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The Two Arrows: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

Over the last month I’ve had a number of experiences that have given rise to feelings of dejection and sadness. And as this drama in the heart-mind has played itself out on the stage of myself I’m reminded to return to a teaching I became familiar with last year, the two arrows.

There’s a Buddhist saying: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. This slightly enigmatic phrase is explored more in the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows where the Buddha compared the experience of pain to being struck by an arrow:  it is happening, it’s real and it hurts. But how do we then respond to this first arrow? If I respond to the initial stimulus of my upset by worrying, wondering what’s wrong with me for it to have happened, blaming myself for falling into habitual patterns or not doing more to act in a ‘better’, wiser, way or getting angry and irate I fire a second arrow.

So now I have the initial pain of not being able to date someone I want to, or not being invited to an interview for a job I applied for (and am currently working in, but had to tender for…adding to the sense of failure) If I then add the secondary pain of telling myself off, putting myself down or finding fault with myself, feeling worried about the furture, anxious about what will happen…..I then fire the second arrow. I have no control over the first arrow. As the saying goes “shit happens”, but I do have control over the second arrow, for that is what I create as a response in my heart-mind to the finial painful stimulus.

This tendency to self-blame seems to be rooted in low self esteem, a self-desarigin mind sate that is ever ready to find evidence of me being a useless and flawed human being, a “waste of space” as my mother would sometimes say to me as a child. Perhaps the child started to believe that if I am waste of space then perhaps I do not deserve to exist or take up space? And an unconscious pattern of thinking about myself gets created which is triggered when events seem to prove it true. Another familiar scolding was that I “did not have the brains I was born with”, so it’s not surprising that my inner critic would delight in using this as one of it’s recurrent themes: you’re so stupid, look at the mess you made of that, see I knew you couldn’t do it.

This isn’t to then look to blame my mother or whoever we hold responsible for our wounds – that would be firing another arrow, getting angry with a person who no longer exists – my mother is still alive, but the woman who was my mother in the 1970s is simply an idea now, a memory in my mind, echoing in this present moment as habit patterns of thinking that have created a neural patterning in my brand to respond in certain ways. The significance of the two arrow teaching is that in a pre- scientific age with awareness of the brain an dits structure, the Buddha is encouraging us to engage in a neural restructuring by choosing to hold our experience of the initial pain without going into the automatic pathways of resting to it. For me its to go into a sense of powerless surrender and silent anger. That’s how i was a child and it’s given with to my patterns as an adult. Other may have learnt to get angry, so will respond with rage to the first arrow. We all have our patterns. But by coming back to the primary pain, the first arrow, we have a chance to open to an experience of empathy and compassion for ourselves, for our suffering and to recognise that it will pass and is a temporary experience not something that defines who we are.

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The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain and she uses this teaching of the two arrows as the means to finding a deeper level of ease and patient forbearance when confronted by pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain.She gives a beautiful summary of her approach which I’ve found very helpful in my own experience of working with pain:

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In the chart below Birch shows how by responding to the primary pain with resistance we then fire the second arrow which gives rise to secondary suffering. This secondary suffering may take the form of ‘blocking’, where we try to deny that there is any pain, or ‘drowning’, where we are overwhelmed by it.

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How then do I  stay with the first pain and not shoot the second arrow? First, I acknowledge that I am firing the second arrow, that this is something I am doing in response to the initial stimuli. Then And then I turn to the first arrow itself. I can feel in and ask myself am I blocking or drowning?  In another teaching the Buddha talks of a man who has been shot by a poisoned arrow who will not have it removed util a whole list of questions about the arrow and who shot it have been answered  – who shot it, where did he come from, was he a noble, whats it made of, what feathers were used on the shaft etc. Clearly in this case the mad wold just want it removed. But when I am shot by the arrow of suffering how often I try to work it all out what it means, why, what it says about me, what was it’s cause?

As I mentioned earlier there may be causes from childhood for how I think now.  But I am here now, and my awareness of these conditioning factors point not at a never ending speculation about why, but the need to hold this present moment with compassion and patience. The first arrow is pulled out when instead of pushing it further into the wound, I bring kind attention to the pain through a gentle, compassionate holding of my sense of upset and disappointment. Holding the hope of the child for love rather than telling him he was a fool to expect anyone to want him or be available. Perhaps being abandoned by my father at birth made that wound, but right now I can let that wound fest, or apply the healing balm of self-care through acknowledge that hurts, that I feel lonely, and recognising that this is not just my experience but it is what I share with all humans.

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