein when a student came to see him filled with anxiety:
The man said, “I just had a terrible experience. I was meditating, felt tension in my jaw, and suddenly I realized what an uptight person I am, how I can’t get close to anyone, and that I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life.”
Joseph took a deep breath, and said, “You mean you felt some tension in your jaw.”
The man plowed forward, saying, “I’m pretty sure I’ll always be tense. I’ll never change. I feel hopeless.”
Joseph said: “You mean you felt some tension in your jaw.”
The man continued barreling down this path of misery for some time, all because of a sore jaw, until Joseph interrupted him, and said, “You’re having a painful experience. Why are you adding a horrible [story about yourself]?” (“Working with Pain”)
This experience parallels an ancient Buddhist teaching called “The Arrow Sutta,” which says that, “When hit with discomfort…we feel two afflictions: (1) the inevitable, physical feelings and (2) the additional, mental reactions.” For instance, if I accidentally hit my elbow on a door frame, there would be an inevitable, physical feeling of pain. But there might also be additional, mental reaction such as putting myself down, calling myself names, etc. I have more control over that second part.
The Arrow Sutta invites us to imagine these two afflictions as two arrows–as in arrows in a quiver for archery. We can’t do anything about the first arrow once it hits. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we are hit with various inevitable afflictions. But the Arrow Sutta challenges us that we can practice letting go of those additional arrows of our mental reactions—instead of shooting them into ourselves.
This teaching is often summarized as “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” In the Buddhist tradition, that word suffering is translated from the ancient Pali word dukkha. A better English translation for suffering is “unsatisfactoriness.” So we might better say that, “Pain is inevitable, but unsatisfactoriness is optional.”
Now, I will readily confess that learning to stop shooting those optional arrows of mental reactions is easier said than done. As the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield has put it: “We are [often] quite loyal to our suffering.” Or, again, we could also translate that piece of wisdom as, “We are often quite loyal to our habit of keeping ourselves unsatisfied.” It’s not that we shouldn’t try to change things that are negative and toxic. Rather, the invitation is to consider whether we are sometimes making a bad situation worse than it has to be.
The good news is that learning different ways of being in the world—learning to grow spiritually—is part of why many of us show up to religious communities week after week, even when we can only show up online. We come to be reminded to practice loving-kindness with our imperfections. We come to practice a more tender, spacious, and respectful relationship to ourselves, one another, and this world.
Notice that I said practice loving-kindness with our imperfections. I’m not talking about reaching some state of perfection. To quote one of my colleagues, “We are already saved from perfection.” There is no perfect that works for all people, places and times.
Even experiencing enlightenment does not mean that everything will always be perfect or pain free. Instead, it means experiencing greater liberation from optional suffering: the second—and sometimes third, fourth, fifth, or more—arrows of mental reactions that we shoot into ourselves. Impermanence and change still happen to us all—enlightened or unenlightened. What we can change is our relationship to whatever is happening. Awakening is about experiencing greater openness, freedom, and love with whatever is arising in our field of experience.
In the words of Vince Horn, one of my meditation teachers, about our current global pandemic, “THIS is what we’ve been practicing for. Uncertainty, Suffering, Birth, Old Age, Sickness, & Death. Learning to work with these deeper truths of life — with dignity and an open heart — this is what practice is ultimately about.”
Now, I know that meditation is not everyone’s spiritual practice of choice. Even so, notice if there might be some tools here that might be useful to you, and/or consider how the practices you are drawn to (whether cooking, art, yoga, exercise, science, etc.) might have some parallel insights for such a time as this.
Along these lines, I’m reminded of a quote from the Islamic Sufi poet Hafiz, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living In better conditions.” Now, don’t get me wrong. We can reasonably be appropriately afraid of this novel Coronavirus — fearful either for ourselves or on behalf of others who are especially vulnerable to it. But what I am cautioning against is being unduly, unnecessarily, and additionally afraid or anxious in ways that make the situation worse than it has to be—all those optional arrows that we all sometimes keep shooting into ourselves.
To paraphrase a recent recommendation from Jack Kornfield on Tim Ferris’s podcast, try telling your anxieties and fears, thank you for trying to protect me, but I’m ok right now. And take a few moments to pause, be grateful, and savor all the ways that statement is true for yourself or those closest to you. Even if there are real problems, what are the ways that you—and those you love—are ok right now in this present moment?
For such a time as this, remember the insight of neuroscientist Rick Hanson from his book Buddha’s Brain that our brains have evolved to be “like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.” Our brains have the fixating on bad things part covered. So try to gently remind yourself from time to time to intentionally savor all that remains good with you, with others around you, and with this world.
Even if just for the moment, be in the present as it actually is. As the Buddha said, “Not reviving the past, not hoping to be in the future. Instead, with insight, see each arising state. Not craving after past experience, nor setting one’s heart on future ones. Not bound up in desire or craving.” Just this: just this moment as it actually is.
Beyond what the world is already hitting you with, if you find yourself beginning to shoot optional arrows into yourself, try gently asking yourself, “Is this thought serving me?” There is great liberation in realizing that, “You don’t have to believe everything you think!”
Although I can’t tell you exactly what the coming days will bring, I can promise you that, “This too shall pass.” Again, in the words of the Buddha, “Whatever has the nature to arise, has the nature to pass away.” We can’t stop the waves of change and impermanence from coming, but we can learn to surf!
More Practical Tips
Practice letting go of what you can’t change: Try using Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” as a mantra “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Focus on what you can change: Support your immune system: get enough sleep, eat healthy, drink fluids, exercise, spiritual practices (meditation, yoga, practice lovingkindness, etc.) and/or other activities that help you manage stress.
A few questions from Kathleen Smith, a therapist in D.C. from her article on “20 Questions to Help with COVID-19 Anxiety”:
- What reality-based problems do I need to solve today?
- When is the best time of day for me to read the news to update myself?
- How can I be a resource to others without becoming over-responsible for them?
Schedule activities each day unrelated to Coronavirus!
- Spend time outside every day (and/or on other activities that put you into “flow” where you lose track of time)
- Read this poem by Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
For Further Study
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles