The two arrows teaching states that the initial pain or upset is the first arrow – it’s just there and can’t be made to not be there: we break up, we lose our job, we have an injury, we make a mistake….. But our response to this first arrow determines if we fire the second arrow – and this resistance to simply feeling the pain of the first arrow causes us more pain.
What I’ve been noticing this last week is that often the second arrow is related to the story I tell myself about who I am. This might show up in the form of the limiting beliefs we have about ourselves. Say for example I forget to reply to an email and the result is I miss out on a work opportunity. The first arrow is simply, I’ve missed out on an opportunity. The learning might be making a resolve to check my emails every day. But rather than just looking at it from the perspective of “what can I learn”, if I go into my limiting belief about myself, then I get lost in the story of “I’m always going to fail”, “I can’t succeed” or simply “I’m a failure”. The emotional discomfort connected with these limiting self-beliefs and the stories I then tell myself in connection to them is much worse than simply missing out on a work opportunity. It’s worse because it is a deep, visceral sense of there being some fatal flaw in me, rather than simply looking at life from the perspective that everyone sometimes forgets to reply to an email. The same might be true of a break up. Rather than just feel the pain of the first arrow, the pain of separating, I may go into the story that “I am always going to be alone, nothing ever works out for me”…..and then feel the pain of the second arrow as this drama plays out in my head. And this dram is deeper than a single break up, it is a self-belief that I am of no value or am destined to be single for ever.
Last week I was chatting with a friend by text and there was one exchange that resulted in me going into the familiar story “I am not good enough to be wanted, I am about to be rejected.” On recognising that I was firing the second arrow, and that as a result I was going into this familiar story I was able to stop and just notice how painful it was to hold on to this self-belief, and instead bring some kindness to myself. Rather than telling myself off for going into the story, I was able to notice how painful it was to feel this and to see that this is a deep wound, one that was caused by a childhood of having a close friendship with a boy who would regularly drop me in favour of another friend. We were three boys who would always be together, but Richard would take turns in rejecting one of us, leaving us for a week as an outcast, before allowing us back in. This went on from the age of 4 to 9. It created a ‘lens’, a distorted way of seeing myself and the world. Of course in the case of my friend now that scenario is not happening, but the map I have laid down of how the world works tells me this is what friends will do.
As I saw this I reflected that in fact I could not know what would happen, that all I could do was bring kindness to myself as I experienced this fear of rejection. And by the end of the day after a few more texts it became clear my friend had actually appreciated the exchange we had had earlier and found it helpful. All my fears that he was about to reject me were simply in my own head. And so often our map of the world is not an accurate representation of the landscape we are in, but the distorted contours created by our childhood understanding of the world. But we insist on using our map as if it gives us an accurate way to chart our way through life!
In the MBCT course there’s a simple phrase: “thoughts are not facts” and so often I find it helps me to remind myself of this as my mind goes into its story telling. Gently reminding myself not to believe the drama, to see that this is simply me firing the second arrow rather than staying with the direct experience of the impact of the initial situation. Very often it means coming to the point of just acknowledging: “I don’t know”. These stories are all trying to tell me how things are: “I’m a failure, he will reject me,I’m going to be left alone….” But the truth was I did not know what he was thinking, only what I thought he was thinking based on my fears!
As you go thorough your week, notice how often you fire that second arrow in response to the initial cause of upset or pain, and notice if it is connected to a familiar story that is telling you some limiting belief about yourself. You then have an opportunity to challenge that belief, to choose not to let it take over. As we see our storytelling mind we can then free ourselves of its drama. As Rumi says: “The wound is the place where the light enters you”.