The Two Arrows

In Buddhist mindfulness philosophy there is a difference between pain and suffering, and this is often illustrated through the concept of the two arrows. The first arrow is physical or emotional trauma that we cannot control. However, we often find ourselves shooting a second arrow after the first one. This second arrow is our tendency to attach meaning to our pain, to add suffering, to keep the pain from the first arrow alive.

We cannot help that there is pain in the world. However, our response to that pain means we have a choice between whether we work to transcend it or continue to suffer. The pain may be inevitable, but the suffering–the second arrow–is optional. The second arrow is the part over which we actually have control.

How do you avoid the second arrow? Some might take this to mean that in the face of trauma, we must maintain a completely stoic attitude– maybe even burying our thoughts and feelings. This is a misinterpretation of the message. Taking out the second arrow does not mean suppressing pain from the first arrow. We always need to face our emotions. We need to feel and accept them, never ignore them. Maybe you’ve heard the following: “You have to feel it to heal it,” or “What you resist will persist.” In fact, you cannot consciously let go of trauma if you never fully accept its existence in the first place. This is the paradox in overcoming emotional pain.

Perhaps one way to think about this is to consider the difference between our thoughts and our emotions. Emotions are what you feel in your body. Thoughts are mental constructs based upon our conditioning. If the first arrow is your emotions, then the second arrow is your thoughts about those emotions. There is the pain and there are thoughts about the pain.

Let’s say that I failed a test. That low score really hurt. Ouch! That was my first arrow. Then I start shooting my second arrow: What a failure I am! I’ll never amount to anything and this just proves it.

This is an example of the kind of inner dialogue many of us have with ourselves on a daily basis. I suck. I can’t do it. This is awful. I hate this. Notice that these are all judgments. The second arrow is the arrow of judgment. Can we avoid the second arrow by acknowledging our pain without judgment?

The second arrow is also the arrow of fear. Fear of pain will keep the pain alive. It’s fear of our emotions, and the expression of those emotions, even to ourselves. Can we avoid the second arrow by feeling our pain without fear?

The Buddhist concept of mindfulness teaches us how to sit with our feelings and accept them. We learn to notice our thoughts but not allow them to run roughshod over us. Going to our emotions without fear or judgment helps us understand the truly benign nature of them. Our feelings are not to be ignored, nor are they to be feared. They cannot hurt us. And when we face them and own up to them, we realize we can be okay with them. We can indeed survive – even thrive – in the face of those fears. We can live in that place where we thought we could never go.

© 2024 Christina Wei