Imagine a Pine Tree
THICH NHAT HANH answers a retreatant’s question on what to do in the face of suffering.
Thay, I suffer a lot and I know that suffering is part of my practice.
My suffering comes from two main things. One is that I have a chronic
illness, which causes me a lot of physical pain. The other is that I am
an activist and I care very deeply for the world. Sometimes I feel a lot
of despair about what’s happening in the world around us, in terms of
violence, poverty, and environmental destruction. What practices would
you recommend for those of us who are living with physical pain or are
in despair about the suffering of the world?
Nhat Hanh: As activists we want to do something to help the world to
suffer less. But we know that when we’re not peaceful, when we don’t
have enough compassion in us, we can’t do much to help the world. We
ourselves are at the center. We have to make peace and reduce the
suffering in ourselves first, because we represent the world. Peace,
love, and happiness must always begin here, with ourselves. There is
suffering, fear, and anger inside of us, and when we take care of it, we
are taking care of the world.
a pine tree standing in the yard. If that pine tree were to ask us what
it should do, what the maximum is a pine tree can do to help the world,
our answer would be very clear: “You should be a beautiful, healthy
pine tree. You help the world by being your best.” That is true for
humans also. The basic thing we can do to help the world is to be
healthy, solid, loving, and gentle to ourselves. Then when people look
at us, they will gain confidence. They will say, “If she can do that, I
can do that too!”
anything you do for yourself, you do for the world. Don’t think that
you and the world are two separate things. When you breathe in mindfully
and gently, when you feel the wonder of being alive, remember that
you’re also doing this for the world. Practicing with that kind of
insight, you will succeed in helping the world. You don’t even have to
wait until tomorrow. You can do it right now, today.
Buddha proposed so many ways to practice to reduce the pain in your
body and in your emotions, and to reconcile with yourself. We have
learned in this retreat that you can reduce physical pain through the
practice of releasing tension in the body. Pain increases as a function
of tension, and it can be reduced if we release the tension. You can
practice relaxation in the lying or sitting position. You can also
practice relaxation when you walk, and with every step you can help
release the tension. Walk like a free person. Put things down, don’t
carry anything, and feel light. There is a burden we always carry with
us. The skill we need is how to lay down our burden in order to be
light. If you sit, walk, or lie down like that, it’s very easy to
release the tension and reduce the pain.
Buddha said that you shouldn’t amplify your pain by exaggerating the
situation. He used the image of someone who has just been hit by an
arrow. A few minutes later, a second arrow strikes him in exactly the
same spot. When the second arrow hits, the pain is not just doubled; it
is many times more painful and intense.
when you experience pain, whether it’s physical or mental, you have to
recognize it just as it is and not exaggerate it. You can say to
yourself, “Breathing in, I know this is only a minor physical pain. I
can very well make friends and peace with it. I can still smile to it.”
you recognize the pain as it is and don’t exaggerate it, then you can
make peace with it, and you won’t suffer as much. But if you get angry
and revolt against it, if you worry too much and imagine that you’re
going to die very quickly, then the pain will be multiplied one hundred
times. That is the second arrow, the extra suffering that comes from
exaggeration. You should not allow it to arise. This is very important.
It was recommended by the Buddha: Don’t exaggerate and amplify the pain.