The story of the 2 arrows
A few years ago, my first meditation teacher spoke of the Parable of the Second Arrow, and it was the first time I saw how the skills I was developing during meditation practice could translate into everyday life.
The parable of the Second Arrow goes like this:
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”
So while we can’t always control the situations life throws at us, this parable helps us understand how emotional reactions can make matters worse.
When I first heard this story I was taking an MBSR class to help me cope with chronic pain. Hearing this parable helped me to connect the dots between how the physical pain I experienced was being impacted my thoughts. I noticed that when the pain was bad, I would get emotional and have anxious and fearful thoughts about the pain, which then made the pain worse, which then caused more fear and anxiety. And I would end up in a cycle of where the pain would get worse and worse and I would get more and more freaked out and anxious. Once I heard the parable, it dawned on me that I was in fact continuously shooting myself with the second arrow. Now, this realization didn’t magically solve the pain, but once I was aware of the second arrow, I started to understand how my reactive thoughts affected me.
Life will always throw first arrows our way: a major life event happens, or someone says something upsetting to you, or you get a parking ticket. First arrows can also be more mundane like waiting in a grocery store line up that just isn’t moving, or coming home to a sink full of dirty dishes. Often our reactions to first arrows play a large role in how we interpret and experience the event. We like to point the finger, lay blame, complain, condemn ourselves and over analyze.
What if, instead of shooting ourselves with the second arrow, we recognize that those thoughts, feelings and emotions are there, but they aren’t inherently a part of us and don’t necessarily define us. We can stand back from our thoughts and emotions, observe them, but not get carried away in them. And if we no longer identify with our reactive thoughts and feelings we can start to see that life events are what they are, and our reactions to these events are just experiences that are passing through.
So next time that first arrow hits you, watch out for the second arrow right around the corner, don’t just react but instead respond to the situation. Going from reacting to responding is not easy to do, but once we start to recognize our own patterns of reactive thoughts and emotions, we can try to start to change them.
The “Two Arrows” is not about denying our initial reaction to pain. It is about being self-aware enough to realize that we have a choice, and we don’t necessarily have to turn our pain into suffering.