The Second Arrow: Avoiding Added Suffering

There is a Buddhist parable referred to as The Second Arrow. In one telling of the story, the Buddha asks one of his students, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied , “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.” Another way to state it: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

We cannot control the first arrow of this pandemic. It is deeply painful and our fear is justified. While we cannot control the first arrow, we can learn from it. We can become adaptive, protective, and responsive. Evidence of that came very quickly in the early days and weeks of the pandemic. We transitioned to work-from-home, rallied to make masks for frontline workers and keep vulnerable people fed, and accepted the hard reality that staying home keeps us all safe. The second arrow of rumination and cataztrophizing, however, has no lesson to teach us. The second arrow is self-inflicted; something author and therapist, Jon Fredrickson refers to as self-torture. When we constantly remind ourselves of the facts of our painful situation or imagine an apocalyptical future, we are unable to be adaptive. We become frozen by our own suffering. However, we can learn to control the suffering of the second arrow when we learn to avoid rumination and catastrophizing.

Draw the Line

If I am not careful, I find myself reading seventeen different articles from five different media sites which all provide the same facts and then making it my personal responsibility to convince the doubters and conspiracy theorists . As I do, I feel panic rise up from the pit of my stomach to squeeze at my throat. Since I am not learning anything new, diving deeper into the news simply serves to prod at the pain. It is like the compulsion to pick at a painful hangnail just so we can confirm that it still hurts.

Gather the facts that you need to stay informed and safe. Then draw the line and back away. We don’t need to stand sentry awaiting each morsel of new information the moment it arrives. We can take a break.

Don’t Take the Leap

It is tempting to gather up the facts we have accumulated and mix it into a dangerous potion of catastrophe prediction. We create the worst case scenarios not only for ourselves, but for the world. The best way to avoid this (or at least tame it) is to slow down. Sometimes I even say out loud to myself, “Stop.” Then I ask,

  • Am I in immediate danger?
  • Is my belief founded in fact?
  • Can I do something about it?

If my answer is yes to any of these, I can do something about it. For example, this crisis has caused me to worry about my mortality in ways that would be considered excessive in pre-pandemic times, but are logical now. There are things I can do to make sure I try to stay out of immediate danger and I can make sure my will is up-to-date. Beyond that, if I continue to ruminate, my worry about mortality can spiral into false certainty. It quickly escalates from, “This is a life threatening illness that I need to take seriously,” to “I am going to die from this virus. It is only a matter of time.” Obsessing about horrible outcomes do not serve us well. When I start to go beyond what I can control, I gently walk myself back from the (il)logical leaps I am tempted to make.

Identify the Breeding Grounds

When we are exhausted, already stressed, and disconnected from our healthy coping mechanisms, we are much more likely to suffer the second arrow. In other words, right now we are sitting in the fertile muck of catastrophic thinking. The old adage goes, “water what you want to grow.” That makes it all the more important to water our self-care gardens: being intentional about getting rest, managing our stress, and staying connected to our support systems. It can also be helpful to slow down, and create a mental sanctuary (both literal and figurative) where you are surrounded by calming sensory experiences (music, warm sunshine, soft pillows, or hot tea).

Always curious about how you all are doing. Reach out and let me know!

Be well. Stay resilient.


One thought on “The Second Arrow: Avoiding Added Suffering

  1. Your posts are excellent, Renee. Thank you!

    Amy G. Perez (She/her)

    Student Development Director

    University of Miami School of Law

    1311 Miller Drive, Room F309A

    Coral Gables, FL 33146

    (305) 284-1880



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