The Poisoned Arrow: Why the answer is not always the solution

Buddhas-Arrow

The Poisoned Arrow: Why the answer is not always the solution

"Do we always have to know the cause of a problem in order to solve it?"

I recently put this question to a client, who for more than a year had been ruminating over something that had happened in his personal life. Months of constant thinking and numerous failed attempts to change the situation had left him feeling increasingly frustrated, fatigued, and powerless. So now, he had come to my office in the hope that I could somehow help him identify the cause of his problem and help him move on.

At first glance, this proposition can seem paradoxical: if someone wants to think less, why would they want to consult with a philosopher? After all, thinking (and over-thinking, some would argue) is what drives philosophy. Turning the question around, we could also ask: How should philosophical counselors deal with rumination without aggravating the problem?

The Buddha used an interesting analogy to explain human suffering, which I have found to be useful in cases like these. It goes like this: “If a poisoned arrow is stuck in your chest, do you ask who shot it before you try to pull it out?”. In other words: when you suffer, do you have to know why before you can start acting? I shared this idea with this particular client and before long our conversation was focused on what he could do here and now, not on what had happened to him in the past or why it had happened. This alone was an immense relief for him. His overwhelming feeling of being powerless had been replaced by a desire to act.

After our conversation I got to thinking that the belief system underpinning rumination in many ways resembles Aristotle’s principle of "the unmoved mover”: the idea that an independent, self-contained cause is the foundation of all subsequent worldly events. Perhaps when we’re caught up in rumination, we confuse the causes and effects of what is happening to us because we, in a similar way, try to deduce our way back to an ultimate underlying cause of our misery. We revisit childhood memories, analyze our emotional genealogy, foray into fruitless hours of mindreading in our pursuit after the illusory birthplace of our problems. But what if the real problem lies in our habit of looking to the past in order to resolve the present? With this particular client, this tendency manifested itself in a persistent series of thoughts that revolved around questions like: "Why did it happen?", "Why didn't you see it coming?", "and "Why would someone do such a thing?”. Rather than bringing him clarity and closure, these questions intensified his feelings of frustration and emotional fatigue.

So, the point I wish to draw from this example is that Buddhist philosophy can remind us that philosophical counseling is not just about asking good questions; it is also about knowing when to think and when to let go. When we do this and listen closely, we may find that the answer is not always the solution.

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