Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictionsand the discomfort of being ruled by them

–Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

A mental model to help us avoid unnecessary suffering

In buddhism there is a lot of talk about dukkha, which refers to the suffering or “unsatisfactoriness” that results from ignorance (ignore-ance). When we ignore the fundamental truths of reality, we take things to be permanent (including sense of self), which causes clinging and attachment in the mind. This is dukkha.

The recognition of dukkha is typically what draws us to a spiritual path, whether it is mindfulness or something else. As we experience the reality of suffering, there is a longing to understand and relieve its causes to the extent possible. It’s in that context that i find this metaphor of the two arrows to be practical and useful.

Pain ≠ suffering

Simplified, we could say that there are 2 types of suffering, represented by the 2 arrows.

The first is what we may call “suffering of suffering”. This is the inescapable pain of existence; sickness, old age and death. But it really includes any situation, thing or circumstance that is disagreeable. Anything from the pain of an injury or a stressful work situation, to a personal conflict or the loss of a loved one. Basically, as long as we live and love, we are going to experience this pain. This is the first arrow.

The second arrow represents the psychological pain that we create for ourselves through reaction and resistance to the first arrow. It is a layer of suffering that is added unnecessarily on top of the inescapable pain of life. And what we begin to realise through practice is that not only is the second arrow a creation of our own mind, but it is often more painful than the first arrow.

One way to sum it up is: pain is inescapable, suffering is optional

How we get hit

As an example, imagine waking up in your bed. Still drowsy, you check your alarm clock (or more likely your phone). You can’t believe your eyes; you have overslept! You feel a shock in the body. You have been struck by the first arrow. Like a samurai warrior in the battlefield suddenly getting pierced by an arrow. There is an immediate and intense pain. This is the first arrow.

In this very instant, you are presented with a choice.

What tends to happen is that we try to avoid the pain by resisting it. We may make ourselves into a victim of the circumstance through the stories we tell ourselves in the mind (“I can’t believe this shitty alarm clock isn’t working” or “why does this always happen to me?”) or we may judge ourselves (“I can’t believe how stupid I am”, “I knew this would happen, I always mess up”, …). We feel like our whole day is disrupted; we won’t have time for breakfast, we will miss the important appointment and so on. But it doesn’t stop there. We go further and project these ramifications into the future. We imagine how bad we will look in front of our colleagues. We will miss the opportunity to perform in this work project, and our boss will question our competence. We will probably not get that promotion we have been working toward… This storytelling goes on and on, adding layers of suffering on top of the fact that we overslept. This is the second arrow.

Back to the samurai in the battlefield. As he get pierced, he feels anger building up and he immediately wants revenge. He wants to know the why this happened, who shot the arrow, how bad the wound is, whether or not he will recover… As he stands there obsessing, he becomes an easy target for that second arrow to hit.

The alternative

What is the choice that presents itself when we’re hit by the pain of life?

Fundamentally, it is a choice between resisting and accepting, of working with the facts of reality or working against them. It is a choice between reacting instinctively or responding wisely. This is related to the attitude of acceptance, which we will covered in another Frame. Just to reiterate, acceptance is not about agreeing, consenting or liking what is happening. It is a matter of being clear with what is actually happening so that we can work with reality rather than against it.

Back to the alarm clock; it doesn’t mean that you have to be happy about the fact that you overslept. But it does mean that you recognise the reality of the situation. You take a few deep breaths, get out of bed and get on with your day. You basically accept the facts without torturing yourself further, and you make the best of the circumstances.

As the samurai, you immediately recognises that you are hit and seek shelter. You acknowledging the situation without resisting the facts. As you move aside, you watch the second arrow fly by.

A few things to point out

First of all, this teaching has nothing to do with moral judgment, like “we deserve to suffer because we choose to suffer”. We can look at this metaphor as an invitation to the freedom of choice. It can be seen as a signpost pointing out the path that leads away from suffering. We are still free to walk into the battlefield.

The other things to point out is that this is easier said than done. As we know, this is not like flipping a switch. We may not always be in a position to accept the circumstances we are in. We cannot suddenly choose to stop reacting and creating psychological suffering for ourselves. It is also not a binary situation, where we either react or accept. Sometimes our reactions are small, sometimes large. The point is that, with practice, we become less reactive. We see that it is actually possible to walk on the path that leads us away from suffering. And as we do, we become better equipped to meet the pain of life.

Finally, you already have this capacity. Think about a tough situation where you were able to shrug your shoulders and say “shit happen, let’s make the best of it”. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care or that we no longer feel anger, shame, or whatever. It is simply an expression of our willingness to be free from suffering. And this is a natural capacity that can be trained.

In practice

This teaching is not meant as philosophical entertainment. It is a practical guide that can be applied in daily life. It affords us to respond wisely to the circumstances of life rather than reacting instinctively. And as it turns out, this makes all the difference. 

A good starting point is the commitment and desire to relieve suffering for ourselves and and for others. We need this motivation in order to choose the path that leads away from the battlefield. This motivation typically comes with experience as we encounter the pain of life. But a spiritual teaching can provide crucial guidance and motivation.

Secondly, we need to train our awareness so that we learn to recognise the first arrow. We are habituated to distract ourselves from discomfort to the degree that don’t even realise we have a choice. We need the courage to face – and feel – the pain that inevitably comes our way. We also need mindfulness to be able to identify the pain as the first arrow; an unescapable part of life. As we learn to differentiate this pain from our own mental suffering, we are reminded that we have a choice.

From there, we start seeing each obstacle and painful situation as an opportunity to practice non-reactivity. You can use SOAL (see below) as a practical way to train this capacity (see “Coming back to our senses“).

I hope you find this useful and I encourage you to install this Frame in your mind and apply it in your life!

SOAL: Taking 5 minutes to strengthen the capacity for non-reactivity:

Video version of this Frame:

Back to basics:

Coming back to our senses