When giving mindfulness talks or training, I sometimes like to illustrate human unhappiness or stress using the Buddhist analogy of the second arrow.
Here's a scenario: You are queuing in line to get on the peak hour MRT train. The train finally arrives and the doors open, and you inch forward as the passengers in the queue compliantly get onto the train one by one. Just as you are about to step off the platform and onto the train, someone from behind suddenly cuts in front of you and rushes onto the train, and then the train doors promptly close, leaving you still on the platform and with no choice but to wait for the next train to arrive.
What happens next? You probably freeze in a moment of disbelief, before feeling a wave of indignance or annoyance rush over you. Your blood begins to boil, and you start silently cursing that incredibly rude person for causing you to miss the train.
But you don't just stop at cursing - you replay the scene over and over in your head, wishing you had reacted fast enough to stop that person from getting onto the train; you continue to reel in anger, and thoughts of negativity remotely related to what had just happened start to flash across your mind. I am such a pushover. I always get bullied. Just like when I'm at work. No wonder my family thinks I'm useless. Your mind then decides that you shall ruminate about what a failure you are, and replays all your memories of when you felt you had failed.
You successfully hop onto the next train, but throughout the ride you are torturing yourself with thoughts and feelings of anger, shame, and fear. As you step into your office, you bring this state of mind to work and carry it through to the end of the day. Your entire day has then been effectively ruined by a complete stranger who merely cut into your line at a train station.
The Second Arrow
How does the analogy of the second arrow apply to this scenario? The arrow is a metaphor for stress. When a first arrow, or the initial stress, hits us, it causes us some pain. But it is in our nature to want to avoid or reject what feels unpleasant to us, so we tend to react to the pain by shooting a second arrow at that exact same spot where the first arrow hit us, and when that happens, the pain is significantly magnified.
There is a popular saying, that "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional". When a stranger cuts into your queue and causes you to miss the train, you have been hit by the first arrow, or your initial stress. And that is inevitable and uncontrollable. But you may not stop there. You shoot perhaps not one, but many second arrows at yourself repeatedly, reminding yourself over and over again about how you had been taken advantage of, allowing your thoughts to ruminate and creating much drama in your head. The second arrow, then, represents how we create our own unhappiness. We often fail to recognize that we do have the option not to shoot the second arrow.
Take a few moments to reflect on the second arrows you have shot at yourself in the past. On top of ruminative, self-deprecating thinking, these second arrows can also come in the form of constant worrying or fear and apprehension of the unknown, or even thoughts and feelings of hate and resentment. How did those second arrows make you feel - better or worse?
The Role of Mindfulness
In mindfulness practice, we are training the mind to be aware of the habitual impulse of shooting the second arrow before we allow it to happen, and this awareness we cultivate come with the wisdom of acceptance and letting go.
For example, when the stranger cuts in front of us (the first arrow), we notice anger arising in the mind, but instead of acting on this anger (second arrow), we learn to take a pause and simply observe it, and allow it to go away on its own accord (mindful awareness). This is a sophisticated form of mind training that helps us break our usual patterns of rumination or worrying.
If you're keen on this kind of mindfulness training, do read about our 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program here.
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About The Author
MiMo founder Erin Lee is a Mindfulness Coach and MBSR Teacher at Mindful Moments, and advocate of mindfulness as the way of life. She conducts the classic 8-Week MBSR Program, as well as the 8-Week MBSR Workplace Program.
Are you a mindfulness practitioner and have meaningful experiences or thoughts about mindfulness that you'd like to share? You can contribute an article on the MiMo blog! Please contact Erin to find out more.