The Story of Two Arrows

Have you suffered a physical injury or been set back by illness? While afflicted did you think about what other costs your injury or illness had? As a kid did you have to miss anything because of a medical problem? Perhaps you played basketball and sprained or broke an ankle at practice which resulted in you having to miss participating in playoffs or going on a road trip you had looked forward to all season long? If so, did thoughts of what you were missing out on surface? Did you think that it wasn’t fair that you were missing out after all of your hard work? Did your thoughts reflect that the injury was ruining your life in several ways? If so, you’ve experienced the Story of Two Arrows.

Buddhist teachings offer a fable involving two arrows. The story involves someone getting struck by an arrow in a leg while wandering through a forest. As they buckle to the pain from the arrow and collapse to the ground the physical pain is compounded by thoughts spiralling out of control in their mind. Our victim while writhing wonders how will they get home. What if the leg doesn’t heal properly, how will they be able to provide for their family? What if the injury becomes infected, will their leg need to be amputated? They wonder if their leg is amputated and they can’t work, will their wife leave them. All of these thoughts create emotional pain which compounds the physical pain. However, the thoughts that follow the physical pain serve little value. The struck individual is allowing the additional emotional pain to arrive. The Buddhists consider this the equivalent of being hit by a second arrow. The difference being that we are the archer shooting the second arrow at ourselves. We are injecting needless noise in our mind which inflicts counterproductive pain.

Sallatha Sutta translated Buddhist teachings on the Two Arrows. The following passage captures how we can beat ourselves up mentally over a problem.  “The Blessed One said, ‘When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.’” Brad Stulberg in The Practice of Groundedness describes the two arrows as: “The first arrow—be it a negative thought, feeling, event, or circumstance—you can’t always control. But you can control the second arrow, or your reaction to the first one. Often, this reaction is one of denial, suppression, judgment, resistance, or impulsive action—all of which tend to create more, not less, difficulty and distress.”

The story of two arrows is about wasted worry. Our thoughts rush ahead of us to consider problems we may face. They distract us from our efforts and ability to positively influence where we are right now. Not only do these thoughts compromise our ability to enjoy the moment, they distract us from being useful. Shooting ourselves with the second arrow robs us of our resourcefulness and resilience.

The second arrow can also strike us in advance of the first arrow. Our anticipation of negative events can haunt us before we’re exposed to any real risk. For example, my eldest and I signed up for a sky diving experience on a holiday in Hawaii in December 2019. Signing up was easy. The excitement of having watched others do it and seeing a few videos led us to want to share the thrill of the experience. Once signed up, the reality sank in. It quickly became the classic it seemed like a good idea at the time. With the event a few days away we were left to stew in our juices. We didn’t really know what to expect. The uncertainty began to build and we filled the space with fear and doubts. Our minds began to question us constantly. What are you thinking? You’re not a daredevil. You have no business jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Humans don’t fly. Free falling isn’t your calling. Staying on the ground is much more sound. You’re too old to be taking risks like this. What if something happens? What if the parachute doesn’t open? What if I’m overcome with fear and can’t do my part? What will the sound be like when the door of the plane opens? What does free falling feel like? Each time I let my thoughts run away from me, I allowed anxiety to arouse itself. None of these thoughts were productive. None of them allowed me to prepare or do anything constructive. All they did was make me uncomfortable in the present moment while not preparing me in any way for the experience. The anxiety I felt before the event created emotional discomfort in advance of the event itself. I was choosing to experience this discomfort. The worrying in advance all occurred where I faced absolutely zero physical risk. There was no threat while I was sitting on the couch thinking about going skydiving. In fact, my risk would only begin once the plane we would be taking to our jump point took off. Prior to that any worry was worthless. Moreover, the real risk surfaces once the jump is made. Again, amping myself up with anxiety in advance served zero benefit. I was hitting myself with the second arrow needlessly.

Has our three years with COVID exposed you to the pain of the second arrow in any way?

