The Second Arrow

The teachings of the Buddha about the Second Arrow are a great way to understand why holding on to a grudge causes so much more suffering than the actual event that caused the grief.

Two Buddhist monks are silently walking along a path. When they reach a river, they see a woman standing at the shore. She is hesitating to cross, as there is no bridge, and the current is quite strong. The monks look at each other. They are not supposed to make physical contact with women. Suddenly one of the monks picks the woman up, hoists her over his shoulder and carries her across the river. Leaving the bewildered woman behind, the monks continue their journey. But their walk is not silent anymore.

“Why did you do that!?”, one of the monks cries out, “You know we are not supposed to touch women!”. The other monk stays silent. A few minutes later the monk goes on: “I can’t believe you did that! You really shouldn’t have done that”. This goes on for another hour until the silent monk finally speaks up: “You know, I carried this woman for a minute and then let her go, but you’ve been carrying her for more than an hour now!”

Upsetting things happen, that is part of life. Some days it rains, some days the sun shines. It is ok to be angry, disappointed, sad, or whatever other emotion you may be feeling, at the moment it happens. But we don’t have to still be disappointed about yesterday’s rain when the sun is shining today.

Research has shown that it takes only 90 seconds for an emotion to pass through our system, when we fully allow the emotion to be there. Much like a summer thunderstorm; it comes and goes quickly. If we do not allow ourselves to fully feel the emotion and push it away because – consciously or subconsciously – we don’t really want to feel it, the emotion will stay with us. Initially on the surface, where it will be easily triggered, and eventually deeper in the body where it may get buried and forgotten for the time being. So we may as well fully feel the pain at the moment it first impacts so we don’t have to relive it over and over again.

This is exactly the point: we have the choice to get hit by the arrow only once – at the moment of the event – instead of being hit by it twice, or more. The second arrow pierces through us every time we relive the event in our mind. I deliberately use the word “choice” here. We may not always have control over our external circumstances, but we do have control over our thoughts. And if we think we don’t, at least we can learn to. The second arrow is being shot by our own mind, not by an external source. Being hit by the first arrow was a real event, but at the time we think about it, it happened in the past. The second arrow is imagined, so we need to change our internal narrative.

I often hear people say “Well, but I just can’t let it go. I’ve tried.” What they actually mean is: I don’t want to let it go. When you are holding a pen in your hand, you can drop it or hold on to it. There is no trying to drop the pen. So, you can let go if you want to. You have to wonder then: why would you not?

The answer to this question will require self-inquiry and may not always be easy to figure out. Most people are not aware that they thrive on drama, that they are having an interest in keeping a certain issue alive, or that this is simply the only way they know how to operate. Of course, this is mostly on a subconscious level and therefore difficult to recognize. However, the first step towards change is to have an awareness that there is something that needs to be changed. You cannot clean up the mess in your attic if you do not first turn on the light to see what’s up there. But you won’t turn on that light till you realize that there is something up there that needs tidying up. When you keep being hit by the same arrow, at some point you will have to ask yourself why this continues to happen.

A practice that I have found helpful is the RAIN-meditation. RAIN is an acronym that stands for: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nourish. Let’s say you experienced a triggering event: someone did something you believe they shouldn’t have done, and you are feeling angry about it. A few days later you are still thinking about it and feeling the anger. This is what your practice would be like:

Sit quietly with your eyes closed, or gaze lowered, paying attention to your breath as it naturally flows in and out.

Recognize how you are feeling: there is anger.

Allow the anger to be there. Can you feel it fully without any resistance or reservation?

Investigate the anger: what does it feel like? Does it have a specific shape/color/sound? Where do you feel it in your body? What else is there to learn about this anger? Does it have anything specific to tell you?

Nourish the anger. What does is need? What do you need? Can you visualize (or otherwise imagine) that you are giving the anger what it needs, and what you need?

When you feel like the anger has vanished, or at least softened its grip on you, sit for a few more moments noticing your breath, and then open your eyes when you feel ready.

You may notice that this practice is not about making the anger (or whatever emotion is present) go away. The emotion is there for a reason, be it not for the reason you may think. Moreover, as I pointed out before, if we ignore our emotions and push them aside, they will come back with a vengeance. It is like trying to push a cork under water; the further you push it under the stronger it yields. When we allow ourselves to feel what we feel (which is different from thinking about it!), look our emotions straight in the eye, sit down and “have tea with them”, we only have to have this meeting once. We can pull the first arrow out from where it hit, nourish the wound and move on, without getting – or needing to get – hit again.