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When Your Reaction to an Experience Causes More Pain than the Experience

By Jari Hindstroem on Shutterstock

You know you’ve shot a second arrow.

 

May 2, 2021

 

Years ago, I came back from a ten-day retreat that felt life-changing.

I was overflowing and wanted to share it with a friend. After a few minutes, she said, in essence, that’s nice, and began to share her troubles with a married man with whom she’d gotten involved.

We got through that coffee date. But I carried a resentment toward that friend for a long time. Unknowingly, each time we were together, I found myself looking for information to support that she wasn’t a good friend. I was building a case in my head until one day, I told her and lost a friend.

That is an example of a reaction to an experience that was more painful than the experience itself.

She wasn’t a terrible friend. In fact, she was a good friend. That day she had a listening problem of which she was completely unaware. If I had known then what I know now, I might have said, “Sweetheart, I know you have a lot going on, and I want to hear about it. Since we don’t have a lot of time, when we get together again, I’d love to tell you about my retreat.”

Instead, I built a case.

Shooting the Second Arrow

Buddhists call what I did shooting the second arrow. The first arrow is the actual pain, whether it’s an insult, a physical mishap or illness, or the loss of a job, all of which cause original pain. Sometimes physical, sometimes material, but always emotional, if we’re awake.

My experience is that when I deal gracefully with the original pain, I don’t need, or want, to add another layer of discomfort by creating stories that project a horrible future.

I don’t need to rail about being in pain, finding who’s to blame, why they are horrible, and most devastating, how the situation will probably worsen!

Physical Pain

I have a back that sometimes causes a great deal of pain. When I deal with it, exercise, get in enough steps, and mindfully manage my body, it is workable, and I’m able to go about my life with confidence and vigor. Sometimes I rest. Sometimes I talk about it with someone. But I am learning not to make it worse.

When I’m in pain and am not mindful of my responsibility to manage it with compassion and care, I find myself telling stories about a future that scares the crap out of me.

“I don’t want to be a burden.” “What if I end up in a wheelchair?” “How will I continue to do the work I love?” “ What if I can’t bear the pain?” “What if people feel sorry for me?” That self-talk is shooting a second arrow.

Years of practice have taught me what to do when I get the first arrow. If I catch myself, which isn’t always the case, I know to pause, breathe all the way out, and soften my body. I bring myself back to the present moment and soften around the pain, which is always bearable as long as I don’t project that it will last forever.

Emotional Pain

The same is true for emotional pain. In today’s world, someone is always saying something that offends someone. I have had interactions lasting only seconds or minutes before I’ve shot that second arrow. I carry the interaction with me like it’s happening again and again. Every time I add to the story, my body releases the same stress hormones it released the first time.

When someone hurts my feelings, and I can remember not to release the second arrow, I pause, breathe all the way out, soften my body, and come back to myself. The pause allows me to see that the person who rolled their eyes at my comment has their own stuff going on. My business is to take care of my emotions. To move forward as the person I want to be, understanding that we’re all stressed.

To the angry person, I can say, “I see that my comment bothered you. Please tell me more about your perspective so that I can better understand.” Instead of rolling my eyes back at them (which I’ve done more times than I care to count), or leaving, or picking up their rope of anger, and then yanking it for good measure.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes leaving is the only smart thing to do. But when it’s someone who matters, who you want to keep in your life, having an alternative behavior at the ready can turn a disaster into something that might serve you both.

The Antidote

When you’re in pain — any pain — pause, breathe all the way out, soften your body, and wait. Use the wait time to remember about the second arrow. That arrow will make things worse, not better.

I’ve never regretted pausing. I’ve many regrets from times when I didn’t.

Life shoots plenty of arrows that create primary pain. Instead of shooting more arrows, we can use that energy to respond compassionately and thoughtfully in a world that at times seems to be on fire with anger and confusion, and fear.

Remember:

When the first arrow hits, pause, breathe all the way out, soften your body, and wait. Give yourself time to bring your inherent wisdom to the fore.

One arrow is enough.

Much love,

6 comments

  1. Robyn, I don’t care what Buddhists call it, you chose to be offended. An offended person is unreasonable. That is why you looked to build your case.
    I have had a ”’bad back” and now cannot breathe properly because of the deterioration. I have enough grace to accept that I need help now. As I chose, years ago, to live with gratitude, I am content and happy, even though I am dying.
    You may wish to look at chrissiemorrisbrady.wordpress.com.

    • Robyn says:

      I write and share my foibles and mishaps so that others can relate to my imperfections and hopefully make friends with their own, just like we do with our children. There are parts of us that are not wise, or grown-up, or compassionate. I write about the parts we hide from ourselves. Those are the parts that keep us lonely, afraid to let others see. My experience is those are the parts that need our compassion and understanding.

  2. Ed Gorman says:

    I will concede that my first couple of readings of this post I just haphazardly glanced at and thought , that isn’t me ! Ha ! Was reading it this morning after finishing the morning walk , and went back and read it again mindfully. The second arrow from Buddha made sense to this student of life . Am quite certain I will have a lot to write about in my journaling this afternoon. Of course, this is after I had a disagreement with my wife on the walk about something that is trivial at best . Thank-you for the posting this week.

    • Robyn says:

      Love hearing from you Ed. You learn kind of like I do. Your first reaction is no not me and then after a little bit of contemplation you realize oh yes of course this is me. Welcome to my world. So glad you’re in it!

  3. Ed Gorman says:

    I will add that this was after a discussion with my wife about something trivial that I felt I was not going to budge on . It did not work out well at all . This was when I got the urge to go back to your post . My journal entry today was about 2 pages. Thanks again !

    • Robyn says:

      Ed, your experience seems like the epitome of self-awareness. The goal isn’t to be perfect. It’s to see how we create the world we inhabit with our thoughts.

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