Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too much Olympic Biathlon, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the slogan, “Don’t shoot yourself with a second arrow.” (Side note: is it just me or is Olympic Biathlon what you imagine auditions for Jason Bourne movies look like?) More likely, however, it’s because I’ve been spending sleepless nights contemplating the difference between pain and suffering, how both are inevitable but one is, in theory and with lots of practice, escapable.
The difference between pain and suffering is nuanced and complex, but the concept of the second arrow is simple. Imagine you’re attending the Winter Olympics, get lost on your way to the gift shop to buy a stuffed Winnie the Pooh for your figure skating hero Yuzuru Hanyu, stumble onto the Biathlon course and get shot by an arrow. It hurts. You experience physical sensations of pain. That’s the first arrow.
Then you start reacting to the pain: Is this event being televised? Did millions of people see me get shot by an arrow? How embarrassing. I hope I don’t miss Hanyu’s performance.
Now you’re experiencing emotional and mental turmoil. That’s suffering. That’s the second arrow, and guess what? You’re the one who shot it.
TL;DR version. The first arrow is a life event that naturally and unavoidably generates discomfort or pain. The second arrow is a reaction to that life event that causes bonus layers of anguish. And who doesn’t love a little side of despair to accompany their agony? I know I do.
Eight months ago I developed a bulging disc. One week ago I awoke at 3am with throbbing in my lower back. The pain is what woke me, but what kept me awake was this:
Crap. I thought my back was doing better. I hope I didn’t reinjure it. I’m such an idiot. I should have known I wasn’t ready for a level 2-3 yoga class. Does this mean I have to take a break from yoga, again? I just upgraded to a monthly membership. Am I seriously back at the beginning?
I was second arrowing it. Then, I became aware I was second arrowing it and started firing more arrows:
You’re second arrowing it. Is all this anxiety and self-recrimination really necessary or useful? Didn’t you say you’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation for ten years? You’re pretty bad at it. Maybe you should give up.
See how insidious this mental archery thing is? So insidious in fact that even paradise can become a shooting range. Raise your hand if this sounds familiar:
You’re on a much needed vacation. You’ve been planning this for months. You’re lying on the beach, torso shaded by a rainbow patterned umbrella, toes kneading scorching sand to the rhythm of turquoise waves crashing and receding. You wish this moment could last forever. But it can’t. Of course it can’t. You have a plane ticket home on Sunday morning, where you’ll find a minimum of 635 unread emails in your inbox – most of them promotional offers from Bed, Bath & Beyond that expired 48 hours ago – and a cat that will likely pee on the carpet within an hour of your homecoming. What are you doing just lying there? There are books to read and coral reefs to snorkel and souvenirs to buy. There’s no time! There’s never any time! I’m so excited…I’m so excited…I’m so…scared.
Yes, that last bit was a reference to Jessie Spano’s infamous breakdown on Saved By the Bell. I work it into casual conversation any chance I get. Also to date myself.
It makes sense now though, right, the difference between pain and suffering? The reason I’m harping on this is because while you can’t prevent pain, you can disarm suffering. But if you conflate the two, as I did for a very long time, your efforts at equanimity will, ironically, result in more arrows.
One of the first things you learn when you begin studying Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths:
- The truth of suffering (Dukkha)
- The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya)
- The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)
Wait wait wait. The cessation of suffering?!? I was over the moon when I heard this was possible because I understood it to mean the end of all that pesky displeasure that had plagued me for decades. No more anxiety or fear or heartbreak or grief or searing pain in the middle of my back during long stretches of seated meditation. No more being a human being in a human body!
It sounded so great, but it was so impossible. It was like I was trying to manufacture Lidocaine for the soul. And every time I failed to protect myself from the injuries of life, I felt disappointed and betrayed, both by myself and by my practice.
Whoosh. Whoosh. The sounds of second arrows piercing my delusion until finally I was forced to accept that there’s no pain-free option in life. Let me repeat that:
There’s no pain-free option in life.
Need proof? I heard a rumor that after he reached enlightenment, the Buddha lived to be an old man with back pain. No one is impervious to pain. Not even the Buddha, and certainly not me and you.
Depressing at first, this realization was ultimately liberating because it allowed me to stop my exhausting and ultimately futile efforts at engineering endless comfort and pleasure and to focus on what I can control: my reaction to the events of my life.
So how do you stop second arrowing? To be clear, it is extremely difficult. But, hey, if you can figure it out, you reach enlightenment. Neat! I say this not to discourage you from trying but to give you perspective so you appreciate incremental progress. Trust me, a small reduction in your arsenal leads to exponential improvements in your quality of life.
Meditation helps. A lot. With its emphasis on direct sensory experience and returning to the present, it improves both your mental strength and flexibility. You become more tolerant of challenges and less attached to rewards, more aware when you’re shooting second arrows and less likely to do so to begin with. That’s why it bums me out that in the West we’ve been selling mediation as a relaxation technique. Meditation is not a sauna for the mind; it’s Crossfit for the mind. You have to work hard, with focus, intention and discipline, to achieve deeper existential benefits.
But the thing that helps me more than anything is the understanding that second arrowing is a fundamental part of the human condition. It sucks, but it’s not personal. It’s just what we do. All of us. All of us. Like farting. We all fart. All of us. Yes, even girls. And there’s nothing funnier than a fart joke, right? Why? Because there’s humor in calling out our common shortcomings and our shared secrets. So my best advice is this: the next time you’re suffering the sting of second arrows, call a friend, recite for them your internal dialogue, and listen to them to laugh out loud with self-recognition and loving kindness for how simultaneously human and ridiculous you are.