“In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”— The Buddha
Although the Buddhist wisdom of second arrow is something I’ve been familiar with for many years and always attempted to follow, I got caught totally off guard last week by an unexpected event that happened.
For the last 20 years or so, I’ve been going to India every winter, usually for 3 months. For the last 3 years, I’ve been unable to go because of Covid so I’ve been feeling pretty excited about finally getting back there this year.
So, I eagerly filled in and printed out my online visa form and got my photos ready but when I tried to book my visa application appointment at the Indian Consulate, I was horrified to discover that there is a 3–4 month wait for appointments.
I hadn’t even thought about it, as it normally takes a few days.
This was the moment the second arrow hit me full force and my mind went into overdrive, “ I can’t believe this is happening. I MUST get to India. What will I do if I can’t go? This is terrible. I can’t bear the thought. It’s so unfair” — on and on the mind went.
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In the Buddhist analogy, the first arrow is something that’s not in our control. It may be a circumstance or an event such as the one above.
Or it could be a thought, feeling or emotion (I’ll talk more about this later).
The second arrow is our (often unconscious) reaction to the first.
You may have heard the expression : pain is inevitable, suffering is optional?
Although painful situations, events, thoughts or emotions are an unavoidable fact of life, most of our suffering is self-created and comes from our unconscious reaction to what has already happened.
If you’ve planned a picnic and it starts raining, this is first arrow. There’s nothing you can do about it— and seeing the rain is painful to some extent.
But then, if the mind goes off on a rant, “Why do these things always happen to me. The one day I have something planned, it rains. Everyone is going to be so disappointed. Life is so unfair. I hate it!”
This reactive mental commentary adds fuel to the fire and turns a mildly painful situation into full-blown suffering.
So what to do about it?
The first step is to notice we’re doing it. Without awareness, you can’t change anything.
“Most people live their entire lives in bondage—a bundle of conditioned reactions, constantly being triggered by other people and circumstances into totally predictable outcomes”— Deepak Chopra
Most people live and die without ever being aware of second arrow… being constantly triggered by situations and circumstances beyond their control.
Unconscious Reaction vs Conscious Response
Awareness is key.
The moment you notice something has triggered an unconscious reaction in you, you become free to choose how you wish to respond.
When I got over my initial shock and became consciously aware of my second arrow reaction to the situation with the Indian consulate, I was then presented with a choice— to continue feeding my negative rant and create more suffering or ( as I chose) to take a deep breath and remember that everything happens for a reason AND that I have no idea what will happen in future.
As it turned out, I went into the consulate the following day, explained my situation and was immediately given an appointment.
Many people spends weeks, years or even lifetimes running round in circles on the second arrow hamster wheel, creating so much unnecessary suffering for themselves.
So let’s look at how second arrow might be triggered in different scenarios… and how to deal with it.
Second Arrow and Events
Let’s say you’re waiting patiently in the queue at the supermarket and suddenly somebody pushes in front of you…. a cardinal sin here in the UK!
This is first arrow. It happened unexpectedly and you couldn’t do anything about it.
It triggers an angry reaction in you, “I can’t believe it. Some people are so rude. What’s the world coming to? People just don’t have manners any more.”
Effectively, you ‘punish’ the perpetrator by raising your own blood pressure through the roof.
And, if you’re like a lot of people, you might carry these negative feelings around with you for the rest of the day. Many people carry their grievances around for their whole lives.
So what to do instead?
Notice that you’ve been triggered and decide how you want to respond. Recognise that, although you had no control over the situation, how you choose to respond in this moment is entirely in your own hands.
You might conclude that, “Yes, the guy was a jerk but it’s not worth losing any peace over it.”
Let’s face it, if you get upset by every jerk in the world, you’re in for a life of suffering!
Thoughts, Emotions and Second Arrow
Thoughts, feelings and emotions are also first arrow ‘events’.
If you doubt this statement, watch closely to see what your next thought is going to be. You’ll discover that you never know your next thought in advance.
Thoughts appear by themselves and are not in your control (thinking is a different matter).
So what normally happens when we feel sad, anxious or confused?
In most people, it triggers an unconscious reaction, “This is awful. I shouldn’t be feeling this. There’s something wrong with me. I can’t go on like this etc etc.”
This second arrow reaction is the main cause of suffering, NOT the thought or feeling itself.
Like the weather outside, thoughts and feelings are not inherently bad or wrong. It’s the mind’s labelling that makes them so.
You may well prefer sunshine outside but it doesn’t mean the rain is bad or wrong.
What happens to sadness when there is no negative second arrow commentary? When you don’t mind it being there?
What happens to feelings of anxiety or confusion when they are unconditionally accepted rather than rejected and pushed away?
They may still feel unpleasant but they become much less of an issue when you remove the additional suffering created through second arrow.
In my work as a coach, I’ve identified 7 false beliefs which I believe account for 95% of the suffering in our lives— beliefs such as confusion is bad, anxiety is wrong, I shouldn’t be feeling them, there’s something wrong with me etc. etc.
The moment you see through a belief, you become free of it. This can produce amazing results in people very quickly.
But that’s a topic for another article!
If you’d like to have a chat about your relationship with thoughts and feelings and look at some practical ways to break free, why not book a complimentary coaching session with me. The first one is free and offered with zero strings attached!
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