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Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow!

by Susan Bernstein:  I recently learned a great question that’s reducing my need to complain or suffer, and I want to share it with you:


“Do you really need to shoot the second arrow?”

If you’ve ever had something upsetting or disappointing happen, and then you complain, rage, or otherwise wish things were different, read on for relief.

I was walking out of a lovely evening of yoga and chanting. “I’m so excited about an upcoming yoga class next week,” I beamed to my friend, Beth.

“It’s been cancelled,” Beth replied, in a very matter-of-fact way. Since she’s part of the organization that organizes the yoga, she had her pulse on the schedule.

“Damn!” I shouted. “Why does this have to be cancelled? I was looking forward to going! Now what am I supposed to do next Saturday night?” I sighed and then continued. “I hate having to reschedule. I had my hopes set on this. This sucks! Who cancelled it?”

Another woman overheard me moaning and complaining to Beth. She cocked her head in a playful way and gently asked, “Do you really need to shoot the second arrow?”

I furrowed my brow. I felt a mixture of confusion and curiosity as I asked, “What’s a second arrow?”

Apparently, the Buddhists say that any time we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the actual bad event, which can can, indeed, cause pain. The second arrow is the suffering. That’s actually optional. The second arrow represents our reaction to the bad event. It’s the manner in which we chose to respond emotionally.

The concept of the second arrow immediately hit home for me.

A day later, I arrived at my beloved Sunday morning moving meditation practice to dance. Uncharacteristically, the floor of the gym felt as if it was covered in sawdust. Due to an unforeseen circumstance, the setup crew couldn’t sweep that floor beforehand. My bare feet felt little nubs of dirt and dust. I started to turn up my nose. But then I just remembered, “Do I really need to shoot the second arrow?”

No. I didn’t need to shoot the second arrow.

If I had shot that second arrow, I’d just be shooting myself in the foot. I’d be whining and looking around for other people to commiserate with. I’d be carrying around frustration. That second arrow is poisonous.

So instead of shooting the second arrow, I just danced. Happily.

Sure, sometimes I noticed clumps of dirt, or little scraps of paper on the floor. Honestly, I just told myself, “It is what it is.” If I’d really wanted to get a rag, I could’ve cleaned the floor. But the dirty floor wasn’t a game stopper. In fact, later, I found out that a few people who get really sweaty feet found that the dirt actually helped them to avoid slipping.

Me? I danced on the dirty floor. Then, I simply washed my feet afterwards. No extra arrows required.

So, how do you avoid shooting the second arrow?

First, you have to notice the first arrow. So when you’re in emotional pain, feel it (especially the sensations of it). I faced the emotional sting of a dance floor that didn’t meet my usual cleanliness and comfort standards. I felt the arrow — in this case, of dirtiness — on my feet. You might notice your arrows as emotional pains, physical pains, irritations, or frustrations.

Second, you need to catch your impulse to add another arrow. Maybe you want to yell at someone. Or complain. Or look for someone to blame. Just become aware and notice your reaction. It’s usually a desire to lash out or to somehow discharge energy. Complaining, for example, is pushing out the frustration and dissipating it, instead of just acknowledging the first arrow. It’s actually fine if you shoot the second arrow. You can take it back, later.

Third, ask yourself, “Do I need to shoot the second arrow?” You can ask this either before you shoot the second arrow, or just after it’s been shot. The point is to catch yourself adding more pain. That’s really more energy that doesn’t need to be added.

Fourth, pat yourself on the back for catching yourself, either before or right after shooting the arrow. You’re learning a new pattern of response. You’ll be able to free up more energy for situations that you can control. But you can always adjust your reaction, even if you can’t control what happens to you.

What sensational shifts will you make by not shooting the second arrow?

How do you use this at work? With your family? In traffic? In any stressful situation?

I’d love to hear from you about what you will avoid — or what you will deliberately change. What happens when you ask yourself, “Do I really need to shoot the second arrow?”  Share your story or insight here. I promise to acknowledge you. (I won’t shoot any arrows at you, I swear).


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