Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow

What does it mean to shoot the second arrow? It comes from a Buddhist Parable. Source – True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, by Tara Brach

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”

What are the two arrows in this story?

The First Arrow – The first arrow is unavoidable. It represents the things that happen to us in life that cause suffering. No human gets away from suffering, it’s part of the condition and we will all encounter it at some point. It hurts, just like getting hit with an arrow.

The Second Arrow – The second arrow is the one we shoot at ourselves in response to the first arrow. Now, that sounds a bit absurd, why would we shoot ourselves and cause more suffering? But we do… so often.

Let me explain with two versions of a story you may relate to.

Version One – Two Arrows
You are rushing through your house to get to work when, WHAM, you stub your toe on the rock-hard immovable coffee table. You immediately fall to the floor clutching your toe. You think, “I don’t have time for this today!” While you are rolling around the floor clutching your toe, you say: “I’m such a clumsy idiot, this type of thing always happens to me.” Inspecting your toe, you realize it won’t fit into your work shoes. “I’m not even going to be able to wear respectable work shoes today, and I have that presentation to give, it’s going to be a disaster, all day I’m going to be hobbling around, my entire day is ruined and I’ll probably look like a fool in front of my colleagues.”

Version One – One Arrow
You are rushing through your house to get to work when, WHAM, you stub your toe on the rock-hard immovable coffee table. You immediately fall to the floor clutching your toe. Through the tears you let out a little chuckle about your sad, but painful situation. You inspect your toe and realize you will need to wear sandals to work today. You joke to yourself, “Casual Friday is coming early this week!” Then you hobble to the closet.

I think you can imagine which scenario caused more suffering. When we use our thoughts and stories to shoot the second arrow and cause more suffering, we are negatively impacted, and not just metaphorically.

Our thoughts and stories create REAL emotions that can cause serious suffering. Emotions are experienced in our bodies in the same way regardless of the source, whether it be external (the first arrow) or internal (the second arrow).

We get to choose.

We get to choose if we shoot the second arrow. Sometimes in the moment it’s hard to remember that. Old habits die hard, and often the way we speak to ourselves after being shot with the first arrow is learned from a parent or your culture, and may not even reflect who you want to be.

So how do we choose? We practice mindfulness. When we realize that we are suffering, that opens up a moment of choice for us. We can choose if we are going to make the suffering worse with stories and thoughts (the second arrow).

But we can even level this parable up with some self-compassion.

As soon as we realize we are suffering, we can give ourselves some compassion for that first arrow of suffering. I like to use the voice of “the grandmother” and say something like: “Oh honey, I’m so sorry this happened to you. That must really hurt (acknowledging the pain). We all have stubbed a toe (common humanity). I love you so much, let’s put some ice on that (self-kindness).”

The self-compassion piece helps us to take good care of ourselves during a time of suffering. We can ask ourselves what we really need, and then do our best to make it happen. It’s like being your own best grandma to yourself.So don’t shoot the second arrow, and when you get shot with the first one, don’t forget to take excellent care of yourself. You deserve it.

I teach Mindful Self-Compassion, the 8 week research-based class to raise self-compassion. Send me an email to get on the waiting list for the next class:

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