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The Second Arrow

Chad Moore
Chad Moore
1 min read

There’s a line of thinking from Buddhism called The Second Arrow. It has to do with externally caused suffering and self imposed suffering. They way I heard it is something like this:

Let’s say you’re walking through the woods, and out of no where you get shot with an arrow in your leg. Then another. Would the second hurt as much as the first?

It’s said that we can’t always control the first arrow, metaphorically speaking. Sometimes life launches an arrow at you. Often, we react to the first external arrow with negative self-talk. Or a glance at our limiting beliefs. The second arrow is our self-imposed reaction to the first. We shoot and hit ourselves with the Second Arrow.

You miss a deadline. You ‘fail’ at something. You can’t get your ducks in a row.

Are you asking yourself things like:

  • why can’t I focus?
  • why can’t I find the time?
  • what’s wrong with me?

Maybe you see a mess around the house that your kids made. First Arrow. Then maybe you think, how do they not know to clean up after themselves - where’d I go wrong as a parent? This is the Second Arrow.

Pain is unavoidable. Sometimes you miss a deadline, sometimes there’s a mess from someone else you have to clean up. But suffering is optional.

The Buddhists recommend sitting with these feelings. Observing how they make you feel in your body. Exploring those emotions.

The Modern Stoics will say you can’t control the outside world (First Arrow). You can only control your reaction to it (Second Arrow).

There’s a lot to unpack here. Maybe we have work to do to understand it more, and that’s OK. Let’s not shoot ourselves with an arrow because “we suck at the Second Arrow”.