Buddha’s Parable Of The Second Arrow
You’re walking along the sidewalk, minding your own business. A pointed arrow comes soaring through the air and pierces the meat of your thigh. What the heck?! Who shot that? Would your response to an unknown source shooting you be to pick up a bow and then shoot a second arrow into your other thigh?
Second Arrow In Theory
How about if a friend shot you with that first arrow? What if you egged that friend on, even shouted mean things at them? Would your response be to play archer yourself and shoot another arrow, right into your flesh? How about if you did shoot the first arrow? Right into your chest. Perhaps it was an accident, maybe you did it knowing full well it would hurt like hell. Would your solution then be to load up the bow, pull it back, and shoot yourself with a second arrow?
Why in the world would anyone want more pain, suffering, anger, fear, and misery? From the perspective of this story, it seems like the first arrow would be more than enough. However, Buddha taught this parable of the second arrow to illustrate the insanity we inflict on ourselves over and over again.
What The Second Arrow Looks Like In Practice
What exactly am I talking about here with blood, arrows, and crazy friends?
Well, let’s start with a story in my life. Recently I unknowingly left my laptop at home. This was the first arrow (I’ll explain more soon). I drove to work, got breakfast at a cafe, and still hadn’t realized the laptop was at home. I wandered out of the cafe towards my place of employment and I realized I didn’t have the laptop. I ran back to the restaurant and thought it had been stolen.
I didn’t panic at first, but then on my drive home to see if I had indeed left my work laptop there, I called a friend in tears. I said to her, “I’m constantly losing things. I’m an airhead. I’m careless. I can’t help but feel that I’m just a giant mess. I shouldn’t be trusted with anything and I’m so stupid and I’m going to get fired from work.” Second arrow. The first arrow was an unfortunate event that happened; I left my laptop at home and it sucked. The second arrow was the shame, guilt, and remorse that I then layered on myself in reaction to my mistake. I was already suffering because of the first one, why did it I need to shoot myself with another? It sounds crazy, right?
Unless you’re an enlightened being, you’re also familiar with this madness.
Tara Brach, my favorite dharma teacher, said in her podcast recently that we see suffering and then we have an aversion to it. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, aversion is “a tendency to extinguish a behavior” or “a feeling of repugnance toward something with a desire to avoid or turn from it.” I experience aversion when I’m trying to escape from a feeling or experience I deem as unpleasant. There are a variety of ways we all have aversion. Some examples are blaming others, getting angry, attempting to control a situation or person, excessive drinking, overworking, or by beating ourselves up.
For the purpose of this piece, I’m just focusing on turning the blame inward, beating ourselves up, because I’m quite familiar with this particular arrow. When we choose to shoot it, we’re trying to extinguish whatever just happened by layering on some sort of negative story about how the situation defines our character. In Buddhism, aversion is one of the three poisons. The three poisons are said to be the deep roots of human suffering. They’re the afflictions we have with the way our minds work, constantly thinking, planning, judging, and obsessing.
The Buddha taught us that we cannot always control the first arrow, but the second is our reaction to the first and the second is optional. Dharma Punx, a Buddhist group with many members in substance abuse recovery, wrote in a blog post that “This teaching is often summarized as ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.’”
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