Endurance

As an elephant in battle
Endures an arrow shot from a bow,
So will I endure verbal abuse;
Many people, indeed, lack virtue.

Dhammapada v. 320, translated by Gil Fronsdal

As Ajahn Chah often said, “Patient endurance is the highest austerity.”

There are a number of animal similes coming up. I find them not only colorful, but direct and to the point. Is it possible for us to endure verbal abuse as an elephant ignores or endures an arrow stuck in its thick hide?

We have to admit that, at least theoretically, we are capable of enduring unwelcome words without reacting – it’s just a bit hard. We have to first decide that we want to be able to hear unwelcome words and not let them disturb our minds. Then we have to figure out how to go about it.

“Many people, indeed, lack virtue” is a way of saying that we know verbal abuse is coming our way, and we ought to prepare for it; it cannot be successfully avoided all the time.

There are contemplations we can do to prepare our minds for the assault of things we don’t want to hear (or see, smell, taste, or feel with the body, etc.).

— We can remember that life will for sure bring us unwelcome contacts. If we contemplate this fact when nothing unpleasant is happening, it might be available as an aid to understanding when unpleasant things do happen.

— Think about the fact that peoples’ words will only cause us upset if they meet with resistance in our minds. Letting the words roll past us is an option. If we don’t take the words personally, seeing that they are an expression of the speakers troubles, not our own, we can let them blow by like a bad odor. If we grab onto the disturbing words, we may carry them around for a long time, repeatedly wounding ourselves.

— We can set the intention to behave and speak in ways that disturb others as little as possible. Keeping quiet is often a good option, or using conciliatory gestures or words.

In the moment when verbal abuse comes our way, it can help a lot if we remember to be aware of our breathing. A few times, I’ve had to say, “I can’t have this conversation under these conditions. Let’s try again when we’re both calmer”, and just walk away. But more often, keeping the breath in mind, it’s possible to let the words wash over me like a wave, breaking and subsiding of their own accord. If there’s no fighting back, the fighter usually loses energy pretty quickly. It is a little like being an elephant with a thick hide, isn’t it?

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