If you are alive, there will be times in your life when you will experience pain. Pain can come in many guises. There is physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain, and spiritual pain. These are the inevitable consequences of simply being alive; it is part of the deal. This does not mean that life is painful all the time. Certainly there are times when we are not in pain, and we feel neutral or happy. But pain is a part of life, despite our attempts to deny it or run away from it. No life is free from pain.

Suffering is different from pain. The Buddha explained the difference with a story.

“Once,” the Buddha told his followers, “there was a man who was shot by an arrow. [1] How do you think the man felt?” asked the Buddha.

“Hurt! In pain!” replied his followers.

“Right,” agreed the Buddha. “Now this unfortunate man was soon struck by a second arrow. Now how do you think he felt?”

“Much worse!” replied the followers.

“Just so!” agreed the Buddha again. “The name of that second arrow is suffering.”

Pain, as we have seen, is inevitable. It is a part of the bargain of being alive. But suffering is optional! Suffering, according to the Buddha, is that second arrow. Suffering is the reaction we inflict upon ourselves when we are subjected to the first arrow of inevitable pain.

In his book Who Dies? Stephen Levine suggests many ways to examine this truth for ourselves. Levine is a Buddhist counselor who has studied for many years with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Ram Dass. He has worked with people who are dying and in constant pain. His practical, meditation-based teachings help the terminally ill come to recognize that they are not their disease, they are not their pain, and there is someone beneath the pain who is creating the suffering they are experiencing. It is not the sensations that create the problem, but rather the stories we add on top of the sensation that create the suffering. Once we recognize how we create our own suffering, the original sensations, which we call pain, are made more bearable. Levine’s meditations help us see the difference between pain and suffering.

Our Yin Yoga practice is also an excellent time to notice the truth of this first of the Buddha four noble truths. As we hold the posture for a longer and longer period of time, sensations begin to increase. We leave our normal comfort zone, and we become distinctly uncomfortable. We may even be on the verge of experiencing pain. [2] This discomfort is the first arrow – it is simply a sensation. How we react to a sensation is the interesting part of the practice. Do we add mental stories and judgments to a sensation? Do we tell ourselves how much we dislike the sensation, and wish it would end?

If this is your normal reaction to discomfort, whether while in a Yin Yoga pose or at any time in your life, study the discomfort. Get to know it. What is really going on there? This is the place where the practice can yield the greatest insight. Learning to watch and study the sensations arising in our yoga practice prepares us to also watch these arising at other times in life.

This common reaction to stress or challenging situations leads us directly to the Buddha’s second noble truth.

  1. — Arrows, as you will notice, are a common metaphor of these times.
  2. — Hopefully you are not going so deep that you are in pain.