Arjuna-reaches-for-arrow-500x375Physical pain is inevitable but mental pain is optional.

In his book In the Lap of the Buddha, Gavin Harrison asks: has there ever been a day without an unpleasant moment? Or a lifetime without accident, illness, or loss?

To be happy and free from suffering has been at the center of humanity’s age-old quest. We have invented the wheel, split the atom, and ventured into outer space. Despite all this progress, there always seems to be a measure of suffering that cannot be eliminated by progress. Many of our spiritual traditions have been attempts to find a way to overcome suffering. Traditions differ, but they all seem to agree that the remedy for suffering comes from within and involves opening the heart and mind to the truth of reality, rather than trying to change it.

An integral element of Buddha’s enlightenment was the insight into human suffering. He saw deeply into the nature of reality and pointed out that suffering is ubiquitous. This is known as the First Noble Truth. The Pali word dukkha can be translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ‘the impossibility of finding lasting satisfaction in the outer objects of life’.

The next intellectual step in understanding is that the cause of suffering lies in the wish for things to be different than they are or permanently satisfying. This understanding is known as the Second Noble Truth.

When we feel pain, we grieve, lament and become distraught. So we feel two pains, one physical and one mental. It is as if we are shot with one arrow and immediately afterward with another one, so that we would feel the pain of two arrows. When experiencing pain, if we do not grieve, lament or become distraught, we only feel one pain: the physical but not the mental. We feel the pain of just the first arrow and not the second.

Physical pain is perceived by the brain from sensory input via neuronal pathways which lead to the brain. The brain receives a pain sensation, which is recognized thorough a series of feelings, perceptions and thoughts. We dislike the unpleasant feeling of this pain and we create a series of thoughts of aversion and creating our own mental suffering. Seeing this as it happens and letting go of it, is the work of insight.

Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse wrote:

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation, and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering, do not resist it, do not flee from it, give yourself to it. It is only your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”

As the heart opens to suffering, compassion flows and inner conflicts begin to diminish. Things may not be as we would have wished them to be, but as we accept them, we see the beauty of nature shining through what before were regarded as the difficulties of our lives.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Viktor Frankl

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.
—Kobayashi Issa