The Second Arrow

The Buddha taught that when we experience something painful — a physical illness, or the news that someone we love has died, or witnessing suffering all around us — it’s as if the world has shot an arrow into us. It hurts! That pain is totally normal, and it’s fine to acknowledge it. In fact, it’s good to acknowledge it, to let ourselves simply be with the experience of pain.

But often, what we then do is shoot a second arrow into ourselves. That second arrow is any thought we use to spin up a “story” around our pain, as a way of resisting simply being with the experience of pain. This can manifest in many different ways.

It can take the form of shame: “I’m such a weak person, to be crying out like this!” Or anger: “How dare the doctors not save my loved one’s life! They’re so incompetent!” Or ruminating: “If only I’d nudged my loved one to take this or that extra precaution, maybe they wouldn’t have died.” Or catastrophizing: “I’m going to die, too!” Or guilt: “I don’t deserve to live while other people are dying.”

We’ve all got our second arrow of choice. Whichever one you incline toward, the key thing to bear in mind is that it’s self-inflicted, which is to say, it’s optional. It might not seem that way, because it comes upon you so quickly that it seems automatic, but the Buddhist teaching insists this is a second arrow we shoot into ourselves. And doing so is what causes us suffering. As many Buddhist mindfulness teachers like to say: Suffering = Pain x Resistance.