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18 July 2022

What number is your arrow? Releasing our suffering in a difficult time

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

For many of us, the hope that the Covid chapter would close and we could all move on has worn thin. We face into war, inflation, raging heat, roaring floods, eroding rights. We had hoped for a clean new chapter where we could breathe fully again. Now we just catch Covid again and again, as we watch the arising of new variants on the virus, new variants on climate change, new variants on our distress and disappointment. People are afraid for their health and well-being, for their jobs, for their dreams. This chapter is beginning to seem endless.

Carolyn and I have been thinking about some ideas and practices that will sustain and restore us during this difficult time. (We have in fact written a whole book about powerful ideas and practices for now. You can preorder it here!) One idea that captivates us is the Buddhist idea of the Second Arrow.

The notion here is that life is filled with arrows—this is the pain, disappointment, distress, discomfort that naturally arises for humans in daily life. You can think of them as First Arrows. Those arrows cause frustration, sometimes pain, but they also open us up to learning, to compassion, to connection with one another. Think about a time in your life when something caused you great pain (the loss of a relationship or a job or your good health) and also ushered some surprising amount of goodness in its wake (growing connection, a new view of yourself, an unexpected opportunity). We cannot stop those First arrows; they are inevitable; they come in big and small sizes; they are the stuff of our humanity.

The problem is the Second arrow. The Second arrow is the one we hurl at ourselves. Do we tell ourselves a story about why this happened to us, why we were so unlucky or stupid? The story is the Second arrow. Do we get angry at ourselves for being sad at a loss? The loss is the First arrow, and anger is the Second arrow. Do we feel afraid and then feel anxious that we will feel afraid for the rest of our lives? The fear is the First arrow and anxiety is the Second.

This chapter offers us endless opportunities to hurl those Second arrows at ourselves. Feeling lonely because you have been sitting at your kitchen table for months rather than going into the office? That makes sense—it’s a First arrow feeling. Feeling embarrassed at your loneliness and telling yourself to pull up your socks and act like a grownup? That embarrassment is the Second arrow. The Second arrow is often more poisonous, more harmful than the first. The First offers pain and also learning. The Second creates suffering.

Just this week, my son turned 21. This is a glorious event. I love him more than I ever imagined possible and I am so proud of the man he has become. And I was at a retreat of our community in France and he was at his home in London. Being separate for the first time on his birthday was sad—a First Arrow sadness of missing him on his special day. Beating myself up for not being together, rehashing every important event I missed because I was working or traveling, was a Second Arrow misery.

So in time of the coronavirus, one practice we can try is to see whether the emotion we’re experiencing is a First arrow or a Second arrow emotion. If it’s a First arrow emotion, we can breathe it in, understand it, know that it is a part of what life offers and what will grow us. If it is a Second arrow emotion, we can simply try to turn back to the First arrow emotion. It’s fine to be sad because I wasn’t with Aidan. First arrow feelings are legitimate even when they’re uncomfortable. The Second arrow emotions, on the other hand, we can work to release. I don’t need to augment that suffering. It’s time to put down the arrow I hurl at myself.

This chapter ahead will be filled with difficulty. And it will be filled with the possibility of unimagined small joys and discoveries. Let’s not amplify our pain in this time but instead feel what there is to feel and learn what there is to learn.

Now we’re wondering: What practices most help you reduce the suffering from the second arrows you throw at yourself?

One thought on “What number is your arrow? Releasing our suffering in a difficult time”

  1. Anna Harper says:

    This is very poignant for these times Jennifer. I know last week I dropped into the second arrow briefly following two unplanned and expensive events. Then I stepped back and looked at the lessons, metaphor for my life – new car battery was asking me to look at new ‘energy’ fields for my life and work. Managing my energy by focusing on what I could effect not be ‘at’ effect. Practised gratitude for what I do have and thanked it for the reminder. The little things count, am off now for a walk in the sun, taking time for me. What nourishes me and nurtures me. Look forward to the book.

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