Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Two Arrows

I've been thinking about how relationships, mindfulness, and meditation work.  All of them seem to share a striking characteristic.  When everyone is happy, they all seem to flow easily.  But when someone is feeling a strong emotion (e.g., anger, fear, jealousy, sadness), they all seem to get harder. This is perhaps one of the real benefits of working on mindfulness in a supportive group - it's not like we're leaving the world behind.  We bring it with us all the time.  Meditation offers us an opportunity to practice the hard things in a little simpler and safer way, so that then we can practice them in the "real" world more easily later.

So, this is one of the goals of mindfulness: to allow us to go through the ups and downs of daily life with a sense of ease, to gain clarity into what is actually happening so that we can act skillfully and thereby make problems better rather than adding fuel to the fire.  In this spirit, the next several posts will examine aspects of dealing with relationships skillfully, even when we're in the middle of a difficult emotion.

To start, consider this question: How often do we say “You did this to me!” when what we really mean is “I didn’t get what I wanted?"

There is a classic Buddhist parable of the two arrows. In brief, the idea is that most people, when hurt, add to the hurt. If shot with an arrow, we spend a lot of effort focused on wondering why we got shot, how we didn't deserve that, how the person who shot the arrow is a  jerk, what we are going to say when we get in front of him/her, etc.  It's like being struck by a second arrow - the first one is physical and the second is mental.  In contrast, if we are able to maintain our mindfulness and not spin off into a story about our pain, we only get struck by one arrow. (For the geeks, here is the original Sallatha Sutra).

I might even go further than this - once we start down the story road, we not only make ourselves feel worse (the second arrow), but then we are more likely to do something that makes the situation worse.  This is a third arrow!

We need to take responsibility for our emotions. We need to stop thinking that something outside us will make everything better. All you can work with is yourself, and this is true even for recurring situations. If you have a difficult boss who makes your life difficult, it is unlikely that you can change your boss. You can, however, change your reactions, your work habits, or even your job.

If we look a little deeper into any interaction, we will notice that whenever someone does something to you, you are at the same time perceiving it.  To quote Ethan Nichtern's riff on the classic Zen koan, "If a person is an ass and there's no one around to see it, is he still an ass?"

We expect that our perception and our point of view is accurate and that any other observer would agree with our perception. This is called the False Consensus Bias, where we assume that whatever we think/feel, most people would agree with.  The classic study (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977) had people read stories that included a conflict and asked them which solution most people would pick, which one they themselves would pick, and what people who pick each of the two sides would be like.  In general, people estimate that most people would pick the same choice they themselves would, and rated them more positively than people who would pick the other choice.

Attention is a narrow spotlight - look at something in your room right now.  As you focus on that 5% of the room, you can't pay attention to the other 95% of what is actually happening now. Your perception is therefore always 95% wrong, and your memory is even worse (especially once you start telling yourself a story about what just happened). So although we can’t overcome the false consensus bias, we can start to recognize that we never have all the information, and that from the other person’s point of view, maybe you’re the ass. 

In truth, usually no one is the ass. We actually just have different perspectives, attention to different aspects, different goals, different motivations, and different approaches.  But because we assume that everyone else must have the same perspective, goals and approaches, we then decide that anyone not following our script must be being difficult.

If we can begin to see that we are very changeable based on what we pay attention to, it may give us the space to pause before we shoot ourselves with the second arrow.

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