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  • Marilyn Halpern

The Mindful Path — The Second Arrow | Feb. 3, 2021

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength. -Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983, writer and activist)

Everyone experiences setbacks, disappointments, and struggles. Collectively, we know this is part of the human condition, and some Buddhists refer to this as the “first arrow.” In this ancient parable, those unfortunate occurrences are inescapable physical, mental, or emotional pain. The tricky part is that as humans, our response can be the “second arrow.” These reactions often make matters worse and prolong our suffering. We know the second arrow by its common names: rumination, anger, regret, worry, hatred, guilt, rage, or sadness.

Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has written about how mindfulness can help manage the second arrows to mitigate harm. Our brains are wired to have a natural, normal negativity bias. This response is tied to the survival responses of fight, flight, or freeze. Mindfulness can short-circuit this negative feedback loop by teaching the mind to stop overestimating threats, underestimating our coping abilities and calming our response to adverse situations. In life, we cannot control the first arrow. However, as the second arrow is our reaction to the first, we have influence over it. The second arrow is optional. This is sometimes interpreted as ‘pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.’

To keep those second arrows at bay, we can exercise choices over how we are going to interpret events. In the book The Mindful Way through Stress, Shamash Alidina provides these five tips:

1. Train your brain to focus on the positive.

2. Express your gratitude often and freely.

3. Try to see the big picture. Most things in life are not as bad as they seem; that is worth remembering.

4. Be kind to yourself in trying to readjust your thoughts and actions. Progress over perfection.

5. Pay attention to your self-talk. Try to limit or avoid the negative thoughts that can flood our mind, especially during tough times and stressful situations.

Practice idea: This month, when you have a setback or an annoying situation, ask yourself – what is the narrative here? Am I dealing with the first arrow of suffering, or have I moved onto the second arrow? The strength is making the choice to lay down those second arrows. The Buddha offers this advice, “Suffering is not holding you; you are holding the suffering.”

In these turbulent times, I hope your month is filled with hope, health and happiness.


(Article was originally posted in My Prime Time News, a Colorado newspaper for seniors. Visit their website at https://www.myprimetimenews.com/ . Photo credit: Dick Vogel)

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