While I sat on my cushion on the floor of the big Vipassana hall, hours stacked upon hours like an absurd tower that reached up into the clouds and disappeared, I had two big realisations. (We weren’t supposed to be having realisations. We were supposed to be focusing on the sensations in our body; moving our awareness from the tops of our heads down to the tips of our toes and back again, for ten hours a day).
The first realisation was how often my mind operates in loops, constantly circling back to cover the same terrain. The second was that my incessant worrying about the future comes from a misguided sense of trying to protect myself from its surprises, and is actually causing me more angst. When we worry about possible future events, I realised, we’re causing ourselves two rounds of pain. There is the pain of the anticipated painful thing, and then there is the pain of the pain we attach to the thing. If our fears never eventuate, we’ve suffered for no reason. If they do, it’s twice as painful because there is our pre-prepared pain, waiting in the wings to leap onto the stage and create extra drama.
After I came home, I listened to a talk from meditation teacher Tara Brach and found that the Buddhists have a term for this: shooting the second arrow. It comes from a story where the Buddha essentially asks his followers this question: If you were struck by an arrow, would you react by then shooting yourself with another arrow?
Of course you wouldn’t, yet in the chaos of our minds this is what we do all the time — and not just with the future, but the past and present as well. We add to the facts to form a narrative we regard as the Truth. In the Vipassana hall we practiced non-attachment over and over again by passively observing bodily sensation, including discomfort and pain. If there had been an arrow shot into our leg, we would have tried our best to notice it without reacting.
The word used in spiritual traditions for this passive observance is equanimity, which comes from the Latin word for “even mind” or “even soul”. It doesn’t mean behaving like a robot but having an emotional baseline that neither nosedives nor skyrockets in response to situations. It’s something we get slightly better at, I think, as we get older — partly because we have the familiarity with undesirable situations to know that mostly they come and go. In the Hindu classic The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he needs to practice equanimity by “treating alike victory and defeat, gain and loss, pleasure and pain”.
In the meditation hall we were reminded, again and again, to come back to our reality (which, in my case, was often startlingly, liberatingly undramatic in comparison to the cosmic and existential wanderings of my mind). We were being taught a simple yet powerful life skill: to sit with things, as they are, without getting caught up in a story. When your reality isdramatic and intense, it’s even more important (albeit more difficult) to refrain from heaping on a second helping of drama.
Obviously this is easier said than done, and there would be few people in this world with a truly equanimous mind. But it’s the awareness that counts: the recognition that when a situation arises, you’re prepping your bow to shoot that second arrow. Even if you still shoot it, there is, at least, a brief period of spaciousness, and in this spaciousness is a glimpse of freedom. None of this is to minimise the reality of anxiety and depression but to say on a general, day-to-day level, it pays to be more conscious of the habits we get into and the processes that unfold in the mind. Recognising the arrow before you shoot it is a form of kindness towards oneself — perhaps the most important form.