The Second Arrow of Suffering
I wanted to talk about the second arrow of suffering. I’ve only ever heard this described as an arrow as in a bow and arrow. I believe that the teaching goes that the pain is the first arrow that hits you and the worry, angst or resistance is the second arrow that hits you.
This can be quite descriptive about what is going on – the idea that the second set of suffering is another layer that doesn’t seem that necessary – but it actually isn’t the helpful for helping people realise how they can avoid the second arrow.
It’s easy to say, almost impossible to do.
I have a different understanding of it that I think is more helpful.
We can only ever be present in this moment. This is one of the fundamental teachings of awakening. We can only awaken if we can first be present with experience. But that doesn’t mean that the past and future doesn’t exist, clearly.
There is a story and a stream of events that has led us to this moment and there is a story or stream of events that is yet to be told.
In every moment we are being impacted by our histories and our predicted futures and this is just as real as what is present in this moment.
There is one way of experiencing this where it’s almost like time goes in both directions – that this moment is creating both the past and the future.
In this mode we are standing in this moment and looking back at our past. How we are feeling now and the lens that we are looking through will shape our past and history.
When we are suffering, we will look for the reasons that we are suffering – the people and events that are to blame for what has happened and that have caused us to suffer. We are creating a history that justifies where we have got to. This way of looking inspires shame, hatred and aggression in us.
It also causes a fundamental resistance to this moment. Rather than accepting where we are, we think that if only the past had been different, everything would be better now.
There is another way of being – where we see that time only flows in one direction.
The arrow, in this context, is a directional arrow of the flow of time. We remove the second arrow by not looking back, not wishing things were different nor trying to reframe what has happened. We accept that we are where we are and we move forward from there.
This is a subtle teaching that often gets mashed by people.
It is sometimes taught that arriving only in this moment will remove all suffering, as there is nothing to worry about in this moment. That is patently false. There is a huge amount of pain in the world in every single moment of time. You never remove the first arrow of suffering.
More subtly, accepting where we are in this moment also does not mean denying that the past is having an impact on you right now.
For example, if someone you love has died, you are going to feel heart-break, grief and pain. Arriving in this moment involves opening your heart to those things and feeling all of the emotions that that event is causing in you right now.
From the viewpoint of the second arrow – we look at the situation and wish it was different or cycle through thought patterns of things we could have said differently to that person or get annoyed at the events that led to their death. Or we brush it off and reframe the experience as not that bad.
All of this is to try and diminish the pain we feel in this moment.
If we want to remove the second arrow, it requires us to show up in this moment with courage and feel the things we actually feel right now, without trying to justify ourselves or blame others.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have at least some unfelt grief to do with lost loved ones, lost opportunities, mistakes they feel they made or disappointments in life.
In order to be moving forward and not looking back, we first have to open to feeling what is here in this moment; the grief or emotion that the events leading up to this moment have inspired in us.
The closest practice that describes this is tonglen – taking and sending. I feel the meaning of this isn’t always captured in the practice. It is often taught as an intellectual exercise where you are trying to take in ideas of things you think are negative and send out ideas of things you think are positive.
This practice is actually a whole lot more effective when you are opening your heart to feel all the pain and struggle that is present in this moment for you and meeting it with compassion. This transforms it into a deep understanding of the pain in life and a forward motion that is a more meaningful, connected and beautiful expression of yourself.
In order to do it sincerely, you have to open to letting the emotions really impact you in your heart, body and mind. It usually involves a good cry. Or maybe some rage.
Once we have gone through this process, it releases us from our need to look back and frees up that life force in us, allowing us to move forward. We have let go of the second arrow of suffering.
This concept and process gets a lot more complicated when it relates to our collective experience.
As well as our individual stories and histories, we also have a collective story and history that is impacting us in every moment. This also causes an immense amount of pain and suffering, which we can experience with either one arrow or two.
Some Buddhist and religious communities really fuck up the understanding of this one and it’s the cause of a lot of justification for racist and sexist beliefs within these communities.
An example of the collective suffering is the pain that I feel about being a woman who lives in a patriarchal society.
