Equanimity: Feather or Stone, 1 Arrow or 2?

CuracaoWhen it comes to uncontrollable  events and circumstances, are you more like a stone or a feather in the stream of life? A feather floats on the surface, riding the waves and eddies, allowing the current to carry it. A stone sinks into the mud where it is eroded; gradually worn away by friction until, it too, is inevitably taken by the current. In our culture it is considered admirable to resist or fight against unwanted things and to relentlessly pursue things we want. However, this approach can have problematic consequences when applied indiscriminately.

Acceptance is the decision to be a feather in the stream of experience, rather than a stone. It is allowing what is already here, rather than avoiding, pushing away or struggling against it. Sometimes it makes sense to take action in order to change our circumstances. Other times anything we do will only make things worse. Mindfulness provides space to discern and respond with wisdom.

The immediate, unexamined reaction we have to feelings of aversion can contribute enormously to our suffering. This is illustrated beautifully in a Buddhist teaching about the second arrow:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow &, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. – from Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Wisdom comes from a willingness to see things as they are rather than the way we think they should be. A consistent practice of mindfulness, or non-judgmental observation of what arises in any given situation, allows us to gather information we might otherwise miss and to learn from it. This patient accumulation of knowledge creates a sense of trust in experience and cultivates equanimity – balance and calm amidst difficulty.

Meditation teacher Shinzen Young said, “Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence,” calling it a “balanced state of non-self-interference.” Instead of being mindlessly dragged around and dominated by strong emotion or pain, the wisdom and equanimity cultivated through clear seeing bring a calm, undisturbed space in which we have the opportunity to choose our response. We develop the freedom to ask ourselves, “In this moment, will I be a feather or will I be a stone? Will I feel the pain of one arrow or two?”

For a learned person who has fathomed the Dhamma (truth),
clearly seeing this world & the next,
desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His acceptance & rejection are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.

Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state,
he discerns rightly,
has gone, beyond becoming,
to the Further Shore.

– Sallatha Sutta

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