An ancient Chinese proverb found often in Buddhist literature is called Two Arrows and can serve to reduce our suffering. The first “metaphorical” arrow is used to characterize a moment we feel discomfort, or pain.
The Things We Cannot Change
People disappoint us. A relationship ends. Someone dies. We’re insulted. We feel the sting And it stays with us of course. No one is immune from arrows like this. We don’t know when they’re coming. We can’t predict them. We must endure them as long as we’re alive but we do have a choice about the second arrow. We have a choice about our thoughts.The second arrow is used to characterize our thinking or the “story” we tell ourselves after experiencing adversity or discomfort or pain. Our lover leaves. Did they abandon us?
Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism” starts in a similar place with “cognitive behavioral analysis”. He asks us to notice our first ”automatic” thought after something bad happens. Most of us take things personally. We think our lives are falling apart. We despair of the future. John Kabat Zinn in his book “Full Catastrophe Living”, we “catastrophize”. We create suffering by overthinking and perseverating. We make things more than they were. We exaggerate. In this way we hang on to the past and we miss the opportunity to live with clarity and power in the present moment. Our stories require that we create “narrative” around what has happened and so often we become distracted inside the story and forget that the event has passed.
The Present Moment
This kind of skillful thinking takes practice. Learning to take a few deep breaths between what happens to me and how I think about what happened to me is a good place to start. Finding a comfortable chair in a quiet room with my eyes closed for a brief few minutes, I practice allowing my thoughts to dissipate which they always do in time and return to my senses.
The first arrow of pain and disappointment we have no choice about. The second arrow is completely under our control. The pain is inevitable. The suffering is optional. If you’d like to be stronger, less anxious and more in charge of your life, perhaps we can help. John Davis, LMHC is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in private practice in downtown Delray Beach. He can be reached at 561-213-8030…better yet, text him for an appointment!