We all have had something upsetting or disappointing happen, and sometimes we get frustrated at ourselves or others. We wish things could be different. Our interpretation of events plays a large role in how we experience them. For example, someone at work or home left a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. You notice it and have an immediate reaction of annoyance. What often happens next is we think, “they are always leaving a mess for me to clean up, how many times have I asked them to clean up after themselves, they clearly don’t care for me at all, why am I always unappreciated.” We can go quickly from a situation — someone annoys us, our arm hurts, we’re coming down with a cold — to developing all kinds of emotions and thoughts that have little to do with the original issue.
The parable of the second arrow is a Buddhist parable about dealing with suffering more skillfully. The Buddhists say that any time we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. Being struck by an arrow is painful. Being struck by a second arrow is even more painful.
The Buddha explained:
“In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”
Picture yourself walking through a forest. Suddenly, you’re hit by an arrow. The first arrow is an actual bad event, which can cause pain. But it isn’t over yet. There is a second arrow. The second arrow brings more pain and suffering. Can you avoid the second one? The second arrow represents our reaction to the bad event. It’s the manner in which we choose to respond emotionally. I recently talked to a friend of mine who was at home with her sick family. She, her husband, and their two young sons were all sick with COVID and in various stages of sickness and recovery. She noticed her reaction to being ill — it felt wrong and unfair, she was a runner and shouldn’t have been stuck with this virus. Her sons, however, were playing when they had a little energy and resting when they felt unwell. They took the illness in stride and responded to how they were feeling at the time. They didn’t enjoy being sick but didn’t beat themselves up mentally with talks of what should and should not have been. They were dealing with the first arrow, not the second one.
Avoid the Second Arrow
So, how do you avoid the second arrow? First, notice the first arrow. When you are in emotional pain, allow yourself to feel it. You may notice your arrows in other ways, like frustration, irritation, and emotional or physical pain. Next, become aware and notice your emotional reaction. Maybe it is a desire to yell or complain to someone. Maybe you get angry with yourself and turn your emotions inward, feeling like you aren’t good enough or that there is something wrong with you. This is the second arrow. Catch yourself adding more pain and suffering. Finally, give yourself credit for recognizing and avoiding the second arrow. You are learning a new response. You can free up energy for circumstances you can control. However, you can also always adjust your reaction, even if you can’t control what happens to you.
We probably find ourselves dealing with the second arrow of suffering many times during the day. The story is not about denying our initial reaction, but to have a choice of how to proceed. Over time, being aware of this choice, and refraining from shooting endless second arrows at ourselves, can help free us of much unnecessary suffering.