Tonight we’ll continue our discussion about the Gateway of Love in Tara Brach’s book True Refuge. Chapter Ten explores the theme of self-compassion.
Once the Buddha asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha asked, “If a person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha explained that in life we can’t always control the first arrow, but the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with the second arrow comes the possibility of choice.
Tara points out that the first arrow is our human conditioning to cling to comfort and pleasure and to react with aversion to unpleasant experiences. The second arrow is our reactive tendency to judge or blame ourselves for doing so. Instead of attending to difficult emotions that underlie the first arrow, we criticize ourselves for what we consider our “failures.”
By bringing compassion to how we are feeling, thinking or acting, we avoid shooting ourselves with second arrow, whose message is, “I’m basically flawed.”
Self-compassion doesn’t mean to excuse our hurtful behavior or to give ourselves permission to act out. The goal is to release the self-hatred that closes the heart and contracts the mind. We can learn to be more responsible—able to respond differently—but that’s possible only when we realize that we are not to blame for our imperfections. We don’t want to be caught in painful emotions, and we don’t want to cause suffering for others.
The first arrow is shaped and sustained by innumerable forces—genetic tendencies towards anxiety, aggression or depression; dysfunctional families of origin; societies rampant with addiction, violence, and greed; and an environment that’s increasingly polluted. When we become aware of how our experience arises from a complex mixture of causes, we realize that the emotions that we identify “me” or “mine” are actually impersonal.
Tara reminds us, “Just as recurring blizzards or droughts don’t target a particular farm, our inner emotional weather is not owned or controlled by this particular body and mind. Rather it arises from [impersonal] causes beyond our individual existence.”
Years ago, when I lived in Connecticut, I worked as a music therapist in a residential school for delinquent teenagers. One bright, funny Latino boy touched my heart. Abandoned by his father, Victor had grown up in the slums of Bridgeport, with a mother who was a prostitute, and an older brother who was in jail for selling heroine on the streets. After graduating from the school, Victor stayed in touch with me. In an effort to better his life, he moved away from his hometown, finding a low-paying job at a fast-food restaurant, purchasing a used car, and moving into a girlfriend’s apartment. When he visited to tell me about his dream of becoming a chef, I offered to sponsor him for a year of training at a culinary institute. He was delighted, and asked me for enough cash to pay for a semester of classes. As he drove away, I fantasized about his successful future career.
Two days later, Victor’s girlfriend phoned me with the news that he hadn’t returned home. When she heard that I’d given him money, she said, “He’s probably already spent it on drugs the way he does each payday.” I was shocked and dismayed. I realized that Victor had lied to me, and that I had unwittingly enabled his drug addiction. The first arrow was my remorse, and the second arrow was self-judgment for being gullible and for playing a savior role that backfired. A week later, when Victor phoned to apologize, I expressed concern that by abusing drugs, he was harming those closest to him, and I advised him to check into a rehabilitation clinic.
It took me a while to recognize that Victor’s behavior was not a personal affront, and that I could let go of reactions of hurt and anger. He was learning karmic lessons, and I was learning lessons of my own. I felt compassion for Victor, who is struggling to transcend a childhood marked by abandonment, neglect, and mistrust. With self-compassion, I remembered my genuine generous impulse and sincere wish to support Victor’s professional goals. I’d been naïve, but I could let go of criticizing myself for my failings. Since that time, I’ve been more careful about how I give donations.
As Tara points out, self-compassion is interdependent with acting both responsibly and caringly towards others. Self-forgiveness clears the way for us to appreciate the goodness in other people and to respond to their needs in ways that are truly beneficial.
Last week I visited the Baylor dermatology clinic for a second opinion about some sun-damaged spots on my face. A few days later, a nurse phoned with my biopsy results and said, “You have skin cancer—squamous cell carcinoma, middle stage.” I sensed my heart pounding and my breath constricting. After I made an appointment for a surgical procedure this coming Friday and hung up the phone, my mind leaped forward and created disastrous scenarios. I wondered, “Will I be disfigured for the rest of my life?” Then memories surfaced of sunbathing as a teenager, with no awareness about the harmful effects of sunrays. In the middle of berating myself for such ignorant behavior, I paused and returned to the present moment. I noticed my discomfort about not being in control and not knowing how the skin surgery will turn out. With self-compassion, I recognized that I’ve always done the best I could with the consciousness that I had in that moment. Instead of adding the second arrow of self-judgment to my unpleasant preparation for skin surgery, I’m treating myself tenderly and appreciating the kindly support of loved ones around me.
Do any incidents in your own life come to mind that illustrate this principle about the second arrow?
Let me bring this back to the larger theme of the Gateway of Love.
This Thanksgiving Mark and I hosted Deepesh, who’s known Mark since high school 53 years ago, and his wife Linda. During their stay, they visited Deepesh’s younger brother Joe, who was suffering from lung disease. On Saturday, Joe was having such trouble breathing that he was transported by ambulance to the V.A. Hospital. Mark and I bid farewell to Deepesh and Linda on Sunday morning. Then we turned our attention to cleaning up the house and tending to the tasks we’d postponed during their visit. We made plans to see a movie on Sunday evening.
But our plans changed abruptly. Before they started their long drive home to Boulder, Colorado, our friends stopped at the V.A. Hospital to see Joe. To their shock, they found him in the process of dying, and they accompanied him with prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead until he died. Afterwards, Deepesh and Linda returned to our home to stay while they arrange Joe’s funeral. We meditated and cooked together, while Deepesh reminisced about his brother. Mark and I are clear that our priority is to be present with our grieving friend. Joe’s death reminded us of the preciousness of life and the importance of the Gateway of Love.