The Third Arrow

Reacting to Your Reactions to Your Reactions

Wabi Sabi
The Small Dark Light

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Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash

I got to be a groomsperson for the first time last weekend. My duties included running errands, posing for photos, doing the rounds making mandatory small talk with various guests to make sure they were feeling comfortable (which I can only assume they were before a stranger started talking to them), firing a confetti cannon, and hitting the hotel ATM up for 500 of the 2500 quid the band were owed after it was discovered their fee had gone missing. The long weekend also included an excursion to the nearest town to see Barbie, which I obviously liked because Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach made it. Other than that, the usual stuff: lots of eating, drinking, dancing. Did I mention I fired a confetti cannon?

All in all, a fun time.

Kind of.

I spent a lot of the weekend feeling vaguely ill-at-ease, for a variety of reasons I only half-understood: partly because I hadn’t been sleeping well and continued to sleep badly in the course of the three-day party (brought that one on myself); partly because all that alcohol and rich eating is playing with fire as far as my chronic condition’s concerned (brought that on myself too); partly because I didn’t know many of the people there very well (groom doesn’t introduce his friends to each other much); partly because of various mini-dramas going on among the people I did know; partly because I only had a faint idea of my responsibilities and so was never quite sure what was happening next; and partly because I’m an introvert and that’s just the way it goes.

All this meant that even when I was having fun — which I frequently was — a background hum of anxiety was continually tainting the experience. I expected the feeling to subside as the weekend wore on, but it didn’t, and after a while I just had to throw up my hands and say, ‘OK, you win. You’re along for the ride. Welcome to the party.’

It’s a well known paradox that accepting a negative emotion is often the very thing that gets rid of it: “what you resist persists”, etc. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the feeling is so deeply rooted, or is being so consistently reinforced by your environment, that even welcoming its presence doesn’t do much to shift it. But then, if you’re only accepting something in order to make it go away, you’re not really accepting it, are you? If you really, truly want to be at peace with your anxiety, depression and sadness, that means allowing yourself to face the fact that they’ve made themselves at home, unpacked their things and put their feet up on the couch.

I really like how Ram Dass frames this issue. For him, the spiritual path isn’t about destroying your neuroses — he was always the first to admit that his decades of inner work hadn’t seen him displace a single one — but changing the way in which you relate to them. The more you make peace with your inner demons, the less power they have to frighten you, so that what starts out as a horror show in your head gradually turns into more of a tea party with assorted guests. Eventually you’re self-doubting, tired and afraid, but not attached to being self-doubting, tired and afraid, so that your neuroses are things you have but not things you particularly identify with. They’re just there.

Which brings me to -

HEY, I WAS JUST MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS!

Photo by Robin Battison on Unsplash

Buddhists often like to talk about the “second arrow”. If you’re walking in the woods and someone suddenly shoots you with an arrow, it’s going to hurt. But if your response to the calamity is to curse your luck, hate the person who shot you, judge yourself for taking such a dangerous route home, wonder if the arrow’s poisoned, worry that you’re going to die, or fret about what’s going to become of your family, then you might as well have shot yourself with another arrow. The first arrow represents pain, the second represents suffering. One is the event, the other the reaction to the event. Life is shooting arrows at us all the time, which means we’re all going to feel pain. It’s only when we join Hamlet in calling those arrows ‘outrageous’ that we suffer.

Here’s the thing, though: a lot of our default reactions to life’s events are learned from a very early age. Some have solidified into trauma. A more instinctive, evolutionarily older part of our being chose them for us, and at times all the upper layer of our mind that we call our ‘self’ can do is stand by and watch the patterns unfold.

It’s true that ‘stuck’ emotions are essentially thoughts, that they consist of stories we tell ourselves over and over, and that stories can be rewritten. But when we’ve been telling ourselves certain stories since before we even knew what language was, the process of rewriting them can take many years. Often, the narratives will refuse to ever completely vanish from our inner world, even if they eventually weaken to the point that they only reassert themselves in the most extreme of circumstances.

The good news is that standing by and watching our reactive inner patterns and stories do their thing is something of a superpower — provided all we do is watch. The instant we start to judge ourselves for the thoughts and feelings that throw themselves up for our attention, or respond to them with further layers of feelings, we’ve departed the relatively straightforward realm of emotions for the tangled landscape of emotions-about-emotions (or what I’ve previously dubbed “meta-feelings”). So you start fretting that your anxiety level will spike, or you’re angry at yourself for getting angry so much, or you’re depressed because of how often you get depressed. Feedback loops. Spirals. Hours of ouroboric unpleasantness.

I’ve started calling this phenomenon the “third arrow”.

Let’s picture that woodland stroll again. Say you get shot with an arrow and you instantly think AAGH THIS IS DEFINITELY POISONED I’M GOING TO DIE. Second arrow. Now say you instantly follow this up with, ‘There I go again. It would have to be poisoned wouldn’t it, you idiot. Always one for the drama. I bet if this had happened to Sally, she’d instantly have dialled 999 like a sensible person. But here you are, fantasising about poison and agonising death and…’

At this point you stop and realise you’re being a bit hard on yourself. Then you promptly beat yourself up for your reaction to your reaction: ‘Always with the harsh self-criticism. I bet Sally has rock-hard self-esteem. The kind of self-esteem that makes you instantly phone for help when you’ve been shot instead of wasting time beating yourself up about the neurotic levels of fear you shouldn’t have been feeling in the first place, you stupid — oh, I’m doing it again aren’t I…’

At this point you’ve lost quite a lot of blood, and you end up dying before anyone gets the chance to call the emergency services. I’m sorry, I don’t make the parable rules. Hey, at least the arrow wasn’t poisoned.

Life gives us pain: the arrow. Our automatic thoughts and feelings give us suffering: the second arrow. Our chattering minds supplement this suffering with the meta-suffering of judgement: the third arrow. If suffering is pain plus resistance, meta-suffering is pain plus resistance plus resistance to our resistance.

The cycle has to be arrested at some point. There has to come a time where the Mind that Watches the Mind steps in and says, ‘Enough. I may not be able to untie all these knots in a day, but I’m always free, from moment to moment to moment, to accept the fact that the knots are there.’ Fortunately, many of our reactions to our reactions aren’t embedded nearly as deep in our psyche as the initial reactions themselves. This makes them much easier to deal with in the moment.

Photo by Hisu lee on Unsplash

So I spent that wedding weekend training myself to live with my sadness and unease, to use them as part of my practice. This acceptance didn’t eliminate the neuroses, but it did loosen my attachment to them. They weren’t in control, I was.

The story has a happy ending, by the way. The good news is that it didn’t take long after I got home for my anxiety to dissipate: turns out all I needed was to get some sleep, have some time to myself again, meditate properly instead of in brief snatches, and get working on my projects again. It’s always good to remember how temporary emotions are, how contingent, how dependent on situational and even physical factors that don’t seem at the time to have anything to do with them (because we take the stories they tell us about ourselves and the world at face value). Makes it that bit easier to detach from the horror stories the next time they pipe up.

Of course, some “second arrows” are made of more powerful stuff, and some feelings take a lot longer than a few days to run their course. All the more reason not to load that third arrow into the quiver. We didn’t choose to be the way we are, and we all deserve love at all times. So let’s accept whatever we can about ourselves, even our lack of acceptance. It’s the least we can do for such fearfully and wonderfully made creatures as we are.

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Wabi Sabi
The Small Dark Light

Writer, composer and filmmaker, into soul music and Chinese philosophy. Editor @ The Small Dark Light