Friday, April 21, 2017

Stop Sabotaging Yourself: The Principle of the Second Arrow

I recently heard about the principle of the two arrows. It’s a Buddhist teaching, but it has general life application.

The idea is this:  A man walking through the forest is shot by an arrow. His response to that situation is to shoot a second arrow–at himself–with his own thoughts and words.  Oh, this is so awful. Why do bad things always happen to me? I must be cursed!

The first arrow is the occurrence or the circumstances; the second arrow is our response to those circumstances.

While the first arrow is painful, that second arrow often hurts worse. I overreact by blowing things out of proportion or getting stuck in self-criticism. I knew I shouldn’t have walked through the forest today. I should have gone a different way. (You get the idea.)

The idea that we can’t always control our circumstances but we can control our response is something I had heard before. It’s an adage that gets explained in many different ways. What was new, though, was thinking of an abstract subject, like thoughts, in such concrete terms. Arrows pierce; they penetrate. The result is physical damage. If I wouldn’t pick up a bow and aim the arrow at myself, why am I willing to do it with my thinking? What’s accomplished? What purpose is served?

A while back, I left two of my kids with a babysitter, and then picked up my oldest from school early. I drove in traffic to the children’s hospital, paid to park, and went inside. When we got to the specialist’s office, I gave the receptionist my son’s name.

She looked him up in the computer and ominously said, “Hmmm. What doctor were you here to see?”  I told her. She told me that my appointment was a few weeks out. I told her it was today and handed her the confirmation letter showing the date and time that I had received in the mail. She picked up the phone and called someone to the front desk.

Unbeknownst to me, the doctor was out of town and the appointment had been rescheduled. I was not pleased. The staff apologized, and my son and I left. Trying to salvage the day, I stopped for ice cream on the way home. But instead of just eating my mint chocolate chip and enjoying the unexpected one-on-one time with my son, I was licking my wounds. I kept thinking about how I was going to have to re-do the entire scenario again in a few weeks, and dreading it. 

I was shooting myself with the second arrow.

It’s okay to experience annoyance, frustration, and physical pain. That’s part of life. But we don’t have to double their impact by shooting a second arrow.


  1. I'm sort of concerned about what happened to that guy next!

    - K

    1. Well, naturally, he removed the arrows, made himself a splint of twigs and leaves, started meditating and lived happily ever after!

  2. One of my acquaintances said about his post-surgery period, "I feel pain, but I don't suffer." I think he was talking about the second arrow. It wouldn't do to expect such a philosophical approach from a maternal aunt.

    1. Did you give your friend a *little* kick just to see how if that produced suffering?
      Philosophical approach or not, you're my favorite maternal aunt!