When a man talks over me, dismisses my beliefs or patronises me, I don’t just get impacted by that individual man behaving like that to this individual woman, I feel the weight of the systemic oppression that bears down on me in every moment.
If you boil everything down to just this moment and what you can perceive in that moment, then there is no difference if that man behaved the same to another man or to a woman. The two are identical scenarios.
But this viewpoint doesn’t take into account the fact that this is something that has happened to me literally thousands of times before and that it shapes everything for me – the opportunities that I am given in life and how I am fundamentally perceived.
For me to be present, showing up in this moment involves feeling the grief of the weight of all of that.
Another example would be if I was pulled over by the police it probably wouldn’t bother me. If a black person was pulled over by the police, for the tenth plus time in their life, it’s going to be more frustrating and painful for them because this is an expression of systemic racism.
The individual situation is the same, but as a collective it is expressing some deep-held beliefs that ripple through society in a way that is often imperceptible on the surface and hard to explain in a rational way. It runs deeper than what can be seen on the surface in that moment.
When we boil things down to just what we as individuals are aware of with our rational minds in this moment, we cut off a huge chunk of information that is the collective story and experience.
This used to be included in the Buddhist teachings in some way with karma, but this is rarely talked about these days and when it is I feel it is often used as a blame culture – people have deserved the suffering they are experiencing in this lifetime.
Believing that the Universe is somehow fair, that people who suffer deserve it, is another one of the ways we keep ourselves safe and separate from the overwhelming pain that comes with life.
In order to remove the second arrow in the collective sense, we need to allow ourselves to open to the impact that this has on us. And to give space to people who are oppressed to express what is inside of them.
This isn’t comfortable or easy, but when it is done in a safe and held space it is deeply transformative for everyone involved.
The way to do this, without getting caught in the trap of the second arrow (an endless mess of blame and shame), we need to show up and give people room to express honestly the emotions that are inside of them.
When I am repeatedly rejected or oppressed by men, it is not productive for me to start hating all men, but if the wound is not healed then it will continue to impact my emotions, perceptions and behaviours.
The second arrow would say that we need to go back and fix everything in order to make it better. We need to work out whose fault it all is.
The first arrow knows that history is complicated and messy. That we don’t know why a lot of things worked out like they did or what impacts it would have had had it been different.
It understands that we are here both as individual humans and as part of a collective. That my story has been impacted by the entire human history, but in order to heal, actually what we need is to recognise and validate the pain that we feel as individuals so that people can feel seen, loved and respected.
That compassionate love, that arises through our humanity, is what allows us to release what we are holding onto and move forward.
It is not about blame and whose fault it is, it is about making space for and allowing all the emotions that are present in this moment to be here.
All of this involves consciously making time and space to get in touch with difficult emotions.
I was blessed in this lifetime with a seriously positive attitude. The phrase ‘no mud, no lotus’ seems to have been tattooed onto my heart.
One of the things that can help us drop the second arrow is the understanding that the difficulties in our lives are what shape us.
It is through opening to our deepest pain that we create the ability to feel more joy in life. It is through overcoming obstacles that we develop strength and compassion. It is through experiencing loss that we are most able to appreciate love.
Rather than looking back, trying to blame yourself or others and wishing things were different you can come to a deep acceptance that even if your past is causing you pain right now, it is giving you the opportunity to learn what it means to be alive. To open to life in all its facets and to support other people to do the same, even when it is uncomfortable for us.
A glimpse into a different world
Where events are peppered through time
Jumping back and forth
Or perhaps everything is happening at once
Time travel is an enticing myth for children
And adults who want to relive and revive their stories
Regrets are so compelling
Would we change it if we could?
Deep down, at our deepest depths
In the place where we are all connected
This is what we want.
For this moment, this story, to play out.
I look back and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Or maybe I would, maybe I will.
I sprinkle my past with forgiveness and kindness
And just like magic
Release myself from my present stuckness
The grains of sand drop through the hourglass,
But they aren’t collecting anywhere
Our location is not static,
It is the fall that is sacred.