The Two Arrows

Pain and Suffering: The Two Arrows.

In practising Mindfulness, we aim to be more aware, more of the time. A powerful influence taking us away from being “fully present” in each moment is our automatic tendency to assess and often to judge, like a constant running commentary on our experiences: “is this what should be happening?” often leading on to “it’s not good enough, or not what we expected or wanted”. 

There are two forms of distress we may think about:

  1. The first arises from the inevitable events life sends our way: the hurts, rejections, betrayals, disappointments, physical injuries, illnesses, losses, separations, the list could be endless. It is important to note that these are often accompanied by physical as well as mental discomfort, headaches, knotted shoulders, feelings of nausea, stomach ache, tightness in the chest/heart area, a sense of heaviness in the whole body etc. This is the first arrow, the arrow of pain, which we can do nothing about.
  2. The second lies in what we make of this first pain. Do we blame ourselves or others? Do we feel anger or self pity? “Why me?” We may then spiral, sometimes out of control, into a catalogue of self criticism or recrimination against others or into activities which numb or anaesthetise our pain. Our thoughts go round in circles about blame or how things could or should be different. We easily drift down some fairly well-worn paths in our minds. This is the self inflicted arrow of suffering.

For instance if we have been badly treated we can get into a terrible state. We may question ourselves: what did we do to deserve this? Or we may want revenge, want the other to feel the hurt they have inflicted on us. We may then act impulsively and hit out, at ourselves, at the other or even at the world at large. We may believe we have really thought our reaction through, only because we have ruminated over it again and again. But as Gandhi said "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

In this way, we may lose awareness of the moment and also the freedom to choose what, if any, action needs to be taken. We can regain our freedom if, as a first step, we simply acknowledge the actuality of our situation, without immediately being hooked into automatic tendencies to judge, fix, or want things to be other than they are. 

The poet Keats praises what he calls 

‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. (John Keats, Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 december1817)

Mindfulness provides opportunities to practise simply bringing an interested and friendly awareness to the way things are in each moment, so that we may choose a response wisely.