A very helpful teaching of the Buddha found in the Pali Canon (Sallatha Sutta) is the simile of the 2 arrows of suffering. The first arrow is the primary difficulty that we’ve encountered. The second arrow is the mental suffering that the mind places on top of it. The sutta couches this simile in the context of bodily suffering, with the physical pain as the first arrow, and our kneejerk aversive reaction to the pain as the second. But, this teaching does not only apply to physical discomfort. It is applicable to all the difficulties we encounter in life. The first arrow could be some difficulty at work, or with the family. These days it might even be a news story. There are many first arrows in life, and some can be very painful, but the second arrows are often as bad as, or even more painful than, the first. These are the arrows of our mental/emotional suffering.
We are perpetually piercing ourselves with second arrows through our reactivity, every time we encounter something that is physically or emotionally unpleasant. If things aren’t going our way, or we’re not feeling the way we want to feel, aversion immediately arises and the thinking mind entangles itself in that aversion, and elaborates on it, making us more and more miserable.
To free ourselves from this self-imposed suffering, we must first recognize the presence of the second arrow. Our mindfulness practice can help us do this. Most of the time, without practice, we are not even aware that there are two arrows in us. We just know that we are miserable and upset, and we recognize the first arrow that we believe is the cause of all our suffering, but we don’t see the truth of the second arrow. We believe that our misery is a direct and unavoidable result of the first arrow. We don’t recognize that our mental/emotional distress is actually something the mind has added to the situation.
With our mindfulness and insight practice, we are strengthening our awareness of our subjective present moment experience. In Mahasati practice, we especially emphasize being aware of present moment mental phenomena. This is important, because the second arrow is a mental arrow. It is the conceptual mind reacting to what has arisen. When awareness encounters the second arrow, it often starts to disintegrate all by itself when it is recognized. Even if our aversive reaction doesn’t immediately disappear, our mindfulness can at least prevent it from turning in to a runaway train. Without mindfulness of our mental experience, our emotional response can just continue to gather steam. In practice, just see that there is a second arrow there, step out of the proliferating thoughts about the first arrow and come back to unelaborated present moment experience. Try to be with the first arrow directly without any conceptualization or elaboration. This isn’t always easy to do. It doesn’t seem to make rational sense. It is something that we need to practice with and repeatedly verify for ourselves. You can do this throughout the day. Notice how often you pierce yourself with those second arrows, step out of the narrative, and come back to the simple and gentle awareness of that first arrow without elaboration.
It is easy for people to get the wrong idea here, and take this teaching as suggesting passivity in the face of life’s primary arrows. But, passivity in the face of difficulties is not what the Buddha actually taught. In fact, there are other suttas in which the Buddha explicitly advises the monks on how best to address problems like physical illness. To deal with sickness, for example, the Buddha urges his monks to take the proper medicine, to eat and drink what is appropriate given one’s condition, and to disclose the condition to others, all of this in the spirit of promoting recovery from the illness, or the first arrow.
Our mindfulness practice should help us deal with both first and second arrows. Clearly, if there is something we can do to address the first arrow, without creating more suffering, we should absolutely do it, whether that first arrow is our own physical suffering, a family problem, or a social challenge. We need to take whatever actions we can to take care of our loved ones, our society, and ourselves. But, we can more clearly see how these first arrows can be removed if we stop jabbing ourselves with second arrows. We can take more effective action when our judgment is not clouded with reactivity. When we can bring mindful awareness to our internal response, our external, or behavioral response can be more skillful.
There are times, of course, when there just isn’t anything we can do about the first arrow. There isn’t a cure for some conditions. In these cases, our practice can help us recognize and acknowledge this reality, while not adding to our suffering with arrows of reactivity and mental proliferation.
– Michael Bresnan