Practicing Gentleness When We’re Unhappy

You’re walking along the sidewalk, minding your own business. A pointed arrow comes soaring through the air and pierces the meat of your thigh. What the fuck?! Who shot that? 

Would your response to an unknown source shooting you be to pick up a bow and then shoot a second arrow into your other thigh?

How about if a friend shot you with that first arrow? What if you egged that friend on, even shouted mean things at them? Would your response be to play archer yourself and shoot another arrow, right into your flesh?

How about if you did shoot the first arrow? Right into your chest. Perhaps it was an accident, maybe you did it knowing full well it would hurt like hell. Would your solution then be to load up the bow, pull it back, and shoot yourself with a second arrow?

Why in the world would anyone want more pain, suffering, anger, fear, and misery? From the perspective of this story, it seems like the first arrow would be more than enough. However, the Buddha taught this parable of the second arrow to illustrate the insanity we inflict on ourselves over and over again.

What exactly am I talking about here with blood, arrows, and crazy friends?

Well, let’s start with a story in my life. Recently I unknowingly left my laptop at home. This was the first arrow (I’ll explain more soon). I drove to work, got breakfast at Panera, and still hadn’t realized the laptop was at home. I wandered out of Panera towards my place of employment and I realized I didn’t have the laptop. I ran back to the restaurant and thought it had been stolen.

I didn’t panic at first, but then on my drive home to see if I had indeed left my work laptop there, I called a friend in tears. I said to her, "I’m constantly losing things. I’m an airhead. I’m careless. I can’t help but feel that I’m just a giant mess. I shouldn’t be trusted with anything and I’m so stupid and I’m going to get fired from work.” Second arrow.

The first arrow was an unfortunate event that happened; I left my laptop at home and it sucked. The second arrow was the shame, guilt, and remorse that I then layered on myself in reaction to my mistake. I was already suffering because of the first one, why did it I need to shoot myself with another? It sounds crazy, right?

Unless you’re an enlightened being, you’re also familiar with this madness.

Tara Brach, my favorite dharma teacher, said in her podcast recently that we see suffering and then we have an aversion to it. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, aversion is “a tendency to extinguish a behavior” or “a feeling of repugnance toward something with a desire to avoid or turn from it.” I experience aversion when I’m trying to escape from a feeling or experience I deem as unpleasant. There are a variety of ways we all have aversion. Some examples are blaming others, getting angry, attempting to control a situation or person, excessive drinking, overworking, or by beating ourselves up.

For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to focus on turning the blame inward, beating ourselves up, because I’m quite familiar with this particular arrow. When we choose to shoot it, we’re trying to extinguish whatever just happened by layering on some sort of negative story about how the situation defines our character.

In Buddhism, aversion is one of the three poisons. The three poisons are said to be the deep roots of human suffering. They’re the afflictions we have with the way our minds work, constantly thinking, planning, judging, and obsessing. The Buddha taught that we cannot always control the first arrow, but the second is our reaction to the first and the second is optional. Dharma Punx, a Buddhist group with many members in substance abuse recovery, wrote in a blog post that “This teaching is often summarized as ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.’”

Okay, this is all great, but how do we refrain from shooting ourselves?

The opposite of aversion is sitting with discomfort and practicing gentleness. Here are a few steps to beginning to learn just how to do those things.

  1. Pause. I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing we can do is not act. That’s the first step. Bite your tongue, take a deep breath, go for a walk, yell into a pillow if you need to. If you’re up for it, sit in meditation (although that feels impossible in the beginning). Put reacting on the shelf for later, even if only for a few seconds.

  2. Practice mindfulness. I’ve found meditation to be the most helpful catalyst for practicing mindfulness. I practice meditation under different conditions: when calm, agitated, sad, fearful, and excited. I am learning to become familiar with my mind while all sorts of things are going on. When I practice meditation while calm, it’s easier, and it means I’m more seasoned to be able to sit when feelings are sharper and harder to sit with. After practicing for a while, your thoughts slow down a bit on their own in your daily life. Gaps appear more and you can watch your thoughts.

  3. Notice the arrows. This is an extension of mindfulness. Watch what happens when the first arrows arrive. Your boss is being a dick, traffic is awful so you’re going to be late, your sister didn’t call you on your birthday. All of these are first arrows. They’re events in our lives that cause pain, suffering, and anxiety. Now, watch out for the second arrows. Do you add a storyline on top of those events? Do you start to obsess about the situation and blame yourself for the outcome? See how it feels. Notice what sensations are in your body. Are you tightening? Throbbing? Where in your body?

  4. Congratulate yourself for noticing the second arrow. I will repeat that; congratulate yourself when you see a second arrow. Do not beat yourself up and say, “UGH, there I go again, beating myself up. I suck so much.” That’s a sneaky way of another arrow sneaking in. Instead, take a deep breath and redirect your thinking.

  5. Create new thought patterns. Once you’ve noticed the second arrow, you can interject new ways of thinking. For example, “Hm, perhaps it’s not the biggest deal that she didn’t call me on my birthday. I know she loves me. I am loveable. I’ve forgotten to call people I love deeply on their birthdays before.”

  6. Repeat. Over and over and over again.

This isn’t a process that happens overnight. It takes a great deal of time and practice to become familiar with our minds. I’m still a total newbie! But, the more we practice, the more benefit we see in our lives.

One of my absolute favorite quotes is by Viktor E. Frankl, who was a neurologist, psychiatrist, and holocaust survivor: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Just slowing down enough to allow some space means that we have a chance to react differently.

When you become more mindful of the patterns playing out in your life, you’ll start to notice the first and second arrows. Again, unless enlightenment is on the horizon, most of us will be very imperfect at this, but the point is to move towards greater gentleness and more space. And from there, we can breathe a little easier and stop being so damn hard on ourselves.

Editor: Dan Bosco

Originally published on 11/7/16