The Buddha teaches us that ignorance magnifies suffering. He is talking about being ignorant of the nature of things, of reality, of the fact that all things change continuously and nothing is permanent. This is something we always seem to forget; for some reason it is in our nature to cling to the false belief that there is something that can be permanent, that it can be stable, that it can be enduring. He is also talking about the false belief that things are independent of one another, when in reality, everything is intimately interconnected with everything else on every level. When you reach the understanding that we are all part of a vast web of being that is in constant flux, we can overcome ignorance and suffering. This is not to say that someone with understand can entirely escape suffering, but he can certainly lessen its impact.
Here's what the Buddha had to say about the effect of ignorance:
Suppose someone is struck by an arrow. He will feel pain. But if a second arrow strikes him at the very same spot, the pain will be much more than just doubled. And if a third arrow strikes him at that same spot again, the pain will be a thousand times more intense. Ignorance is the second and third arrow. It intensifies pain.
Thanks to understanding, a practitioner can prevent pain in himself and others from being intensified. When an unpleasant feeling, physical or mental, arises in him, the wise man does not worry, complain, weep, pound his chest, pull his hair, torture his body and mind, or faint. He calmly observes his feeling and is aware that it is only a feeling, and he is not caught by the feeling. Therefore, the pain cannot bind him. When he has a painful physical feeling, he knows that there is a painful physical feeling. He does not lose his calmness, does not worry, does not fear, does not complain. Thus the feeling remains a painful physical feeling, and it is not able to grow and ravage his whole being.
Be diligent in your practice of looking deeply so that the fruit of Understanding may arise and you will no longer be bound by pain. Birth, old age, sickness and death will also stop bothering you.
~from the Samyutta Nikaya Sutta, retold by TNH in 'Old Path White Clouds'
What does this teaching mean? Now, I'm only a lay practitioner and no dharma teacher, but this is my take on it. Things are going to come along and blindside us. It's going to happen, no matter how much we want to avoid bad events, bad feelings, physical pain, etc. When the inevitable hits, that's the first arrow. Ouch! Okay that hurt.
Now here's where understanding comes in. If we understand the First Noble Truth ('Suffering exists') then we know that stuff happens. It just does. We get sick, we age, we lose people and things that we love, we die. It is going to happen and we can pretend all we want to that it isn't but guess what. It still is going to happen. BUT--we don't have to make it worse for ourselves. If we understand that nothing is permanent and everything is connected and in continuous motion, we can get through it.
If we cling to the false belief that we could have done something to prevent this from happening, if we engage in 'if only' thinking, or if we fall into 'why me' thinking, we are shooting ourselves with that second arrow. You can't prevent the inevitable and this feeling is not going to last forever. Nothing does. It's a feeling. It will pass.
If we allow our emotions to overwhelm us, we have shot ourselves with the third arrow. This is when we wallow in despair, turn to self-abuse of various kinds (drug abuse, alcoholism, or whatever other self-destructive coping mechanisms we have found), find ourselves so deep into our own pain that we can't see a way out again. It is pain a thousand times more intense than the first arrow, and we caused it ourselves. We shot ourselves. We did it because we were clinging to false beliefs about the nature of reality.
This teaching has all sorts of ramifications for me. Just today I was walking home from work and I smiled at the sight of a bird and felt surprised at myself. I remember a time when I wouldn't have even noticed a bird. I inhaled deeply in time to my footsteps. In, out. In, out. I thought I might recite the metta sutta in my head as I walked, which I do sometimes. Then the thought occurred to me, I haven't lived up to this sutta today. I have no right to say these words. There's been tension at work amongst some staff and there's been talking going on behind people's backs, and I harboured some bad thoughts about people and yes I did some whispering myself. I felt a terrible pang of guilt. I felt a crushing feeling. In the past this could have led to tearful prayers for forgiveness and would have cast a cloud of gloom over me for the entire evening. But today, I have a better understanding. I breathed in and said to myself, 'I am feeling an emotion of guilt. I feel guilty for my behaviour today.' I breathed in and out and kept walking. I reminded myself that I was feeling an emotion. I acknowledged it, and it faded. There's no need to shoot yourself with that second arrow. It wouldn't change how I behaved today, and it wouldn't affect what I do tomorrow. I know I can do better tomorrow, and I already feel better today.
May all beings be at ease.