I LOVE the Zen metaphor called 'the Second Arrow' – it's a wonderful way for us to be kinder to ourselves.
It's especially useful during pessimistic times, when you hear the mantra “Shit happens”. To be honest at times life can be like that – a break-up, a job loss, debt, a depressive episode. Yes, these things happen and at times they can seem to happen together and become overwhelming.
This is where the Second Arrow comes in. The event or situation in my life that’s making making me feel bad – that’s the first arrow; that’s the triggering event, the reason why I’m feeling bad or upset.
As people, we have a tendency to quickly look for the reasons why this is happening, why is the cookie crumbling this way, best laid plans and so on, and more often than not we tend to blame ourselves. 'There’s something wrong with me, I’m not good enough, I have failed somehow.' This self-blame turning inwards against ourselves is the Second Arrow.
In Zen teaching the parable of the second arrow goes like this. The Buddha asked a student: “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 again replied: “It is.”
The Buddha then explained that, 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. While we can’t control our outside environment, we can, with practice, change our habit of shooting that Second Arrow.
I’ve been taught by my teacher that there are two very effective exercises which can be practised to circumvent this all-too-familiar response to life. The first is to become aware of our inflicting that Second Arrow upon ourselves; the second is to practise kindness to ourselves when we see it. We need to become aware of the pattern within ourselves and this requires ongoing practice as the pattern of self-blame can be deeply ingrained and when we are in the deep grip of it, it takes a real effort to rise above it.
A simple way to practise is to try it out with something small first. A good example of mine is when my car breaks down on the motorway – the First Arrow. As I stand by the side of the road I feel that Second Arrow: I should have got that service; why am I so bad with this motoring stuff?; my work is falling behind; how much is this going to cost? And on and on it goes, into the downward spiral.
The practice is to learn to see the Second Arrow, to spot the pattern and keep reminding yourself of it. Recognise that this pattern does not represent reality. I personally say quietly to myself: I see you, Second Arrow.” I find this to be very cathartic.
So the next time you miss the Glider and start giving out to yourself for being late, just remind yourself that’s the Second Arrow. Once you start practising with the small things, it becomes easier when the big things appear.
We need to be kinder and more compassionate towards ourselves and for me the best way to do this is to practise noticing the triggers. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but I do know it gets easier.