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#6: Transforming Suffering: The Wisdom of the Two Arrows


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Shit happens.

But how we respond to the shit is where the true story of our resilience begins.


 

THE PARABLE


The parable of the two arrows is used by the wisdom traditions to point to a powerful insight into the nature of human suffering.


To paraphrase, the Buddha said that when a person is struck by an arrow (physical or emotional pain), it's like being hit by the first arrow. The pain is inevitable in life. However, what follows is akin to being struck by a second arrow – the mental suffering caused by one's reaction to the pain. This second arrow represents our emotional reactions, aversions, and resistance to the unavoidable difficulties of life.


The parable underscores the importance of understanding that while we may not be able to avoid the first arrow of pain, we have control over how we respond to it. By cultivating mindfulness, we can minimize the impact of the second arrow, learning to face life's challenges with greater equanimity and inner peace.


THE FIRST ARROW


You stub your toe. You’re criticized by a family member. Someone crashes into your car. You're laid off from your job. Your partner leaves you. You lose a loved one to illness.


These inevitable pains in life are referred to as THE FIRST ARROW. In these circumstances, it’s natural and expected to feel the pain of the discomfort itself, which can take shape in many different forms – from physical feelings of “OUCH” to disappointment, sadness, and grief. Each arrow carries a different lifespan of pain depending on the intensity and the depth of your relationship to it. This is the normal course of human suffering. But it's not the whole story.


THE SECOND ARROW

The SECOND ARROW of suffering is another layer of pain generated by our RESISTANCE to the pain of the first arrow. As soon as we’re struck by misfortune, we instinctively and instantaneously reach for the second arrow. We judge, criticize, blame, worry, hold a grudge, catastrophize, ruminate, and/or berate ourselves. 


If we stub our toe, we think: “I’m an idiot.”

If we’re criticized: "How dare they say that to me!"

If we make a mistake: "I can’t do anything right."

If we’re cut off in traffic: "They're such an asshole."

If someone leaves us: "I'm unloveable. I’ll never find another partner."

If we lose someone we love: "It’s my fault. I should have done more to prevent this." 


When we react to the first arrow with resistance, it’s usually our attempt to avoid the pain or distract ourselves from feeling its intensity. But this only amplifies the pain and prolongs its natural course in the long run. Ruminating and replaying the painful event in our minds over and over is like scratching the itch from a rash. On some level, we hope scratching provides relief. And we may actually get a very brief sense of satisfaction. But the itch always comes back and with greater intensity. The suffering we endure almost always far outweighs the pain of the first arrow.


The good news is that, with practice, we can learn to catch the second arrow, and in some cases, prevent the second arrow from happening in the first place.


MINDING THE SECOND ARROW


Mindfulness and the practice of meditation are invaluable in the process of meeting the arrows of discomfort, seeing more clearly when and how we add the second arrow, and cultivating our ability to release it.


Let’s dive into this process through an example from a previous MBSR grad. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll use the alias Leo.


Leo was in the midst of taking the 8-week MBSR program when they unexpectedly lost their job. Naturally, they were experiencing a lot of turbulence and distress in their life as a result of this event. During class four, they were invited into a guided meditation to explore “meeting the unwanted.”


It unfolded like this…


The meditation began with the invitation to bring attention to an anchor. 

The next invitation was to get curious about any experience of discomfort/pain. 

Where is something unwanted happening?


Almost immediately, Leo noticed a sense of restlessness and irritation.


The next invitation was to explore the sensations of pain or discomfort in the body.

Where is “restlessness” or “irritation” felt?

Get curious about the qualities of the pain or discomfort.

Is the feeling sharp or dull? 

Is there a boundary to it?

Is it constant or changing?

Does it have a temperature? Hot? Cold? 


At first, Leo noticed thoughts of wanting the meditation to end. They were doubting the usefulness of the practice and just wanted it to be over. They acknowledged the thoughts, let them be, and then proceeded to look into their physical experience. Beneath the restlessness they discovered a heaviness in their heart-space. With an attitude of curiosity, they explored the qualities – dull, diffused, intermittent, hot. 


The following invitation was to zoom out a bit and notice if any thoughts or feelings were accompanying the physical experience of discomfort.


Leo found that the heaviness was connected to thoughts about the loss of their job. As they got in touch with the underlying sense of pain from the first arrow (grief) they witnessed the second arrow of resistance unfold. A prominent downward spiral of negative thinking emerged, quickly jumping from one painful projected event to another... and then another... and another: "I'll never get another job. My life is ruined. I'll have to move out of my house. I'll have to live out of my car. I'll never find a partner. I'll never feel good about myself ever again. What's the point of this stupid practice? I'm not feeling better, and I never will." And so on. It was a barrage of second arrows.


Leo reported that during the meditation, they were able to see the power and impact of how they were relating – with a flood of unhelpful judgments that amplified their discomfort.


With an attitude of curiosity, they were able to step back and objectively name their mental reactivity. "Oh! This is my negativity bias projecting future problems! How fascinating!" They also saw how their thought process was driven by resistance – not wanting to slow down, not wanting discomfort, not wanting grief.


RESISTANCE >>> CURIOSITY


Like Leo, most often the resistance that generates the suffering of the second arrow manifests in our thoughts.


It’s important to acknowledge that not all thinking constitutes the second arrow. Reflecting on and processing our experiences is important. We need to learn from our mistakes and find meaning in our losses. However, the flurry of reactive thinking that usually accompanies the first arrow is simply a habit and rarely helpful.


When we recognize this mental pattern and choose to shift into curiosity, we create the space to relate to our pain from a place of neutrality. We can observe sensations and see clearly that they change. We can also witness thoughts with perspective – not as “facts” but as mental events passing through the space of awareness. 


Bringing curiosity directly to our pain releases the “second arrow” and lowers its intensity. In moments of relating directly to pain, we effectively “drop the story” about our experience and create space for healing to unfold. While we may not be able to step into full acceptance, this shift in relating can have a tremendous impact that allows us to tend to the actual wound of the first arrow. In the words of Pema Chödrön:


“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart...”

Upon reflection, Leo realized that they were truly grieving the loss of their "dream job." And when they fully acknowledged this, they were able to see and honor the grief in their body and gently hold it with mindful awareness. This experience was a major breakthrough. With patience, courage, and loads of kindness, Leo was able to compassionately remove the second arrow.


Each of us has our own patterns of second arrow resistance. The more we practice witnessing our patterns with curiosity and kindness, the more our resistance can soften. In turn, this frees up energy to bring some degree of acceptance to the original arrow of pain.


It's also important to note that as we work through any single difficult circumstance, most of us will find ourselves in on ongoing cycle of habitually reaching back into our quiver for a second arrow, becoming aware of it, softening our resistance, touching into acceptance, then throttling back into resistance again....and so on. The practice is to continually bring awareness and curiosity to the present moment, and little by little observe how our relationship to resistance and suffering changes for the better.


In some cases, the resistance can even transform into appreciation. We may come to reframe our pain as a growth opportunity, or eventually see it as a valuable experience that helped shape our life in a meaningful way. 


Slowly but surely, we find our way into a more graceful and liberating relationship with our struggles.


Do you have your own experience with the two arrows? 

What are you learning about resistance through your practice?


I’d love to hear your thoughts/insights in the comments below!


With love,

Ryan

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