Plato’s Cave, Buddha’s Arrows, Self-Rejection And More Human Suffering
Yes, let’s allegorize and parabalize (it’s a word!) the heck out of this blog post. Because words are mere sounds until we give them meaning, and meaning arises best in the context of a good story.
As I wrote in last week’s blog post:
“…it’s not so much the stories that we tell ourselves, it’s our identification with those stories. And it’s not so much that identification, it’s our judgment of it — mostly that something is “bad” — that creates our suffering.”
To illustrate this identification with the stories we use to explain a situation, a person’s behavior or even life itself, let me introduce you to Plato’s cave:
The prisoners in the cave have merged with the idea that the world around them merely consists of that cave and the shadows that sometimes appear. They identify themselves according to what they see and hear in their world of the cave — which is limited to say the least. Similarly, most of us, for a big part our lives, have merged with what our world has presented us. Our world may be bigger than a cave, and although we are free to roam in it, we have also subjected ourselves to society’s rules and the patterns we have developed in accordance to those rules.
Nothing wrong with that, as Jan Geurtz explains in his book Liberated by love (“Bevrijd door liefde”, not (yet) translated into English), since those patterns were created during our childhood to protect ourselves from other people’s rejections. After all, as children we were completely dependent on the care of the adults around us. So we’d better learn how to behave — meaning: avoid rejections — or we might not receive the love, food, shelter we need…
Partly due to society’s measurements and judgments, partly due to never having been introduced to a different perspective, we’ve maintained — and oftentimes exaggerated — these patterns when we became adults ourselves. As a result, we have learned to suppress and deny parts of ourselves that have not been received well by society and/or our peers. This is where the self-rejection comes in: every time we give in to such a suppressed part of ourselves, we beat ourselves up about it. “I shouldn’t be saying/doing that!” Why not? Because deep down we remember it lead to a rejection in the past, and thus it evokes a knee-jerk reaction in the present. Situations and people — in other words: triggers — that make us feel inadequate, whether we consciously realize it or not, lead to this self-rejecting behavior. Behavior that is either meant to keep us “safe” from other people’s rejections (i.e. by rejecting them first, by pleasing them, by not speaking up at all, etc.), or meant to cover up the pain when the preventive behavior didn’t work (i.e. reaching for an addiction, denial, gossip, etc.). We think this self-rejective behavior works because it makes us feel better for a moment, thus we repeat it every time we’re triggered to feel inadequate, and a pattern evolves — all of this with the best intention to feel safe.
This way, we willingly keep ourselves prisoners in a cave, believing that’s all there is to living a safe life, and seeing the mere shadows of what’s really out there.
No wonder that the prisoner who has escaped, and who has witnessed what is outside of the cave and causes those shadows, is being declared mad by the others. When one has merged with a pattern of behavior, and completely identifies oneself according to it, the perspective of a whole other world (out there) is scary to say the least. It would mean nothing is as it seems anymore…yikes! Generally, we prefer the safety of what we know — no matter how much pain that causes sometimes — over having to face our fears and patterns of self-rejection.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the world of the cave and its shadows should be dismissed — as Jan Geurtz emphasizes strongly in his way of explaining these self-rejecting patterns. Because that would just mean adding another rejection!
Hence why I love to mix Jan Geurtz’ book with Plato’s allegory: it doesn’t even make sense to reject the cave and the shadows since we all understand that they are real too.
Instead, what Jan Geurtz suggests, is to transcend these patterns by first…tadaaaa… becoming AWARE of them.
The cave and its shadows will always be there. But so will the world outside of it! Becoming aware of our identification with a life in a shadowy cave and the opportunity to go outside of it (by breaking free from our self-rejecting chains) gives us a choice to start with. Nextly, like I said, it’d be silly to reject that cave. It makes much more sense to gradually move into the world outside of that cave — little by little, with frequent returns to the cave at first, but less of those over time.
Of course, there’s so much more to say, and philosophize, about both Plato’s allegory and Jan Geurtz’ book. But what does this all mean in REAL LIFE?
I’m glad you asked. Because I am also a fan of Buddha’s parable about the two arrows — perhaps because it’s a little easier to translate into our day-to-day existence. However, I will borrow Ciara O’Connor Walsh’s words to enlighten you on this parable:
“The shitty thing — the event or situation in your life that’s making you feel bad: that’s the first arrow. That’s the triggering event — the reason why you feel bad, not ok, unsettled or upset.
As humans, we have a tendency to very quickly hunt for reasons as to why the shitty thing occurred — and more often than not, we tend to turn blame on ourselves. There’s something wrong with me, there’s something defective, I’m unlovable, not good enough, I’m falling short, I have failed somehow. And this — this self-blame, this turning inwards against oneself — this is the second arrow.
In Buddhist teachings, the parable of the second arrow goes as follows:
‘The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.’
And while we can’t control our outside environment, we can, with practice, change this pattern of shooting a second arrow after the first. There are two very effective exercises which you can practice in order to circumvent this all-too-human response to life — firstly, noticing the pattern of the second arrow; secondly, practicing kindness to yourself when you see it.”
Well what do you know, there it is again: AWARENESS. And kindness. To become aware that the shitty thing that happened triggered your self-rejective behavior, and to not beat yourself up about the fact that you reacted this way. That’s it, really. That’s all there is to living outside of Plato’s cave.
Now if this was as easily done as written down, Plato would never have come up with his cave allegory and we’d all be non-stop smiling in the sunshine. Instead, we suffer in our cave. Suffering that can also be called a form of art, by the way. But that’s another story.
To be continued.