As lockdowns lingered, did you find yourself thinking about what you’re missing out on? What you’ve lost? Have you succumbed to feeling like a victim at all? Were you offended by restrictions? Did you dislike being told where and when you can go places? Were you upset with being told who and how many you are allowed to have visit your home? Did you resent being separated from people, places, and things you love to do? Were you grumpy about not having a clear answer as to when you’ll be able to access a vaccine? Did you wonder when you will be able to take that beach vacation? Did you track the number of family events you weren’t able to participate in as a result of restrictions? Or, were you more concerned about health risks from COVID? Were you worried that someone you care about may get the virus as a result of someone else’s careless actions? Did you wish there were greater restrictions making it even tougher for the virus to spread? Did you worry that we weren’t doing enough to contain the virus? Now that vaccines have become readily available for all, are you frustrated at those that haven’t yet gotten a shot? It’s easy and natural for our mind to focus on either what has been taken away from us or what health risk we may face. We feel the pain of loss more than the pleasure of gain. Sure, our commutes were less. Yes, we spent less on gas. It was nice to not have to put on a suit each day. Saving money on haircuts and other things was also nice. However, these benefits are swept aside as our focus falls upon what we’re missing out on.

We can also cause ourselves misery by worrying about future events we’re missing. Is my career being stalled because others can’t see my contributions while I work from home? Are our kids being robbed of their futures because of halted or reduced educational opportunities? Do you have kids in University where the costs remain high but the experience much scaled back? How about kids on the verge of graduating from post secondary education and trying to find work in this environment? Are you spending time worrying about these kinds of things when there’s little you can do about any of it? Are you shooting yourself with a second arrow before the reality of these events even surface?

The first step to stopping the sting of second arrows is to seek to become aware when you’re feeling bad. At this point, it’s worth putting pen to paper and writing down what’s on your mind. Check in with yourself and note what you’re feeling and what’s the situation. You can seek to distinguish between facts and feelings. How do I feel versus what is happening. Then you can try to tease out what’s in your control and what may be outside. You could consider asking yourself what beliefs you’re bringing to your interpretation. Are you interpreting things a certain way? Do you have expectations of how things should be? Are these based on facts or your personal feelings? From this analysis, the goal would be to identify something you can do that may constructively assist your current circumstances. With time and practice, awareness can be developed which allows you to regain control and positively influence things prior to letting things spiral into being struck by second arrows.

The story of two arrows helps us see how we can get in our own way. We reduce our ability to adapt when allowing our emotions to get the better of us. Consider using the fable as a cue to check in whenever you face what you consider a setback. Ask yourself what the situation is and whether you are piling on the problem with your thoughts. When an event or injury happens, it just is. It isn’t personal. There’s no value in feeling sorry for ourselves. Our approach should be to respond with “so what, now what?” Yes, you broke an ankle. So what, now what? Yes, COVID happened. So what, now what? Yes, lockdowns are limiting. So what, now what? Yes, there’s health risks associated with the virus. So what, now what? We’re not denying facts or events. We’re encouraging allocating our attention where we can make a difference. Ok, something happened, now what are we going to do? Instead of complaining about and giving power to something that has already occurred, our energies should be devoted to the present moment focused on some kind of action within our grasp. Those that have been the best at adapting have shown us that the first step is acceptance not resistance. They’re accepting reality instead of denying or ignoring it. They are not fighting it. Instead of spending time today worrying about what might happen down the road, target your thoughts towards something over which you can act constructively in this moment. What can I do right now that will help? How can I contribute in order to give myself a chance to make progress? The story of two arrows appears over and over in Buddhist teachings. Perhaps, both as a testament to its importance as a lesson as well as the difficulty of doing. Try keeping the story of two arrows accessible in your mind in order to help you avoid shooting yourself in the foot. The second arrows hurts more because it’s self-inflicted; and, more importantly it prevents us from taking constructive action.