Our lives have ups and downs, and daily activities can cause us pain—but we can stop the pain with practice. One of my favorite Buddhist teaching, “Two Arrows Sutra”, shows us how to respond to pain in a mindful way that prevents needless suffering.
An arrow hits us and causes us physical or mental pain. The arrow can be a nasty remark, or not buying something on sale, or not getting an outcome we want. When we react by becoming distraught and worry about it, we are hit by a second arrow—one of mental pain. The second arrow has been created by our own negative reaction, which causes us unnecessary pain. If our response to the first arrow is to remain patient and calm, and let the negative thoughts pass along, there will be no second arrow.
The great teacher Shantideva wrote (The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambala, 2008, p 16):
If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
I’ll not fret about such things,
To do so only aggravates my trouble.
Buddhists know we gain nothing directly from suffering or from feeling guilty. Instead we can learn from our experiences and make amends if we have harmed someone, and then let the experience pass. We want to help others and relieve suffering whenever possible. This is the way to be happy.
Buddhist economics shows how we can apply the story of the two arrows more broadly to our daily lives. The first powerful arrow is a free market economy that has everyone working long hours to make more money, while we ignore what our actions may be doing to others and to our environment. Then the second arrow hits us as we rush out to buy lots of stuff to feel better, only to find fleeting happiness.
If we look closely at the first arrow, we can question the goal of making money rather than creating a meaningful life. We can stop shooting the second arrow by structuring an economy that focuses on well-being rather than income. Now the “pursuit of happiness” becomes creating meaningful, comfortable lives for everyone within a healthy ecosystem. A Buddhist economy can improve the lives of all people!