“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.” – The Arrow Sutta
In Buddhism there is the concept of two arrows. The first arrow being the painful one that is done to us and is out of our control. The second arrow is what we do to ourselves and the one that is the cause of suffering in our lives.
To put it simply pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. How so?
Imagine a typical scenario – you had plans this weekend to meet a friend for dinner, an hour before you arranged to meet they message you saying they have to cancel because their child is sick. Quite obviously you’d be annoyed, upset, hurt. That’s understandable. What comes next is optional.
“Ugh, I planned my whole weekend around this, it’s ruined! I could have done so many other things instead. In fact, they’re always cancelling on me, why are we even friends? Next time she wants to meet I’m just going to blow her off. Yeah…that’ll show her, we were never really great friends anyway.”
In the space of two minutes you went from upset to probably throwing away years of friendship over a small matter.
So what, I’m just supposed to accept everything that happens to me?
No. But you have to separate the objective reality from your subjective story. The second arrow is the story we tell ourselves. We try to rationalise our feelings about the event, often personalising them.
The better option is to be aware of slipping into this story-telling mode. In the case above that friend may well let you down often, but instead of cutting them out why not talk to them about it. They may well admit they haven’t been very supportive, apologise and promise to do better. Wouldn’t you like someone to do the same for you?
We often treat setbacks as life defining events. Heck, they certainly feel that way in the moment, but when we reflect on our life they are merely trivial.
Life will inevitably be painful but through practicing mindfulness we cultivate the ability to be aware of the present moment. We can actually train ourselves to respond rather than react.
This week, whenever you have a strong emotional response to something, ask yourself, am I dealing with the first arrow or the second arrow? And what kind of story am I telling myself? Let me know how you get on in the comments below.