Stop Shooting the Second Arrow

How our thought patterns make our lives more stressful.

Photo by Alexander Mils

Life is stressful, yes, but we often make things harder than they need to be by worrying, obsessing and second-guessing. I love how the Buddhist parable of the two arrows helps us understand how this happens: Stressful events have two basic components; we are hit by two arrows. The first arrow is unavoidable because it symbolizes what happens to us. We end up in stressful situations. Our bodies get hurt; we lose people we love; people are unfair and mean to us and we don’t always succeed. That first arrow will hit and it will hurt. But the second arrow is different because we shoot it at ourselves It describes how our own thought patterns hurt us, especially when we start thinking about what happened as permanent and significant: I’m alone now and I’ll always be alone; this failure changes my entire life.

So what should we do differently? It is very simple:

Notice and accept the first arrow. Right now, it hurts and is difficult. This is what is right now. So stop fighting the pain and just acknowledge that it is there, for now. But don’t shoot the second arrow. This isn’t your permanent condition. In the greater scheme of things, the pain and failure aren’t as big and significant as they seem right now. Helping others can help us gain perspective here. We tend to be at our most selfish when we are suffering and then focusing upon our suffering reinforces it and generates more, which makes us think about it more. Turning our attention from ourselves to others can break the cycle.

Now of course “Stop shooting the second arrow” is easier to say than to do. I fail again and again and chances are that you will do that too. That is OK. Just try again, and don’t let the failure become an occasion for shooting more second arrows. The initial step isn’t to get rid of all troubling thoughts but simply to notice that they are there and to begin letting go of them. The goal need not be perfection; it may be enough just to manage better.

Illustration by John Hain

So stop. Breathe. Notice what you are doing to yourself and see if you can be a little bit kinder to yourself today.